BANGKOK—Authorities in Burma have sent in security forces to quell a rising tide of anti-government protest in the former capital Rangoon, with some sources reporting up to five deaths.
Troops and police were patrolling monasteries and other focal points in the city, with tear gas and gunshots used against crowds beginning to form for further demonstrations.
Monks and nuns, together with ordinary residents, were beaten with bamboo poles and loaded onto police trucks, some witnesses said.
Dozens of arrests are believed to have been made.
The military regime imposed a nighttime curfew Sept. 25, banning public gatherings after thousands of people took to the streets, chanting pleas for national reconciliation in the largest protests in the country in almost two decades.
Photos and video of the demonstrations showed long columns of maroon-clad monks and nuns in their traditional robes marching from the Shwedagon Pagoda in the former capital, joined by an ever-swelling crowd of supporters from among ordinary people.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the holiest Buddhist shrine in Burma and has long been regarded as a symbol of dissent. Smaller protests meanwhile continued in Mandalay, Myitkyina/Bhamo, Kalay Myo, and Monya.
In the first official reaction to a week of escalating protests led by the monks, state media quoted the religion minister, Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung, as warning senior clergy.
“If the monks go against the rules and regulations in the authority of the Buddhist teachings, we will take action under the existing law,” state television quoted Thura Myint Maung as saying.
The threat came amid international calls for restraint on the eve of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The demonstrations followed calls for a general strike Monday, with many Burmese celebrities declaring they would take part.
Monks once more approached the house where opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is being held by the authorities, but they weren’t allowed to go as far as the gate, witnesses said.
“Barbed wire was put up on both sides of the entrance of University Avenue, with signs saying ‘Prohibited area, no one may enter,” one witness said. The monks changed direction and retreated without incident, witnesses said.
The monks’ protests began last month after the junta that has ruled Burma since 1988 abruptly imposed a sharp rise in fuel prices. The protests have escalated and spread since the middle of August.
At the center of the protests is a new group calling itself the All Burma Monks’ Alliance. The group appears to be organizing the demonstrations by Buddhist monks and novices, who number close to a half-million in Burma and wield great civic clout.
They played a major role in demonstrations in 1988, which continued for more than a month until the junta stepped in with deadly force, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of unarmed civilians.
The NLD won 1990 general elections by a wide margin, but the ruling junta has ignored those results for 17 years. The daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Gen. Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 11 of the last 18 years under house arrest.
Burma’s military rulers have detained 218 people over anti-junta protests that erupted five weeks ago, sometimes subjecting them to beatings during interrogations, according to an overseas human rights group.
“Activists have not only been beaten while in detention, but have also been under extreme physical and mental torture,” said Bo Kyi, head of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).
So everything depends on the ability of the inside activists and the outside Burmese media and activists to gather information, to collect information, to get a real circulation inside and outside of all this news.
Most of those arrested were members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party or part of the ‘88 Generation student movement that kicked off the protests on Aug. 19, he said.
The junta has lashed out against the “violence” employed by monks, who have taken hostages and ransacked private properties in the protests, which followed a sharp rise in fuel prices. It has also accused overseas media and Burmese groups of inciting the protesters to take action against the government.
While the protests have lacked on-the-spot reporting from foreign correspondents, some of the information getting to the overseas media is coming through channels that weren’t yet available in 1988, experts said.
“I think this is the first time in the recent history of Burma that most of the information that we have about the demonstrations and the crackdown mainly depends on the Internet and YouTube and video postings and testimony coming from inside [the country] to outside,” Vincent Brossel, Asia specialist at the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, said.
“Obviously, you have good reports coming from the traditional media such as the news agencies, but there are no foreign journalists inside. So everything depends on the ability of the inside activists and the outside Burmese media and activists to gather information, to collect information, to get a real circulation inside and outside of all this news,” he said.
“The fact that YouTube was blocked in Burma is a clear example that the government really fears the impact of the images that have been posted online and all the information going through the Internet,” he added.
However, such technology can just as easily improve government surveillance and intelligence-gathering as thwart it, according to James Mulvenon, director of the Washington-based Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis.
“It sounds like [the monitoring] has been primarily cell-phone-based and primarily texting. And there’s a cat-and-mouse game going on where the [junta] are rounding up ringleaders as much through the usual human penetrations and informers as they are through fairly extensive surveillance of cell-phone traffic,” Mulvenon said.
He said the model for such surveillance and the use of text-based counter-propaganda would have been the way the Chinese government used technology during the SARS epidemic.
While Beijing has remained quiet, with no coverage in the state-run domestic media of events across its southeastern border, the international community has called repeatedly for the military regime to release Aung San Suu Kyi and to begin talks on constitutional change leading to political reforms.
U.S. President George W. Bush announced new sanctions against the regime on Tuesday at the United Nations.
The Philippines said Monday that southeast Asian countries would like to see improved democracy in Burma, while fellow ASEAN member Singapore said it was ‘concerned’ at recent developments there, and would like to see the situation resolved peacefully.
ASEAN, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, accepted the military-ruled state in 1997 and applied a “constructive policy” of engagement in a failed bid to introduce reforms.
Professor Yang Liyu of Seton Hall University said he believed the junta’s fear of losing power was at the heart of the economic reasons behind the current protests.
“The economy hasn’t been able to take off, because the junta is afraid of any kind of opening up, and is most concerned about holding onto power. They won’t let foreign investors in, so they can’t improve the standard of living of their people,” Yang told RFA’s Mandarin service.
“The Burmese people have been oppressed for too long. The military regime has been in power for 30 or 40 years. And the desire for freedom and democratic consciousness is very strong among the people,” he said.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department called on the junta to “exercise restraint in the face of these protests and also to release those that they've imprisoned for peacefully expressing their views over the course of the last few days.”
“We, of course, also would like to see the regime engage in a genuine dialogue with its own people and that would also include with the leaders of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, such as Aung San Suu Kyi and others, who have been imprisoned on and off or continuously for many years, simply for trying to help represent the people in that country,” a spokesman said.
Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Burmese service director Nancy Shwe. Additional reporting in English by Richard Finney and in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written, translated and produced in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Khin May Zaw and Sarah Jackson-Han.