Myanmar Monks’ Protest Contained by Junta’s Forces
By SETH MYDANS
Published: September 28, 2007
BANGKOK, Sept. 28 — Myanmar’s armed forces appeared to have succeeded today in sealing tens of thousands of protesting monks inside their monasteries, but they continued to attack bands of civilian demonstrators who challenged them in the streets of the main city, Yangon.
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Gabriel Mistral/European Pressphoto Agency
Burmese protesters running for safety as policemen fire warning shots during a rally today in Yangon, Myanmar.
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Witnesses and diplomats reached by telephone inside Myanmar said troops were now confronting and attacking smaller groups of civilians around the city, sometimes running after them through narrow streets, sometimes firing at protesting groups.
“Today has been quieter than previous days, meaning far fewer protesters came out, but the military is being very quick to use violence, tear gas, guns and clubs to break it up,” said the chief diplomat at the United States Embassy, Shari Villarosa.
Diplomats said there was no way to estimate the numbers of dead and wounded in Yangon or other cities, but they said it was certainly far higher than the number the junta has reported.
The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, said today that he believed the loss of life was “far greater” than is being reported, and Bob Davis, Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar, said that based on unconfirmed reports, he was certain that the death toll was “several multiples of the 10 acknowledged by the authorities.”
Myanmar is mostly sealed to the outside world. Human rights and exile groups with contacts inside the country said they had fewer incidents to report on Friday, and this was at least in part because of an apparent government clampdown on Internet and telephone communications.
Brutal attacks on monasteries and a heavy military presence outside their gates appeared to have choked off, at least for now, following the huge demonstrations, led by monks, that have presented the military junta with its most serious challenge since it took power in 1988.
Exile groups passed on many vivid, unconfirmed reports about brutality toward monks and their superiors. Many monks were reported to have been seized and driven away in trucks, and armed soldiers were said to have been preventing others from leaving.
“Wednesday night numerous monasteries were raided, and we have reports that many monks were beaten and arrested, and we have pictures where whole monasteries have been trashed, and blood and broken glass,” Ms. Villarosa said.
With the monks contained, another diplomat said, the demonstrations seemed to have lost their focus, and soldiers were quick to pounce on any groups that emerged onto the streets.
“Troops are chasing protesters and beating them and taking them away in trucks,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of embassy policy. “There are pockets of protesters left. They are unorganized, and it’s all very small scale.”
Even if the junta succeeds in clearing the streets of the largest protests since 1988, it seems also to have turned most of the outside world against it.
The demonstrations and the military crackdown have drawn far more intense international attention than the ones in 1988 and have probably put an end to the junta’s long facade of moving along a “road map to democracy.”
Heavy pressure at the United Nations General Assembly has forced the military to break a long period of exclusion and allow a visit from a special United Nations envoy, Ibrahim Gambari. He was expected to arrive Saturday in Myanmar from Singapore.
In Washington, President Bush, who has focused new attention on the issue, thanked China for helping persuade the junta to allow the visit.
China is Myanmar’s leading trade partner and exerts particular influence, especially since many other countries have imposed a trade embargo on Myanmar that has left Western countries with little influenceleverage over the junta.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said that he had spoken with his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, and that they had agreed to work together on international efforts to solve the crisis.
“I asked that China, given its close ties with Myanmar, exercise its influence, and Prime Minister Wen said he would make such efforts,” Mr. Fukuda said.
Reuters also reported that Japan would send an envoy to Myanmar to investigate the death of a video journalist, Kenji Nagai. Videotape has emerged showing that Mr. Nagai, who was killed Thursday while filming the protests near the Sule Pagoda, may have been shot at close range as a target instead of having died in cross-fire.
Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, who have mostly left the junta to its own devices over the years, issued a statement expressing “revulsion” at the violence.
It was not clear how the junta would recover any sense of legitimacy at home even if it succeeded in clearing the streets by force.
“The military is doing their best to frighten people into going back, but they are not doing anything about the underlying grievances,” Ms. Villarosa said. “Whether they will ultimately be successful, I doubt, because the grievances are real.”
The current crisis began on Aug. 19, after the government increased fuel prices overnight by as much as 500 percent, without any announcement or explanation.
That move sparked scattered protests that were led at first by longtime dissidents, most of whom had been involved in the student protests of 1988. The 1988 protests were crushed by force as the military shot into crowds, killing an unknown number of people that could have ranged into the thousands.
Both the events of 1988 and the recent demonstrations tapped into deep discontent and anger over the economic mismanagement and harsh rule of the junta.
In 45 years of military rule — and 19 years under the current junta — the country once known as Burma has become a ragged, suffering nation, one of the poorest and most repressed in Asia.
The crowds grew suddenly much larger after Sept. 18, when huge columns of monks filled the streets and residents joined them by the tens of thousands. Over the next week the demonstrations swelled to as many as 100,000 monks and supporters in Yangon alone.
Defying international warnings and condemnation, the government crackdown began Wednesday morning with raids on several monasteries and the use of aggressive force on the streets.
Reporting was contributed by Steven Lee Myers from Washington, and by Warren Hoge, Graham Bowley and Christine Hauser from New York.
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