Troops clash with protesting monks

Police in riot gear fired warning shots to disperse more than 100 Buddhist monks who defied the Burmese military government’s ban on public assembly today by trying to penetrate a barricade blocking Rangoon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda.

The junta had banned all public gatherings of more than five people and imposed a night-time curfew following eight days of anti-government marches led by monks in Rangoon and other areas of the country.

Firing shots into the air, beating their shields with batons and shouting orders to disperse, the police chased some of the monks and about 200 of their supporters while others tried to stubbornly hold their place near the eastern gate to the vast shrine complex.

Some fell to the ground amid the chaos and at least one monk was seen being struck with a baton. There were unconfirmed reports of others being beaten.

Soldiers with assault rifles had earlier blocked all four major entrances to the towering pagoda, one of the most sacred in Burma, and sealed other flashpoints of anti-government protests.

A comedian famed for his anti-government jibes became the first well-known activist rounded up following the protests.

Zarganar, who uses only one name, was taken away from his home by authorities shortly after midnight. His family said today that they were told he had been “called in for temporary questioning”.

Zarganar, along with actor Kyaw Thu and poet Aung Way, led a committee which provided food and other necessities to the monks who have spearheaded the protests. He had earlier been imprisoned twice and his comedy routines were banned for their satirical jokes about the regime.

The fates of the actor and poet were not immediately known, but there were unconfirmed reports from dissident groups of more than half a dozen other arrests.

Burma’s leaders warned monks to stop the protests after some 100,000 people joined marches in the country’s biggest city, Rangoon, on Monday in the largest anti-government demonstrations since a 1988 pro-democracy uprising was violently suppressed.

The junta imposed the 9pm to 5am curfew and ban on public assembly after 35,000 monks and their supporters defied the warnings to stage another day of protests yesterday.

The junta has not used force so far to stop the demonstrations. But troops in full battle gear and police swarmed around the Shwedagon Pagoda and Mahamuni Paya Pagoda, which are among the most sacred sites in the country.

In Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, more than 100 soldiers armed with assault rifles were deployed around the Mahamuni Paya Pagoda, erecting a barricade and barbed wire at the gate from which monks had marched out to protest.

Five military trucks were seen inside the monastery compound, while other soldiers were stationed along the road into the fabled city of temples and palaces.

“We are so afraid, the soldiers are ready to fire on civilians at any time,” a man near the pagoda said, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.

If the military responds to new protests with force, it could further isolate Burma from the international community. It would almost certainly put pressure on Burma’s top economic and diplomatic supporter, China, which is eager to burnish its international image before next year’s Olympics in Beijing.

If monks who are leading the protests are mistreated, that could outrage the predominantly Buddhist country, where clerics are revered. But if the junta backs down, it risks appearing weak and emboldening protesters, which could escalate the tension.

When faced with a similar crisis in 1988, the government harshly suppressed a student-led democracy uprising. Security forces fired into crowds of peaceful demonstrators and killed thousands, traumatising the nation.

Foreign governments and religious leaders have urged the junta to deal peacefully with the situation. They included the Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates like detained Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

US President George Bush announced new US sanctions against Burma, also known as Myanmar, accusing the military dictatorship of imposing “a 19-year reign of fear” that denies basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship.

Mr Bush said the US would tighten economic sanctions on leaders of the regime and their financial backers, and impose an expanded visa ban on those responsible for human rights violations and their families.

The European Union also threatened to strengthen existing sanctions against the regime if it uses violence to put down the demonstrations.

Yesterday, Britain’s ambassador to Burma, Mark Canning, met some of Burma’s leaders, urging continued restraint. Mr Canning said he told ministers that the “demonstrations have been peaceful and well-disciplined”.

“It will be disastrous in the eyes of the world on Myanmar if the authorities use force,” he told them, saying that they assured him the situation would be handled with caution.


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