Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Myanmar Crackdown Begins

Everyone forgets, if they ever knew, that the Junta killed 3,000 pro-democracy protesters in 1988. It was only a matter of time before they started cracking down on these protests.

Myanmar cops fire warning shots to disperse monks defying ban on assembly

Police in riot gear fired warning shots Wednesday to disperse more than 100 Buddhist monks who defied the Myanmar government's ban on public assembly.

The monks were trying to penetrate a barricade blocking Yangon's famed Shwedagon Pagoda. The junta has banned all public gatherings of more than five people and imposed a nighttime curfew following eight days of anti-government marches led by monks in Yangon and other areas of the country, including the largest in nearly two decades.

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 of 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 earlier blocked all four major entrances to the soaring pagoda, one of the most sacred in Myanmar, 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 overnight by authorities shortly after midnight. His family members said Wednesday they were told he had been "called in for temporary questioning."

Zarganar, along with actor Kyaw Thu and poet Aung Way, led a committee that 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 a half-dozen other arrests.

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

The junta imposed the 9 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew and ban on public assembly after 35,000 people monks and their supporters defied the warnings to stage another day of protests Tuesday.

In Mandalay, Myanmar'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 Myanmar.

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 uprising. Security forces fired into crowds of demonstrators and killed thousands.

Foreign governments and religious leaders have urged the junta to deal peacefully with the situation. They include the Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

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

Bush said the United States would tighten economic sanctions on Myanmar's leaders 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.

Britain's ambassador to Myanmar, Mark Canning, met Tuesday with some of Myanmar's leaders, urging continued restraint. Canning said he told ministers 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 they assured him the situation would be handled with caution.