Myanmar Locks Down Monasteries, Cuts Internet
Soldiers in Myanmar tried to crush dissent Friday by breaking up street gatherings of die-hard activists, occupying key Buddhist monasteries and cutting public Internet access, raising concerns of a wider crackdown after at least 10 people were killed this week.
Troops fired warning shots in the air and hit protesters with clubs to disperse a demonstration by about 2,000 people, witnesses said. The clash in an area near the Sule Pagoda — which has been a focal point of days of anti-government protests — was the most serious of the several sporadic protests that were reported in Myanmar's biggest city.
By sealing Buddhist monasteries, the government seemed intent on clearing the streets of monks, who have spearheaded the demonstrations and are revered by most of their countrymen. With the monks out of the way, the troops could feel they have a freer hand to come down harder on the remaining protesters.
Number of Protesters Dwindles
Daily protests drawing tens of thousands of people had grown into the stiffest challenge to the ruling military junta in two decades, a crisis that began Aug. 19 with rallies against a fuel price hike, then escalated dramatically when monks joined in.
But government efforts to squelch the demonstrations appeared to be working.
Earlier Friday, soldiers and riot police moved quickly to disperse a crowd of 300 that started marching in Yangon, sealing the surrounding neighborhood and ordering them to disperse.
Elsewhere, they fired warning shots to scatter a group of 200.
Bob Davis, Australia's ambassador to Myanmar, said he had heard unconfirmed reports that "several multiples of the 10 acknowledged by the authorities" may have been killed by troops in Yangon.
Scores have been arrested, carted away in trucks at night or pummeled with batons in recent days, witnesses and diplomats said, with the junta ignoring all international appeals for restraint.
Southeast Asian Countries Condemn Violence
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed "revulsion" and told the junta "to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution." Demonstrations against the junta were seen in Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and elsewhere.
But by Myanmar standards, the crackdown has so far been muted, in part because the regime knows that killing monks could trigger a public fury.
Southeast Asian envoys were told by Myanmar authorities Friday that a no-go zone had been declared around five key Buddhist monasteries, one diplomat said, raising fears of a repeat of 1988, when troops gunned down thousands of peaceful demonstrators and imprisoned the survivors.
Gates were locked and key intersections near monasteries in Yangon and Mandalay were sealed off with barbed wire, and there was no sign of monks in the streets.
"We were told security forces had the monks under control" and will now turn their attention to civilian protesters, the Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.
The government's apparent decision to cut public Internet access — which has played a crucial role in getting news and images of the pro-democracy protests to the outside world — also raised concerns.
Thursday was the most violent day in more than a month of protests — which at their height have brought an estimated 70,000 demonstrators to the streets. Bloody sandals lay scattered on some streets as protesters fled shouting "Give us freedom, give us freedom!"
From NPR reports and The Associated Press
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