Thursday, January 24, 2008

Buddhist monks defy assembly ban
YANGON,Sept 26 - Thousands of Buddhist monks and pro-democracy activists marched toward the center of Yangon Wednesday in defiance of the military government's ban on public assembly.

The march followed a tense confrontation at the city's famed Shwedagon Pagoda between the protesters and riot police who fired warning shots, beat some monks and dragged others away into waiting trucks.

The junta had 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.

The latest developments could further alienate already isolated Myanmar from the international community and put pressure on China, Myanmar's top economic and diplomatic supporter, which is keen to burnish its international image before next year's Olympics in Beijing.

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 put down a student-led democracy uprising. Security forces fired into crowds of peaceful demonstrators and killed thousands, traumatizing the nation.

The potential for a violent crackdown already had aroused international concern, with pleas for the junta to deal peacefully with the situation coming from government and religious leaders worldwide. They included the Dalai Lama and South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates like detained Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

On Wednesday, about 3,000 monks and 4,000 students along with members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy set off from the Shwedagon to the Sule Pagoda in the heart of Myanmar's largest city, where dozens of riot police and soldiers were waiting.

Some carried flags emblazoned with the fighting peacock, a key symbol of the democracy movement in Myanmar.

About 100 monks stayed behind at the eastern gate of the Shwedagon, refusing to obey orders to disperse.

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

In Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city, dozens of soldiers and riot police stopped some 300 monks and 30 nuns from entering the Mahamuni Paya Pagoda. After a heated confrontation, the clergy marched toward the city where other security forces were waiting.

"We are so afraid; the soldiers are ready to fire on civilians at any time," a man near the pagoda said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Myanmar's imposition of new restrictions after a week of relative inaction by the military government throws down a challenge to its opponents, testing their mettle when faced with almost certain arrest.

It was not clear what the penalty for defying the curfew would be. But breaking the section of the law restricting gatherings carries a possible jail term of two years.

Authorities announced the ban on gatherings and a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew through loudspeakers on vehicles cruising the streets of Yangon and Mandalay Tuesday. The announcement said the measures would be in effect for 60 days.

A comedian famed for his anti-government jibes became the first well-known activist rounded up after the curfew was imposed.

Zarganar, who uses only one name, was taken away from his home by authorities shortly after midnight, with family members saying authorities told them the 45-year-old 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 Buddhist monks who have spearheaded the protests. He earlier had 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.

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

"Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma," Bush said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Bush said the U.S. 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.

The protests could bring increased scrutiny on China's close relations with Myanmar. China is the country's major trading partner and Chinese energy companies are investing in exploration of natural gas in Myanmar.

Myanmar has about 19 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves, only about 0.3 percent of the world's total reserves, according to BP's Statistical Review of World Energy at the end of 2006. Although it doesn't currently export gas to China, its supply could potentially help feed a rapidly growing Chinese economy hungry for energy.

The current protests began Aug. 19 after the government hiked fuel prices in one of Asia's poorest countries. But they are based in deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the repressive military rule that has gripped the country since 1962.

The protests were faltering when the monks took the lead last week, assuming the role of a moral conscience they played in previous struggles against British colonialism and military dictators.

At least 35,000 Buddhist monks and sympathizers defied official warnings Tuesday and staged another anti-government march.

"The protest is not merely for the well-being of people but also for monks struggling for democracy and for people to have an opportunity to determine their own future," one monk told The Associated Press. "People do not tolerate the military government any longer." He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of official reprisals.

On Monday, a massive monk-led protest drew as many as 100,000 people in Yangon รข€” the biggest street protest since the failed 1988 uprising.

The head of the country's official Buddhist organization, or Sangha, issued a directive Monday ordering monks to stick to learning and propagating the faith, saying young monks were being "compelled by a group of destructive elements within and without to break the law," the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said. - mks.


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