- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) The government said its security forces opened fire today on demonstrators who failed to disperse, killing one person, and witnesses said police beat and dragged away dozens of Buddhist monks in the most violent crackdown in a month of protests in Myanmar.

While dissident groups reported as many as five dead, including monks, the military junta’s announcement on state radio and television was the first acknowledgment that force has been used to suppress the protests and the first admission that blood had been shed.

Responding to calls by world leaders, the U.N. Security Council will hold closed consultations on Myanmar later today. The session will be briefed by Ibrahim Gambari, the secretary-general’s special envoy on Myanmar, said U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe.

The dissidents also said about 300 monks and activists were arrested, although that number could not be independently confirmed.

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

The government said security forces opened fire after the crowd of 10,000 people, including “so-called monks,” failed to disperse at Yangon’s Sule Pagoda. It said the police used minimum force.

The dead man, aged 30, was apparently hit by a ricocheting shell, the announcement said.

It said the wounded, two men aged 25 and 27, and a 47-year-old woman, were not hurt by gunshots but rather from being caught in a melee.

Witnesses who were known to Associated Press said they had seen two women and one young man with gunshot wounds in the chaotic confrontations.

Reports from exiled Myanmar journalists and activists in Thailand said security forces had shot and killed as many as five people in Yangon. The reports could not be independently confirmed by AP.

Zin Linn, information minister for the Washington-based National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, which is Myanmar’s self-styled government-in-exile, said at least five monks were killed, while an organization of exiled political activists in Thailand, the National League for Democracy-Liberated Area said three monks had been confirmed dead, and about 17 wounded.

Exiled Myanmar media reported similar figures, citing witnesses.

A Norway-based dissident radio station, the Democratic Voice of Burma, said that one monk was killed and several injured in clashes in downtown Yangon.

The security forces fired warning shots and tear gas to try to disperse the crowds of demonstrators while hauling away defiant Buddhist monks into waiting trucks — the first mass arrests since protests in this military dictatorship erupted Aug. 19.

About 300 monks and activists were arrested across Yangon after braving government orders to stay home, according to an exile dissident group, and reporters saw a number of cinnamon-robed monks, who are highly revered in Myanmar, being dragged into military trucks.

“If these stories are accurate, the U.S. is very troubled that the regime would treat the Burmese people this way,” said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Washington. “We call on the junta to proceed in a peaceful transition to democracy.”

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged the military regime to be restrained in reacting to protests.

“The whole world is now watching,” Brown told reporters. “I hope the Security Council will meet immediately, meet today and discuss this issue and look at what can be done.”

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 across the country in the largest protests in nearly 20 years.

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 Myanmar’s detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

On Tuesday, President Bush announced new U.S. sanctions against Myanmar, accusing the military dictatorship of imposing “a 19-year reign of fear” that denies basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship.

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

The use of force will almost certainly put pressure on Myanmar’s top economic and diplomatic supporter, China, which is eager to burnish its international image before next year’s Olympics in Beijing.

When faced with a similar crisis in 1988, Myanmar brutally suppressed a student-led democracy uprising. Soldiers shot into crowds of peaceful demonstrators, killing thousands.

As the ninth consecutive day of unrest began today, the crowd of monks and students — along with members of Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party — set off from the famed Shwedagon Pagoda to the Sule Pagoda in the heart of the city, but were blocked by military trucks along the route.

Other blocs of marchers fanned out into downtown streets with armed security forces trying to disperse them. There were reports of destruction of property but it was unclear whether this was carried out by the demonstrators or pro-junta thugs, who were seen among the troops and police. Witnesses said an angry mob at the pagoda burned two police motorcycles.

“They will kill us, monks and nuns. Maybe we should go back to normal life as before,” said a young nun, her back pressed against the back of a building near the scenes of chaos.

But a student at a roadside watching the arrival of the demonstrators said, “If they are brave, we must be brave. They risk their lives for us.”

The two asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals.

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

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

A comedian famed for his anti-government gibes became the first well-known activist rounded up following the protests. Zarganar, who uses only one name, was taken from his home overnight by authorities.

The junta imposed the 9 p.m.—5 a.m. curfew and ban on public assembly after 35,000 people monks and their supporters defied the warnings yesterday.

The demonstrations began after the government raised 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.

In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, more than 800 monks, nuns and laymen played a cat-and-mouse game with some 100 soldiers who tried to stop them marching from the Mahamuni Paya Pagoda, which they had tried to enter earlier.

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