YANGON, Burma (AP) Soldiers clubbed and dragged away activists while firing tear gas and warning shots to break up demonstrations today before they could gain momentum. Troops also occupied Buddhist monasteries and cut Internet access, raising fears that a deadly crackdown was set to intensify in Burma.
The government said 10 people have been killed since the violence began earlier this week, but diplomats say the toll is likely much higher. Dissident groups have put the number as high as 200, although that number could not be verified.
Witnesses said security forces aggressively broke up a rally of about 2,000 people near the Sule Pagoda in the largest city, Yangon. About 20 trucks packed with soldiers arrived and announced over loudspeakers, “We give you 10 minutes to move out from the road. Otherwise we will fire.”
A group of about 10 people broke away from the main crowd and rushed toward a line of soldiers. They were beaten up, and five were seen being hauled away in a truck.
Soldiers dispersed the other protesters, beating them with clubs and firing shots in the air.
“People in this country are gentle and calm. (But) people are very angry now and they dare to do anything,” said a shopkeeper, who witnessed the clash and did not want to be named for fear of reprisal.
Elsewhere, riot police played cat-and-mouse with smaller groups of die-hard activists, sometimes shooting into the air.
The clash in an area near the Sule Pagoda was the most serious of the several sporadic though smaller protests that were reported. Earlier today, 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.
By sealing monasteries, the government seemed intent on clearing the streets of monks, who have spearheaded the demonstrations and are revered by most of their countrymen. This could embolden troops to crack down harder on remaining civilian protesters.
Efforts to squelch the demonstrations appeared to be working. 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 increase, then escalated dramatically when monks joined in.
Security forces first moved against the anti-government protesters on Wednesday, when the first of the 10 deaths was reported. Images of bloodied protesters and fleeing crowds have riveted world attention on the escalating crisis, prompting many governments to urge the junta in Myanmar, also known as Burma, to end the violence.
But by Myanmar standards, the crackdown has so far been muted, in part because the regime knows that killing monks could trigger a maelstrom of fury.
The United States imposed new sanctions on the junta’s leaders, and the United Nations dispatched a special envoy, who is expected to arrive Saturday.
Bob Davis, Australia’s ambassador to Burma, 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.
The Washington-based dissident group, U.S. Campaign for Burma, said about 200 protesters were killed and scores more arrested and beaten. The bloodiest day was Thursday, when troops opened fire into a crowd.
“The military was out in force before they even gathered and moved quickly as small groups appeared breaking them up with gunfire, tear gas and clubs,” said Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar.
“It’s tragic. These were peaceful demonstrators, very well behaved.”
British Ambassador Mark Canning told BBC-TV that “there have been a lot of arrests,” with up to 50 people detained at one time.
Video emerged of a striking image the shooting death Thursday of a man identified as Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai of the video agency APF News.
The Democratic Voice of Burma released video of security forces opening fire on protesters, including a man falling forward after apparently being shot at point-blank range, and the opposition shortwave radio station based in Norway said the victim was Nagai, 50.
Another image posted on the Web site of Japanese TV network Fuji showed Nagai lying in the street, camera still in hand, with a soldier pointing his rifle down at him.
Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association condemned new attempts by the military rulers to exert pressure on foreign journalists and the domestic media. The groups said security forces raided several Yangon hotels Thursday to check the IDs of foreign journalists.
The junta ordered the closure of several privately owned newspapers that refused to print government propaganda, the groups said.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed “revulsion” at the violence in Myanmar 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.
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 the second-largest city of 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!”
Truckloads of troops in riot gear raided Buddhist monasteries on the outskirts of Yangon, beating and arresting dozens of monks, witnesses and Western diplomats said.
“I really hate the government. They arrest the monks while they are sleeping,” said a 30-year-old service worker who saw some of the confrontations from his workplace. “These monks haven’t done anything except meditating and praying and helping people.”
The United Nations’ special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, was heading to the country to promote a political solution and could arrive as early as Saturday, one Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Though some analysts said negotiations were unlikely, the diplomat said the decision to let Gambari in “means they may see a role for him and the United Nations in mediating dialogue with the opposition and its leaders.”
The protesters won support from countrymen abroad as more than 2,000 Myanmar immigrants rallied peacefully in Malaysia and smaller demonstrations against the junta took place in Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines.
China, Myanmar’s largest trading partner, for months quietly counseled the regime to speed up long-stalled political reforms. Some analysts say Beijing would hate to be viewed as party to a bloodbath as it prepares for the 2008 Olympics.
“China hopes that all parties in Myanmar exercise restraint and properly handle the current issue so as to ensure the situation there does not escalate and get complicated,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing Thursday.
But every other time the regime has been challenged, it has responded with force.
“Judging from the nature and habit of the Myanmar military, they will not allow the monks or activists to topple them,” said Chaiyachoke Julsiriwong, a Myanmar scholar at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.