The military government banned assemblies of more than five people and imposed curfews in Myanmar’s two largest cities on Tuesday, after thousands of Buddhist monks and sympathizers defied orders to stay out of politics and protested once again.
On a day President Bush announced new U.S. sanctions against the junta, truckloads of soldiers converged on Yangon after the monks, cheered on by supporters, marched out for an eighth day of peaceful protest from Yangon’s soaring Shwedagon Pagoda, while some 700 others staged a similar show of defiance in the country’s second largest city of Mandalay.
“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, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals from officials. “People do not tolerate the military government any longer.”
Bush accused the military dictatorship of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, of imposing “a 19-year reign of fear” that denies basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship.
“The ruling junta remains unyielding, yet the people’s desire for freedom is unmistakable,” he said.
Curfew to challenge protesters, government
The 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew and the meeting ban were announced late Tuesday through loudspeakers mounted on vehicles cruising through the streets of Yangon and Mandalay, said witnesses. The announcement said the measures would be in effect for 60 days.
The measures, after a week of relative inaction by the government, throws down a challenge to its opponents. Should the protesters defy the new regulation, the junta will have no choice but to use force or back down.
Using force, especially against monks, who are revered in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, might intimidate some people, but could also stir anger against the regime at home and abroad. So far, the government had been handling the monks gingerly.
But backing down would also carry the risk of emboldening protesters even more.
Troops sent to focal point of protests
The junta sent 10 truckloads of troops Tuesday evening to Yangon’s Sule Pagoda, a focal point of the protests. Troops had been discreetly stationed in the city for the past few days, diplomats said.
According to an ethnic guerrilla commander, among the army divisions dispatched was the 22nd, which joined the suppression of the 1988 uprising when the military fired on peaceful crowds and killed thousands, terrorizing the country.
The demonstrations in Yangon reached 100,000 Monday, becoming the biggest since a pro-democracy uprising 19 years ago. Authorities did not stop them, even as they built to a scale and fervor that rivaled 1988.
Students join monks
Joining the monks Tuesday were members of detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy party or NLD, as well as university students. They marched more than a mile to the Sule Pagoda under the scorching sun.
As the protests escalated, ordinary people in Mandalay began joining the monks or following on foot, motorcycles, bicycles and trishaws. But many still appeared afraid to show open support.
“I support the monks. However, if I join them, the government will arrest me,” said a man selling belts at a Mandalay market. He declined to give his name, fearing reprisals.
On Monday, the head of Myanmar’s official Buddhist organization ordered monks to stick to learning and propagating their 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 reported.
These agitators included NLD members, remnants of the defunct Burmese Communist Party and some foreign radio stations, Religious Affairs Minister Brig. Gen. Thura Myint Maung was quoted as saying in the same report.
Fuel price hike led to protests
The current protests began Aug. 19 after the government sharply 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.
The protests over economic conditions were faltering when the monks took the lead last week, assuming a role they played in previous battles against British colonialism and military dictators.
At first the monks simply chanted and prayed. But as the public joined, demonstrators demanded dialogue between the government and opposition parties, freedom for political prisoners, and adequate food, shelter and clothing. Some monks could be seen trying to keep the crowds from shouting overtly political slogans.
The fleeting appearance Saturday of Suu Kyi at the gate of the Yangon residence where she is under house arrest squarely identified the protests with her NLD’s longtime peaceful struggle. She has been detained for 12 of the past 18 years.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Tuesday that Suu Kyi should lead the country.
“I for one thought it was brilliant to see Aung San Suu Kyi alive and well outside her house last week,” he said. “I think it will be a hundred times better when she takes her rightful place as the elected leader of a free and democratic Burma.”