Soldiers and police took control of the streets Friday, firing warning shots and tear gas to scatter the few pro-democracy protesters who ventured out as Myanmar’s military junta sealed off Buddhist monasteries and cut public Internet access.
On the third day of a harsh government crackdown, the streets were empty of the mass gatherings that had peacefully challenged the regime daily for nearly two weeks, leaving only small groups of activists to be chased around by security forces.
“Bloodbath again! Bloodbath again!” a Yangon resident yelled while watching soldiers break up one march by shooting into air, firing tear gas and beating people with clubs.
Thousands of monks had provided the backbone of the protests, but they were besieged in their monasteries, penned in by locked gates and barbed wire surrounding the compounds in the two biggest cities, Yangon and Mandalay. Troops stood guard outside and blocked nearby roads to keep the clergymen isolated.
Mood darkens after crackdown
The monks remained inside their monasteries late Saturday morning with troops remaining on guard outside and blocking nearby roads. The streets of the two Yangon and Mandalay were quiet.
Many Yangon residents seemed pessimistic over the crackdown, fearing it fatally weakened a movement that began nearly six weeks ago as small protests over fuel price hikes and grew into demonstrations by tens of thousands demanding an end to 45 years of military rule.
The corralling of monks was a serious blow. They carry high moral authority in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 54 million people and the protests had mushroomed when the clergymen joined in.
“The monks are the ones who give us courage. I don’t think that we have any more hope to win,” said a young woman who had taken part in a huge demonstration Thursday that broke up when troops shot protesters. She said she had not seen her boyfriend and feared he was arrested.
Anger over the junta’s assaults on democracy activists seethed around the globe. Protesters denounced the generals at gatherings across the United States, Europe and Asia.
The White House urged “all civilized nations” to pressure Myanmar’s leaders to end the crackdown. “They don’t want the world to see what is going on there,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
Trade partners unlikely to act
But analysts said it was unlikely that countries with major investments in Myanmar, such as China and India, would agree to take any punitive measures. The experts also noted that the junta has long ignored criticism of its tough handling of dissidents.
Defiant of international condemnation, the military regime turned its troops loose on demonstrators Wednesday. Although the crackdown raised fears of a repeat of a 1988 democracy uprising that saw some 3,000 protesters slain, the junta appeared relatively restrained so far.
The government has said police and soldiers killed 10 people, including a Japanese journalist, in the first two days of the crackdown, but dissident groups put the number as high as 200.
Diplomats and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Friday the junta’s figure probably was greatly understated, based on the reports of witnesses and others. They provided no estimates of their own and cautioned that witness reports had not been verified.
Getting accurate casualty figures has been difficult, with many residents too afraid to speak out and foreign journalists barred from openly entering Myanmar. Soldiers and police were going door-to-door at some hotels in Yangon looking for foreigners.
Pleas for intervention
Violence continued Friday, but there no immediate reports of deaths from the government or dissident groups.
Just a few blocks from the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon, some 2,000 protesters armed only with insults and boos briefly confronted soldiers, wearing green uniforms with red bandanas around their necks and holding shields and automatic weapons.
As the crowd drew near, the soldiers fired bullets in the air, sending most of the protesters scurrying away. A handful of demonstrators still walked toward the troops but were beaten with clubs and dragged into trucks to be driven away.
“Why don’t the Americans come to help us? Why doesn’t America save us?” said an onlooker. who didn’t want to be identified for fear of reprisal from the junta.
Internet cut off
In other spots, riot police chased smaller groups of die-hard activists, sometimes shooting their guns into the air.
“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,” Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, told The Associated Press.
“It’s tragic. These were peaceful demonstrators, very well behaved,” she said.
Authorities also shut off the country’s two Internet service providers, although big companies and embassies hooked up to the Web by satellite remained online. The Internet has played a crucial role in getting news and images of the democracy protests to the outside world.
At the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most important Buddhist temple, about 300 armed policemen and soldiers sat around the compound eating snacks while keeping an eye on the monks.
‘We will win this time’
“I’m not afraid of the soldiers. We live and then we die,” said one monk. “We will win this time because the international community is putting a lot of pressure.”
Condemnation of the junta has been strong around the world. On Friday, people protested outside Myanmar embassies in Australia, Britain, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan.
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.
While some analysts thought negotiations an unlikely prospect, the diplomat said the junta’s 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.”
Junta largely immune to pressure
World pressure has made little impact on the junta over the years. Its members are highly suspicious of the outside world, and they have shrugged off intense criticism over such actions as keeping pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.
Much of the regime’s defiance — and ability to withstand economic sanctions imposed by the West — stems from the diplomatic and financial support of neighboring China. Another neighbor, India, also has refrained from pressuring the junta.
Analysts say that as long as those two giant countries remain silent and other Southeast Asian countries keep investing in Myanmar, it is unlikely the junta will show any flexibility. Every other time the regime has been challenged by its own people, it has responded with force.
Still, China has been urging the regime in recent months to get moving with long-stalled political reforms, and on Friday the Chinese government told its citizens to reconsider any trips planned to Myanmar.
Myanmar’s fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed “revulsion” over the crackdown and told the junta “to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution.” Officials in neighboring Thailand said planes were on standby to evacuate ASEAN citizens in case the situation deteriorated.