Myanmar’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators drew condemnation and sparked protests Friday, with the top U.S. diplomat in the reclusive nation calling the violence “tragic” and the European Union denouncing “gross and systematic violations of human rights.”
The United Nations said it will convene an emergency session on human rights abuses and dispatched an envoy to Myanmar who could arrive as early as Saturday. Britain demanded an end to “oppression and force” against the demonstrators.
Myanmar’s Asian neighbors expressed “revulsion” at the violence and urged the military rulers to seek a political solution. Japan said it had asked China to use its influence with junta to resolve the crisis. In neighboring Thailand, officials said airplanes were standing by to evacuate foreigners if conditions deteriorated further.
Following telephone talks with President Bush and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, “We believe the loss of life is far greater than is being reported so far.” Myanmar's government said 10 people have been killed since the violence began earlier this week.
On Friday, soldiers clubbed activists in the streets and occupied Buddhist monasteries to try to put down the largest protests since 1988. The government said 10 people have been killed since Wednesday, although exile groups say the toll may be much higher.
Internet access cut
The regime cut public Internet access, blocking one of the few avenues to get information about the protests out of the country where few foreign journalists are allowed to operate and media freedom is severely restricted. The junta has ignored international pleas for restraint.
“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 by phone.
“It’s tragic. These were peaceful demonstrators, very well-behaved,” she said.
The U.S. tightened sanctions on Myanmar, saying it would freeze any assets held by 14 top officials in the junta within U.S. jurisdiction, and banning U.S. citizens from doing business with them.
“Clearly the government of Burma, the regime there, is facing a population that does not want to suffer quietly under its rule anymore,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
“We are calling on them to do the right thing, to do what the people deserve and open a dialogue with them, with the legitimate political opposition, including to release those that they hold in detention and to start the long overdue process of national reconciliation and the creation of a country in which all Burmese are free to participate.”
U.N. official heads to nation
The U.N. special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, headed to the country to promote a political solution and could arrive as early as Saturday, one Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
In Geneva, diplomats said the U.N. Human Rights Council said they would call an emergency session on Myanmar on Tuesday after a petition led by Western countries gained the support of one third of the body’s 47 nations.
The European Union expressed “solidarity with the people of Myanmar,” saying they were exercising their rights of peaceful demonstration.
“We strongly condemn all violence against peaceful demonstrators,” an EU statement said, adding that European nations were “strongly concerned with the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Myanmar.”
The EU said peer pressure from neighboring countries was crucial to resolving the crisis. EU envoys are examining additional sanctions on Myanmar. The EU also urged the release of all political prisoners in Myanmar, also known as Burma, including opposition leader and Noble Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who has been detained for about 12 of the past 18 years.
Brown calls for tougher EU sanctions
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised the protesters and called for tougher EU sanctions.
“I had hoped that the Burmese regime would heed the calls for restraint from the international community. But once again they have responded with oppression and force. This must cease.”
Brown said he intended to speak about the crisis on Friday with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and President Bush.
ASEAN denounces attacks
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which Myanmar is a member of, said it was “appalled” by the violence. “They expressed their revulsion to Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win,” the group said in a statement Thursday in New York.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said he agreed in a phone call with his Chinese counterpart to work together on international efforts to solve the crisis.
“I asked that China, given its close ties with Myanmar, exercise its influence and Premier Wen said he will make such efforts,” Fukuda told reporters in Tokyo on Friday.
China is Myanmar’s main economic and political ally, while Japan is its largest aid donor.
Fukuda ruled out immediate sanctions against Myanmar in connection with the death of a Japanese journalist during the crackdown. Japan has said it would press Myanmar for an explanation of the death of 50-year-old APF News journalist Kenji Nagai on Thursday.
“Sanctions are not the best step to take now,” Fukuda told reporters.
China in a bind
The crackdown put China in a bind. It has developed close diplomatic ties with junta leaders and is a major investor in Myanmar. But with the Beijing Olympics less than a year away, China is eager to fend off criticism that it props up unpopular or abusive regimes.
China has so far refused to intervene, calling the protests an internal affair that did not threaten regional or global stability, the criteria for action by the U.N. Security Council.
Chinese officials say the international community may be overestimating China’s influence over the regime, echoing earlier statements by Chinese academics and diplomats.
On Wednesday, China refused to condemn Myanmar and ruled out imposing sanctions, but for the first time agreed to a U.N. Security Council statement expressing concern over the violent crackdown and urging the military rulers to allow in a U.N. envoy.
Russia expressed concern about the “continuing deterioration of the domestic political situation in Myanmar.”
Protests in Malaysia
In Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur, about 2,000 Myanmar immigrants rallied peacefully outside their country’s embassy.
Smaller demonstrations against the junta took place in Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines.
In London, a dozen Burmese monks led about 200 dissidents and activists in prayer at the door of Myanmar’s Embassy before marching to 10 Downing Street to demonstrate.
U Uttara, a monk who escaped to Britain via Thailand, after being hunted by the military for playing a leading role in the 1988 protests said he was encouraged by the global support for the protesters.
He said he was told that divisions were beginning to show between the generals, with some opposing the crackdown.
“They are shaking, they are scared,” he said. “They don’t know what to do.”