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As many as 200 Myanmar monks arrested in raids

Times Staff Writer

Security forces in Myanmar raided two monasteries early today after a violent crackdown on anti-government protests in which at least one person was killed, according to news and witness accounts trickling out of the closed-off country.

Seeking to prevent a 10th consecutive day of demonstrations against their autocratic rule, the military leaders of Myanmar, also known as Burma, ordered the raid on the two prominent monasteries in the main city of Yangon. As many as 200 Buddhist monks were reportedly arrested.

On Wednesday, dozens of monks were said to have been beaten and dragged off by authorities after defying official warnings by rallying in the center of Yangon. Protests were also reported in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city.

The ruling military junta acknowledged that one man had been killed and three wounded during the standoff in Yangon, but witnesses and overseas dissident groups told news agencies that as many as five people had died of gunshot wounds or other causes amid demonstrations attended by thousands of people.

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“They are marching down the streets, with the monks in the middle and ordinary people either side. They are shielding them, forming a human chain,” one witness told Reuters news service, as the crowd behind roared its anger at government forces.

By nightfall Wednesday the streets of Yangon appeared to be deserted, under a 9 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew.

The resort to force by Myanmar’s secretive government prompted statements of concern and condemnation from around the world.

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

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President Bush on Tuesday announced new sanctions against Myanmar and urged other world leaders to keep the pressure on.

“The whole world is now watching Burma, and its illegitimate and repressive regime should know that the whole world is going to hold it to account,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said. “The age of impunity in neglecting and overriding human rights is over.”

After an emergency session Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council called for Myanmar’s military government to “exercise restraint” toward peaceful demonstrators. Discussion of sanctions or a formal statement of condemnation were blocked by Russia and China, which said the protests were an internal situation that did not constitute a threat to international peace and security.

China, Myanmar’s largest trading partner and traditional ally, has been working behind the scenes to persuade the government to hold back, said China’s U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya. “We have passed on word that they should not do anything to escalate the violence or make the situation more complicated,” he said.

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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon held a half-hour meeting with Myanmar’s foreign minister and Wednesday night dispatched the U.N.'s special envoy for the country. The envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, had yet to receive a visa from the Myanmar government.

France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said that the European Union might join the United States and impose trade and financial restrictions on the country’s rulers, but that sanctions were not enough.

“The generals care little about world attention and compassion. What we need now is political pressure from countries of the region,” Kouchner said. “It’s our only chance to decisively help the Burmese.”

Myanmar has been in the grip of military rule for 45 years, a period that has seen a cosmopolitan Asian nation rich in natural resources plunge into poverty, isolation and oppression.

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The current protests were sparked by a rise in fuel prices, which hit residents hard. Led by monks, who hold strong moral authority in Myanmar society, the crowds have swollen in number over the last eight days and presented the military junta with its largest and most sustained challenge since 1988, when the government crushed protesters by firing on them, killing an estimated 3,000 and arousing international outrage.

Television footage from Wednesday’s protests showed both clerics and civilians marching through Yangon’s streets. One young monk, waving a multicolored flag, could be seen shouting angrily and, it appeared, trying to rally the spirits of others.

Other protesters over the last few days have flown the peacock banner identified with pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been under house arrest for most of the last 18 years.

The demonstrators’ defiance of a ban on public assembly by a government known for treating dissent ruthlessly attests to the depth of anger coursing through society, analysts said.

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“Things have been bad for a long time, but this petrol price hike has really pushed people over the edge. It’s too deep an issue, because there are so many people living on marginal incomes, and it’s such a poor country,” said Adrian Vickers, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the University of Sydney.

“The monkhood is large,” he added, “and it’s the only alternative organization to the government in that there are monasteries everywhere, and once you start that rolling, it’ll be hard to stop.”

Because of the exalted position the monks occupy, the government has had to tread carefully in response to the protests, aware that too harsh a crackdown could backfire.

Also, Vickers said that since many rank-and-file soldiers “come from very poor areas themselves, they would be quite sympathetic [to the protesters], especially on this issue of the rise in petrol prices. . . . The military have been loath to send the troops because they’re not sure the military would obey their orders.”

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The restraint ended Wednesday, however, when security forces fired shots at demonstrators.

In its statement, the government said that one 30-year-old man had been killed by a ricocheting projectile and that two men and a woman were injured in the crush of people.

“The authorities concerned are handling the situation with care,” a newsreader on state television was quoted as saying, adding that “destructive elements” were intent on breaking the law.

Thousands of demonstrators continued to rally at the Sule and Shwedagon pagodas, both of which are charged with spiritual and political significance.

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Shwedagon Pagoda, with its gleaming golden spire in the center of Yangon, also known as Rangoon, has been the site of agitation against the state since the 1920s, when nationalists rallied there against British colonial rule.

The massacre that ended the 1988 demonstrations occurred around Sule Pagoda.

Those protests toppled then-military leader Gen. Ne Win, who had been in power since a 1962 coup, but he was promptly replaced by the current junta. The small coterie of generals at the heart of the junta is known to have its differences, but the divisions have yielded no letup in the intimidation, political suppression and cutoff from the rest of the world that the Burmese have endured for nearly half a century.

The generals live isolated from their people. Two years ago, in a strange move that some say was dictated by advice from an astrologer, senior junta leader Gen. Than Shwe moved the capital from Yangon to the town of Pyinmana 200 miles to the north, where roads were still unpaved and malaria is rampant.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Myanmar/Burma

Once part of the British Empire, Burma attained independence in 1948 and was ruled constitutionally until left-wing Gen. Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, introducing the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” Massive unrest forced him to step down in 1988, and the military soon took over.

With opposition to military rule mounting, the ruling junta fired on protesters in 1988, killing an estimated 3,000. A year later, the government changed the country’s name to Myanmar, a name that is not recognized by the U.S. State Department.

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Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989, and a year later, the junta nullified an electoral victory by her party. For all but five years since, Suu Kyi has remained incarcerated or otherwise isolated.

Military leaders in 2005 relocated the nation’s capital from Yangon, also known as Rangoon, to Pyinmana, a remote mountain village.

A constitution drawn up after a convention that excluded the opposition institutionalized military control last year.

Opposition erupted again in August, over fuel prices, and has blossomed into a broader movement for political change.

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Sources: CIA Factbook, Infoplease, U.S. State Department, Encyclopedia Britannica


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