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Protests defy lethal crackdown

Times Staff Writer

As thousands of angry residents continued to pour onto the streets of Yangon in defiance of an official ban, Myanmar’s military dictatorship tightened its clampdown Thursday on anti-government protests in a show of force that left at least nine people dead.

Among those killed in clashes in the nation’s main city was a Japanese veteran war photographer who was shot while trying to capture images of the large-scale demonstrations that have offered the repressive ruling junta its most powerful challenge in nearly 20 years.

Witness accounts, television video and photographs beamed through cellphones around the world showed security forces with riot shields marching down Yangon’s boulevards on the second day of an increasingly brutal crackdown. Security forces fired tear gas and warning shots from automatic weapons to disperse the crowds, which scurried for cover, leaving behind sandals in their haste and pools of blood where the face-off turned violent.

The spiraling unrest in the Southeast Asian nation, also known as Burma, stoked fears of a repeat of a 1988 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in which an estimated 3,000 people were killed. It also sparked concern among bordering countries of growing instability on their doorstep, in a region that has seen its share of political chaos.

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Even China, Myanmar’s traditional ally, issued a rare public admonition to the country’s military regime to proceed with caution, after having joined with Russia to block an official condemnation Wednesday by the United Nations.

“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,” Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Beijing on Thursday.

A special U.N. envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, was expected to arrive soon in Myanmar, one of the world’s most tightly controlled countries.

“The world is watching the people of Burma take to the streets to demand their freedom, and the American people stand in solidarity with these brave individuals,” President Bush said in a statement. He met Thursday with China’s foreign minister, urging Beijing to use its influence in the region to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy in Myanmar.

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As many as 70,000 people ignored government warnings to stay home and marched through the streets of Yangon, also known as Rangoon, for a 10th consecutive day of protests, according to news reports and dissident groups in exile.

Previous rallies had been led by Buddhist monks, who are revered in Burmese society, but fewer of them turned out Thursday, most likely because government forces raided at least six monasteries before dawn and reportedly beat and arrested scores of people.

The majority of demonstrators Thursday appeared to be ordinary citizens, some of whom shouted for freedom from the military rule that has driven their country into poverty and isolation. Others chanted, “We will win! We will win!”

“It’s civilians and students. The monks were beaten up in public, which causes outrage. Despite the fact that they knew they might be shot, there are still protests in Rangoon,” said Soe Myint, the editor of the Myanmar-focused Mizzima News website and a longtime dissident based here in India.

Myint and a friend served three months in jail after hijacking a Thai Airways International plane in 1990 to protest the Myanmar regime’s overturning of elections won that year by the party of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Upon their release, the pair were recognized as refugees in India.

Also Thursday, there were unconfirmed reports of demonstrations in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, and the towns of Sittwe, Pakokku and Moulmein.

In Yangon, protesters tried to converge on a familiar rallying point, the Sule Pagoda, a sacred and politically symbolic shrine in the center of the city, near which the 1988 massacre of demonstrators took place, the Reuters news service reported.

But when chanting marchers threw rocks and bottles at surrounding soldiers and police, the security forces charged amid a fusillade of gunfire. The photojournalist, Kenji Nagai, 50, died in the melee.

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Nagai, who worked for the Japanese Web service APF News, had arrived in Myanmar on Tuesday. He had covered conflicts in Cambodia and Afghanistan, according to reports in the Japanese media, and was in Iraq in 2003 when U.S. forces pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad.

Myanmar state media, which blamed the monks for instigating the unrest and inciting “the mob group,” said nine people were killed and 11 wounded Thursday. One man was reported killed Wednesday. Witnesses and activist organizations say the toll could be much higher than the official numbers.

“It is basically a repeat of the 1988 violent crackdown, at least in Rangoon,” Myint said. “So far we have not seen that [many] casualties, but I fear that I cannot rule [that] out in the next few days.”

Unlike 19 years ago, images of the bloody events unfolding in Myanmar have streamed out of the country via the Internet and cellphones, captured in photos and video that have been picked up by news outlets across the globe. The leadership, perhaps caught off guard by the instantaneous multimedia campaign, has begun closing down blogs and other sources of information.

“The military does all in its power to shut off outside contact,” said Josef Silverstein, a professor emeritus at Rutgers University and an expert on Myanmar. “The reports we’re getting are coming from ordinary citizens who risk their lives to get on the Internet and take their camera shots. They want the world to know what’s going on.”

Whether international outrage will have any effect on the government is debatable; Myanmar’s leaders have shown themselves contemptuous of world opinion throughout 45 years of military dictatorship under various regimes. The junta has insulated itself from greater international condemnation by using to its advantage the interest of China, India and others in Myanmar’s rich natural gas reserves and other resources.

The U.S. this week announced new sanctions against Myanmar and its top leaders, naming 14 senior officials in the government subject to having assets frozen. The European Union is also considering new sanctions. But analysts say such measures would have a limited effect.

Myanmar’s regime is far more concerned with maintaining control than with world opinion, said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Neighbors such as China and India “are the only ones who are able to make sufficient pressure on Myanmar,” Kouchner said at the U.N., which is holding its annual General Assembly.

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met in New York with representatives of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations to rally regional pressure on Myanmar’s rulers. The ASEAN group expressed “revulsion” at reports that the demonstrations were being suppressed by force resulting in fatalities and demanded that the regime “immediately desist” the use of violence.

About 20 monks from the New York and Washington areas joined Myanmar expatriates in a peaceful demonstration outside the U.N.

The current string of protests in Yangon has its origins in sporadic demonstrations that began last month, ostensibly because of a doubling in the price of fuel -- a major blow to the residents of a country where per capita GDP is only $1,800, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.

The demonstrations soon took on a political color. Upset over being treated roughly by government forces, Myanmar’s monks demanded an official apology by Sept. 17. When none came, the monks invited the public to join them in mass protests.

Analysts said that the involvement of the monkhood, which had been fairly pacific and supportive of social order over the last 20 years, immediately complicated matters for the military regime.

Man for man, the monkhood, with an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 members, is about equal in number to Myanmar’s military.

They are unarmed, but the monks wield great moral authority in Burmese society. During several days of protests that often drew thousands of participants, the government failed to respond.

“What appeared as toleration was the military attempting to assess what this new situation was,” Silverstein said. “This situation’s different than ’88. . . . That was led by students, mostly university students at that time. This is a monks’ movement.”

The crackdown that began Wednesday, including the raids on monasteries, clearly signals the government’s willingness to take on the monks, despite the risk of further angering the public.

Even an inflamed citizenry might not dare to continue protesting under the threat of bloodshed and brutal reprisals.

“Twenty years of intimidation, you don’t just sweep that away,” Silverstein said.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

Times staff writers Maggie Farley at the United Nations and Hisako Ueno in Tokyo contributed to this report.


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