Myanmar tries to block news and images of its crackdown

Times Staff Writers

new delhi -- Attempting to stop the flow of violent images that have galvanized international condemnation of Myanmar, the country’s military government Friday tried to shut down access to the Internet and cellphone service.

On the third day of the clampdown on largely peaceful protests, authorities closed Internet cafes and suspended two key service providers, but embassies and companies linked by satellite to the Web remained online.

The protests pose the stiffest challenge to the government since 1988, when thousands of pro-democracy protesters were massacred in Yangon, the country’s principal city.


Soe Myint, a longtime dissident and India-based editor of the Myanmar-focused website Mizzima News, said that though cellphone service had been disrupted, some protesters were able to communicate with text messages.

Photographs and video continued to trickle out, and this morning, Reuters news agency said, Internet service was restored briefly but failed again.

Friday’s images showed protesters challenging and fleeing advancing riot police and soldiers amid dark fumes in Yangon, also known as Rangoon.

One young man ripped open his shirt and shouted angrily at the security forces ranged in front of him, as if daring them to shoot.

“Modern technology has become the generals’ worst enemy. There were only rusty phones, if you could get through [in 1988],” said Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert and author of several books on the country.

Graphic video also emerged of what appeared to be a soldier firing point-blank at veteran Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai, who was killed Thursday. Nagai was shown lying on the ground, his camera still held up in his hand, as a soldier pointed his rifle at him. Tokyo has demanded an explanation from the Myanmar government.


Nagai was one of nine fatalities that were acknowledged by state media during protests Thursday in Yangon against 45 years of autocratic and brutal military rule. One death was reported Wednesday

Diplomats and activist groups in exile say the death toll is surely higher, possibly 100 to 200 people, their bodies quickly carted away by army or police trucks to prevent an accurate count.

“We really cannot know,” Myint said. “We may not know for some time.”

The streets of Yangon were quieter Friday as the military regime confined protesting monks to their monasteries and broke up smaller crowds of demonstrators with batons and warning shots.

Witnesses and dissident groups said that scattered rallies in central Yangon attracted as many as 5,000 people at a time, far fewer than the tens of thousands who marched during 10 previous days of protest. Security forces, however, were taking no chances, firing tear gas and clubbing and dragging off activists.

“There have been clashes during the day, and there have been . . . running skirmishes,” British Ambassador Mark Canning told the British Broadcasting Corp. from Myanmar, also known as Burma. “There have been several gunshots. We don’t know if they caused casualties.”

Myint said there were indications that security forces might be trying to minimize fatalities Friday. “Today they apparently didn’t shoot into the crowds,” he said. “They used rubber bullets. But there are people who are injured. We don’t have any confirmation on that yet.”


U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed “grave concern” about the continued crackdown. “The authorities in Myanmar must exercise restraint, engage without delay in dialogue, release detained leaders, and initiate a national reconciliation process,” he said.

A special United Nations envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, is expected to arrive in Myanmar today. He hopes to meet with the military regime’s leadership, a U.N. spokesman said, and has also asked to see pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an influential and respected opposition figure who is considered key to any solution to the conflict. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been under detention for much of the last 18 years.

Gambari intends to urge the government to stop using force and to convey the heightened level of the world’s concern about the violent crackdown. But it is not clear whether the government of the Southeast Asian nation accepted his visit only because of pressure from its strategic ally, China.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that she would liked to have seen the U.N. Security Council issue a strong condemnation of Myanmar’s actions -- a move that was blocked by China and Russia -- but that Gambari’s visit was a “very good step.”

“Ultimately, there has to be a process that gets Burma on a political course so that there can be reconciliation of the Burmese people,” she said. “There needs to be immediately a stop to the violence against innocent people.”

Thant Myint-U, the grandson of former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant and the author of “The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma,” said that the country’s two decades of isolation make the government very difficult to influence.


“The military leadership is quite happy with the status quo, an inert country that is not engaged with the outside world,” he said.

Security forces appeared determined to keep Yangon’s streets clear of protesters. They blockaded roads into the city and sealed off the Buddhist monasteries whose monks had been spearheading the demonstrations and rallying people to their side. Scores of monks reportedly have been beaten and arrested over the last few days.

Without the leadership of the monks, who hold an exalted position in Burmese society, and with police and troops out in force, protesters gathered in significantly reduced numbers in three or four different parts of Yangon, web editor Myint said.

Witnesses said the security forces moved in aggressively to quell a demonstration of about 2,000 people near the symbolic Sule Pagoda in the heart of Yangon. Soldiers converged on the site and ordered the crowd to disperse within 10 minutes, saying, “otherwise we will fire.”

With the flow of information increasingly constricted, it was impossible to say with certainty what was happening in other districts in Yangon, particularly in suburbs where anti-government sentiment has run high. Myint said that some residents had dragged trees and other obstacles into the streets to hinder soldiers and vehicles. There were reports that troops from other parts of the country were being sent to Yangon. Demonstrations also have been reported in Mandalay, the country’s second city, and smaller towns.

Dissident groups and sources in the country said that divisions may be emerging among the generals who form the core of the regime. Speculation centers on a possible disagreement between the senior leader, Gen. Than Shwe, and one of his deputies, Gen. Maung Ae, over the use of force, with the former in favor of firing on the crowds and the latter opposed. Some junior commanders also are said to have been reluctant to strike hard against the monks.


But the regime’s tight hold on domestic media, suspicion of foreign reporters and secretive ways have ensured that little is known about what goes on in government or in the military.

The regime appears eager to keep a lid on demonstrations before Gambari’s arrival. Some activists abroad say that his visit could encourage more protesters to take to the streets, but others fear that the military’s intimidation tactics are having their desired effect.

“The military was more brutal than we expected. They killed the monks while the world was watching,” said U Aung Htoo of the Burma Lawyers Council, based in Thailand.

“It was a strong message from the military that they would kill anybody.”



Chu reported from New Delhi, Farley from the United Nations. Times wire services were used in compiling this report.