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More Deaths in Myanmar, and Defiance

By SETH MYDANS, New York Times, September 28, 2007

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Brutality and defiance marked the second day of an armed crackdown in Myanmar on Thursday as the military junta tried to crush a wave of nationwide protests in the face of harsh international condemnation.

The violence began before dawn with raids on Buddhist monasteries and continued through the day with tear gas, beatings and volleys of gunfire in the streets of the country’s main city, Yangon, according to witnesses and news agency reports from inside the closed nation.

Witnesses said soldiers fired automatic weapons into a crowd of protesters. State television in Myanmar reported that nine people had been killed and that 11 demonstrators and 31 soldiers had been wounded. The numbers could not be independently verified, and exile groups said they could be much higher. The Japanese Embassy said one of the dead was a Japanese photographer, Kenji Nagai.

International pressure on Myanmar built when President Bush asked countries in the region with influence on Myanmar’s authorities to urge them to cease using force, and the Treasury Department imposed economic sanctions on 14 identified senior Myanmar government officials.

China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, at the White House for a scheduled meeting on Thursday with the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, soon found himself in an impromptu Oval Office session with the president. Mr. Bush urged Mr. Yang to have Beijing “use its influence” in Myanmar to facilitate a peaceful transition to democracy, said the White House spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe.

As Myanmar’s chief international patron, China blocked an effort on Wednesday by the United States and European countries to have the Security Council condemn the violent crackdown. On Thursday, while not going as far as Mr. Bush might have wished, China added its voice to criticism from abroad when it publicly called for restraint.

“As a neighbor, China is extremely concerned about the situation in Myanmar,” the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said at a news briefing in Beijing. “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.”

Despite a heavy military and police presence, protests gained momentum through the day in several parts of Yangon.

But with the authorities clamping down on telephone and Internet communications, human rights groups and exiles said they were having increasing difficulty in getting information.

The violence of the past two days has answered the question of whether the military would fire on Buddhist monks, the highly revered moral core of Burmese society. For the past 10 days, the monks have led demonstrations that grew to as many as 100,000 before the crackdown began.

“The military is the one who proudly claims to preserve and protect Buddhism in the country, but now they are killing the monks,” said Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a magazine based in Thailand that has extensive contacts inside Myanmar.

Like others monitoring the crisis, which began on Aug. 19 with scattered protests against steep fuel price increases, he said it was difficult to learn the numbers of dead in a chaotic situation in which hospital sources are sometimes reluctant to talk. Mr. Aung Zaw said he had been told of one death on Thursday when soldiers attacked two columns of monks and other people.

“The military trucks, I was told, just drove in, and soldiers jumped out and started shooting,” he said, describing a scene that was reminiscent of the mass killings in 1988, when the current junta came to power after suppressing a similar peaceful public uprising.

The Treasury Department included Senior Gen. Than Shwe, who leads the junta in power in the country, in the list of officials on whom it will impose sanctions. The measures will freeze any assets that the officials hold within the United States and prohibit Americans from transacting or doing business with them.

The foreign ministers of Myanmar’s regional group, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, issued a strongly worded statement on Thursday saying they were “appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used” against demonstrators.

 The statement said that at a morning meeting at the United Nations, the officials from the 10-nation group had “expressed their revulsion” directly to Myanmar’s foreign minister, U Nyan Win, “over reports that the demonstrations in Myanmar are being suppressed by violent force and that there has been a number of fatalities.”

The foreign ministers of Asean are at the United Nations for the opening of the General Assembly, and George Yeo, the foreign minister of Singapore, the chairman country, put out their statement.

It said Mr. Nyan Win had given them assurances that Ibrahim Gambari, the special envoy whom Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent Wednesday evening on an urgent mission to Myanmar, would be given a visa to enter the country once he arrived in Singapore. The statement said Myanmar should cooperate fully with Mr. Gambari and give him access to all parties.

“Mr. Gambari’s role as a neutral interlocutor among all the parties can help defuse the dangerous situation,” it read.

The statement called upon Myanmar to “resume its efforts at national reconciliation with all parties concerned and work towards a peaceful transition to democracy.”

It also called for the release of all political detainees, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who has been held under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.

Superstitious Burmese had predicted violence on this date, whose digits add up repeatedly to the astrologically powerful number 9: the 27th day of the ninth month in 2007.

There was no indication that international pressure would have any more effect on the junta than it has had over two decades of political pressure or economic sanctions like those announced at the United Nations this week by Mr. Bush.

“The big missing piece of the puzzle is what is going on in the minds of the senior leadership,” said Thant Myint-U, a former United Nations official who is the author of a book on Myanmar, formerly Burma, called “River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma.”

“Nothing that they have said in the last 20 years would suggest that they will back down,” he said

The government’s actions in the past two days seemed to bear this out.

In the raids early Thursday, The Associated Press reported, security forces fired shots at one of several monasteries, Ngwe Kyar Yan, where one monk said a number of monks were beaten and at least 70 of its 150 monks were arrested.

A female lay disciple said a number of monks were arrested at Moe Gaung Monastery, which was being guarded, like a number of other monasteries, by a contingent of armed security personnel.

Other unconfirmed reports from exile groups described scenes of brutality and humiliation of monks and their superiors when soldiers entered the monasteries.

“We were told by a lot of residents that the soldiers came in very rudely and told them to kneel down,” Mr. Aung Zaw said. “Their senior abbot was beaten in front of the others. They were told to walk like dogs. That news quickly spread, and whether it is rumor or true, people got very, very angry.”

Sunai Phasuk, a representative of Human Rights Watch in Thailand, said that he was concerned about the apparently large numbers of arrests of monks and lay people but that information about them was scarce.

Like others seeking news from inside the country, he said that the mobile telephones of his sources had apparently been cut off. There were also reports that the authorities were closing Internet cafes, where people had been loading and transmitting images from their telephone cameras.

“We have lost all contacts inside Burma,” he said. “We cannot reach them any more.”

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