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Burma: Hundreds may be dead, as junta tries to keep brutality unseen

by Rosalind Russellin, The Independent (UK), Sept. 29, 2007

Rangoon, Burma -- Burma's military leaders locked down monasteries, arrested dissidents and set up barricades across Rangoon yesterday in an attempt to suffocate the waves of street demonstrations calling for an end to their rule.

They also tried to cut off ordinary people's communication with the outside world, heightening fears that the crackdown that appears to have knocked the wind from the demonstrations could become more violent.

Yet, despite the regime's best efforts, a day after security forces killed at least nine demonstrators – dissident groups say the total could be as high as 200 – hundreds again risked their lives to defy the government in small but angry protests across Burma's main city.

Locked inside their monasteries, or banished from the city, the cinnamon-robed monks who have formed the backbone to the dignified protest of the past week were largely gone. In their place were civilians, less disciplined and more angry, some with bandanas around their faces.

Shouting, jeering groups moved quickly around the city in an attempt to gather in large numbers. But the military, with soldiers packed in the back of trucks, raced after them, quickly breaking up gatherings with threats and force.

In Thanwe township, a decaying residential area in north-east Rangoon, witnesses said soldiers fired shots amid skirmishes with protesters. "It's finished!" shouted a soldier as a group of young men scattered. When faced with lines of soldiers with rifles and riot shields, some protesters threw rocks and bottles in retreat.

Without the moral authority, organisation and discipline of the country's much revered Buddhist clergy, it seemed the soldier's words may ring true. With the civilian leaders of the pro-democracy movement who organised the initial protests last month having been arrested and jailed, Burma's rulers seem to have taken the upper hand.

"Government go away!" a young man in a sarong and flip-flops shouted in English, banging on the roof of our car as it moved through an agitated and disorganised crowd.

Gone was the pride and hope that accompanied the well-ordered marches led by the monks. In its place came fear and confusion. One Western diplomat said that, in another blow to the protesters, hundreds of suspected dissidents were arrested in raids across the city yesterday, with 50 taken in one swoop alone.

The military had moved on the monks overnight, raiding monasteries that were identified as hotbeds of protest, beating them up by the dozen and shipping them back to their villages – all away from the eyes of the world. Rangoon's temples, including the Sule and Shwedagon pagodas around which the monks had been rallying, have been declared "danger zones" and cordoned off with barbed wire.

Yesterday, authorities shut Burma's only internet server and blocked all text and picture messaging on mobiles, in an effort to stem the violent images leaving the country, including pictures of a Japanese photographer shot in front of the Sule Pagoda. Though foreign journalists are banned, the regime ordered soldiers to go door-to-door at some hotels looking for foreigners.

With widespread outrage and words of encouragement, but so far no practical support from the outside world, the protesters' only fuel is pent-up anger at 45 years of unbroken military rule. Burma's generals have ruined a resource-rich country through mismanagement and greed. A hike in fuel prices in August was the final straw for citizens who have kept quiet since a 1988 uprising was brutally crushed, killing up to 6,000 people.

Last night, the UN's special envoy to Burma was heading to the country to promote a political solution and could arrive as early as today. Also the UN Human Rights Council announced it would be holding a special session about Burma next week. It will be the first meeting of its kind since it gathered to talk about Darfur last year.

At the same time, a disturbing picture was emerging of Thursday's crackdown. Bob Davis, Australia's ambassador to Burma, said he had unconfirmed reports the death toll after two days of violence was "several multiples of the 10 acknowledged by the authorities". The Washington-based dissident group, US Campaign for Burma, said around 200 protesters had been killed.

"It's tragic," said Shari Villarosa, the most senior US diplomat in the country. "These were peaceful demonstrators, very well behaved."

A Burmese journalist who gave her account to The Independent, said: "The police were shooting everything – houses, trees, anything. The bullets were flying over our heads. It was as if they were on drugs and were crazy." Seven young people ran from the protest in Thanwe and tried to hide in long grass, the 23-year-old journalist said. "Informers were pointing to the grass, people got up and ran, but the police just fired into their backs. Four were gunned down straight away. Shot dead."

Following phone talks with the US President, George Bush, and the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, Gordon Brown said: "I am afraid we believe the loss of life is far greater than is being reported."

The Prime Minister called for greater UN efforts and EU sanctions. "Now we have seen pictures from Burma and now we can hear voices from the Burmese people, there is no amount of censorship and no amount of violence that can silence the will of the Burmese people," he said.

Mr Brown added: "The eyes of the world are not only upon them. The anger of the world is now being expressed."

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