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Myanmar still in fear as curfew lifted

AFP, Oct 21, 2007

YANGON, Myanmar -- Residents in Yangon on Sunday welcomed the end of a curfew imposed on the eve of Myanmar's bloody crackdown on peaceful protests, but voiced fears in private over the country's iron-fisted junta.

<< Buddhist faithful gather at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangoon. Residents in Yangon welcomed the end of a curfew imposed on the eve of Myanmar's bloody crackdown on peaceful protests, but voiced fears in private over the country's iron-fisted junta.

The government ended the curfew Saturday in Yangon, Myanmar's main city, where authorities suppressed pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks in late September, killing at least 13 people and jailing about 3,000.

Residents said they were relieved to see the end of the nightly curfew, which lasted from 11:00 pm to 3:00 am, but confided that they did not yet feel that life had returned to normal.

"People are very happy about the end of the curfew. We are free now," said one company official in his 30s, who declined to be named.

"But people, including myself, continue to worry about the situation because of what happened in Yangon last month," he said.

The end of the curfew came as military-run Myanmar was under global pressure over the deadly clampdown on dissent, with the United States stepping up sanctions against the top generals including junta leader General Than Shwe.

Than Shwe has offered to meet with detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi in a move seen as the regime's effort to defuse international pressure following the violence last month.

But the junta chief has said the dialogue will follow only if the 62-year-old Nobel peace laureate gives up what he calls her support for "confrontation, utter devastation, economic sanctions on Myanmar and other sanctions."

On Sunday, the government demanded Aung San Suu Kyi drop her support for sanctions. She has publicly discouraged foreign investment in Myanmar in a bid to pile pressure on the ruling generals.

Myanmar, under military rule since 1962, tolerates little public dissent, but anti-junta rallies began in August following a massive hike in fuel prices and snowballed into the biggest challenge to the regime in nearly two decades.

A 55-year-old housewife said she was glad that the government lifted the curfew, but added she would stay away from Yangon's golden Shwedagon Pagoda, a rallying point for protesters.

"I would like to go to Shwedagon Pagoda, but dare not go there right now. I am too afraid," she said.

While authorities have sharply reduced the security presence around the pagoda, Myanmar's most important landmark, several plain-clothes officials were still standing guard on Sunday.

A 41-year-old mother of a teenage boy said she continued to fret about security despite the end of the curfew.

"My son is very happy because he can go out with his friends at night. But I am worried about the security situation. I asked my son not to stay outside too long," she said.

During the curfew shops closed early and Yangon's streets, normally bustling with people hanging out at tea shops late into the night, were eerily quiet.

One tea shop owner said he hoped more customers would return after the end of the curfew.

"My business suffered during the curfew because I had to close my shop around 9:00 pm, and most of all, we had very few customers," said the owner in his 50s.

Street tea shops are very popular for nights out among people in Myanmar, one of the world's poorest nations, where few people can afford to go to restaurants.

"I hope customers will return to my shop soon. I want my business to return to normal again," he said.

Apart from the curfew, the junta also cut the country's Internet links in a bid to curb the flow of images and information on the deadly crackdown being spread around the world.

Internet access was restored only recently, but the military government continued to ban foreign media, including the BBC and Voice of America, as well as news outlets run by exiled dissidents.

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