Myanmar Crackdown Isolates Monks

Yangon is quiet a day after the bloodiest day in monk-led protests against 45 years of military rule. Buddhist monasteries were raided, and troops fired automatic weapons into crowds of demonstrators, killing at least eight people — though it's believed the death toll is considerably higher.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

In Myanmar's major city, soldiers and police are out in force today behind barbwire barricades as loud-speaker trucks warning people to stay off the street.

Yangon is reported quiet today. Yesterday, it was the bloodiest day in a monk-led protests against decades of military rule. Troops fired automatic weapons into crowds of demonstrators. At least eight people have been confirmed dead, though it's believed the death toll is considerably higher.

We go now to NPR's Michael Sullivan who's monitoring the situation in Myanmar -and he is in Bangkok, Thailand.

And, Michael, what's the latest? So far today it's turning in to rather a quiet day considering the last 10.

MICHAEL SULLLIVAN: So far, yes. I mean, we know, Renee, that some people have come back out on to the streets to demonstrate but in small numbers. We know that the security forces, as you said, have saturated the city and are keeping more demonstrators from gathering. We know that the government has declared the area around five monasteries as no-go areas, that's according to diplomats. But beyond that, we know very little and, I think in part, because the government now appears to be severely restricting information getting out.

Today, the military reportedly shut down Yangon's Internet cafes. And I think that's to stop news and pictures from getting to the outside world. People have been using the Internet to send photos. And I witnessed accounts of what's been happening to various news agencies abroad and interest groups abroad and they have been broadcasting them into the world. And that access now appears to be severely restricted if not shutdown altogether. And even phone calls in and out of the country are getting much harder.

MONTAGNE: Well, in a sense, was that expected? In a way, it's rather surprising that the government allowed these sorts of communications to go on for as long as they did.

SULLLIVAN: Yeah. I mean, everybody expected this to happen. I mean, I was in the country about a week. I left Tuesday night. And even then people were saying that they expected both the phone and the Internet lines to be cut when the military began its crackdown. And everyone pretty much knew that a crackdown would come.

And it's looking more clearer now that despite the length of time it took the generals to respond - they do have a plan. And that plan is to rein in the monks who've leading these things for more than a week. More than a hundred have been arrested in the past few days, a great many more now confined to their monasteries by force. And if there's no monks on the streets then I think ordinary people are probably going to think harder about going on without them, especially after yesterday's violence.

I mean, the military has a long history of crushing dissent. They've been in power for almost 50 years. They know how to do this. They've had lots of practice. And they don't hesitate to use force when they feel they need to. That's how they stay in power. Killing monks would be something different. I know they think that that would enrage the public. And I think that's why we haven't seen that happen. I mean, I know there have been some reports suggesting monks have been killed, but I haven't seen any pictures - I don't know if you have - because I think the military knows that this would be a very, very bad thing.

So I think they're being careful not to let it happen. Yeah, they're arresting monks. Yes, they're beating them. But mostly, they seem to be isolating the monks from the general public.

MONTAGNE: Now, diplomatic protests, Michael, against Myanmar's government seemed to be growing daily, even China is talking a little bit tough and it's its great ally. Having any effect?

SULLLIVAN: There have been strong statements from all over. But I'm just not sure that any of it really means anything, that the generals really listen to anybody. I mean, events on the ground over the past couple of days certainly suggest otherwise. They're doing what they think they need to do to stay in power. And today, at least, it seems to be working. I think you can score this round, today, to the military.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michael Sullivan speaking from Bangkok, Thailand.

If you want to find out more about the politics of Myanmar and see images of the protests there, go to npr.org.

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Police, Protesters in Deadly Standoff in Myanmar

In a photo made available by The Mandalay Gazette, Buddhist monks pray at a road block.

hide captionIn a photo made available by The Mandalay Gazette, Buddhist monks pray at a riot police's road block in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, on Wednesday.

AP/The Mandalay Gazette

NPR Video of Protests

A truckload of Myanmar soldiers gather in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, on Thursday. i i

hide captionA truckload of Myanmar soldiers gather in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, on Thursday.

AP/The Mandalay Gazette
A truckload of Myanmar soldiers gather in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, on Thursday.

A truckload of Myanmar soldiers gather in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, on Thursday.

AP/The Mandalay Gazette

Myanmar said its troops opened fire on anti-government protesters for a second day Thursday, killing nine and wounding 11 others in a showdown between the country's repressive military junta and a mass demonstration led by Buddhist monks.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets Thursday in a tenth day of marches that have defied the Myanmar regime and invited confrontation in a country that does not tolerate dissent. Some protesters in Yangon, the country's former capital and largest city, shouted "Give us freedom, give us freedom!"

Ye Htut, a government spokesman, said riot police clashed with anti-government protesters in Yangon on Thursday, killing nine people and injuring 11. Thirty-one government troops were also wounded, he said.

Witnesses told The Associated Press that bloody sandals were left in the road as thousands scattered amid the gunfire near a bridge across the Pazundaung River on the east side of downtown Yangon. Five men were arrested and severely beaten by soldiers, they said.

Government Storms Monastery

Meanwhile, about 100 Buddhist monks — who hold a revered place in Myanmar society — were arrested Thursday as security forces raided several monasteries overnight. On Wednesday, the government had rounded up about 300 monks in similar operations.

A monk at the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery pointed to bloodstains on the concrete floor and said a number of monks were beaten as shots were fired in the air and tear gas was used to disperse a crowd of 1,500 supporters during the chaotic raid.

"Soldiers slammed the monastery gate with the car, breaking the lock and forcing it into the monastery," said the monk, who did not give his name for fear of reprisal. "They smashed the doors down, broke windows and furniture. When monks resisted, they shot at the monks and used tear gas and beat up the monks and dragged them into trucks."

In the stiffest challenge to the generals in two decades, thousands of ordinary citizens have joined the marches in recent days, emboldened by the participation of robed monks who enjoy a revered status in Myanmar society.

However, the nation's junta, which has ruled with an iron fist for nearly two decades, has grown nervous and impatient with the protests. On Wednesday, security forces beating protesters and made hundreds of arrests.

The government acknowledged on Wednesday that riot police had fired on protesters, killing at least one person; however, dissident groups said the death toll from the day's violence was as high as eight.

Some reports said the dead included monks and the emergence of such martyr figures could stoke public anger against the regime and escalate the violence.

Nations Call for Peace

The United States called on Myanmar's military leaders to open a dialogue with peaceful protesters and urged China to do what it can to prevent further bloodshed.

"We all need to agree on the fact that the Burmese government has got to stop thinking that this can be solved by police and military, and start thinking about the need for genuine reconciliation with the broad spectrum of political activists in the country," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill in Beijing.

Myanmar's state-run newspaper blamed "saboteurs inside and outside the nation" for causing the protests in Yangon, and said the demonstrations were much smaller than the media are reporting.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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