Myanmar Locks Down Monasteries, Cuts Internet

Myanmar Map i i
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Myanmar Map
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Buddhist monks protest Friday outside the Myanmar Embassy in London. i i

Buddhist monks protest Friday outside the Myanmar Embassy in London. People gathered to show support for protesters, who are still campaigning for democracy despite the government's use of force to break up the demonstrations. Cate Gillon/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Cate Gillon/Getty Images
Buddhist monks protest Friday outside the Myanmar Embassy in London.

Buddhist monks protest Friday outside the Myanmar Embassy in London. People gathered to show support for protesters, who are still campaigning for democracy despite the government's use of force to break up the demonstrations.

Cate Gillon/Getty Images
South Korean protesters hold a candlelight vigil against Myanmar's military rulers in Seoul.

South Korean protesters hold a candlelight vigil in Seoul on Friday against Myanmar's military rulers. The violent crackdown in Myanmar sparked protest demonstrations Friday in many capitals, and amid mounting international anger even the junta's southeast Asian neighbours expressed their "revulsion." Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images

Soldiers in Myanmar tried to crush dissent Friday by breaking up street gatherings of die-hard activists, occupying key Buddhist monasteries and cutting public Internet access, raising concerns of a wider crackdown after at least 10 people were killed this week.

Troops fired warning shots in the air and hit protesters with clubs to disperse a demonstration by about 2,000 people, witnesses said. The clash in an area near the Sule Pagoda — which has been a focal point of days of anti-government protests — was the most serious of the several sporadic protests that were reported in Myanmar's biggest city.

By sealing Buddhist monasteries, the government seemed intent on clearing the streets of monks, who have spearheaded the demonstrations and are revered by most of their countrymen. With the monks out of the way, the troops could feel they have a freer hand to come down harder on the remaining protesters.

Number of Protesters Dwindles

Daily protests drawing tens of thousands of people had grown into the stiffest challenge to the ruling military junta in two decades, a crisis that began Aug. 19 with rallies against a fuel price hike, then escalated dramatically when monks joined in.

But government efforts to squelch the demonstrations appeared to be working.

Earlier Friday, soldiers and riot police moved quickly to disperse a crowd of 300 that started marching in Yangon, sealing the surrounding neighborhood and ordering them to disperse.

Elsewhere, they fired warning shots to scatter a group of 200.

Bob Davis, Australia's ambassador to Myanmar, said he had heard unconfirmed reports that "several multiples of the 10 acknowledged by the authorities" may have been killed by troops in Yangon.

Scores have been arrested, carted away in trucks at night or pummeled with batons in recent days, witnesses and diplomats said, with the junta ignoring all international appeals for restraint.

Southeast Asian Countries Condemn Violence

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed "revulsion" and told the junta "to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution." Demonstrations against the junta were seen in Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and elsewhere.

But by Myanmar standards, the crackdown has so far been muted, in part because the regime knows that killing monks could trigger a public fury.

Southeast Asian envoys were told by Myanmar authorities Friday that a no-go zone had been declared around five key Buddhist monasteries, one diplomat said, raising fears of a repeat of 1988, when troops gunned down thousands of peaceful demonstrators and imprisoned the survivors.

Gates were locked and key intersections near monasteries in Yangon and Mandalay were sealed off with barbed wire, and there was no sign of monks in the streets.

"We were told security forces had the monks under control" and will now turn their attention to civilian protesters, the Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.

The government's apparent decision to cut public Internet access — which has played a crucial role in getting news and images of the pro-democracy protests to the outside world — also raised concerns.

Thursday was the most violent day in more than a month of protests — which at their height have brought an estimated 70,000 demonstrators to the streets. Bloody sandals lay scattered on some streets as protesters fled shouting "Give us freedom, give us freedom!"

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

Q&A: The Situation in Myanmar

Myanmar Slideshow

NPR Video on Protests

Myanmar Map i i
Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Myanmar Map
Lindsay Mangum, NPR

President Bush has imposed new U.S. sanctions on the military rulers of Myanmar, also known as Burma, in an effort to stop their violent repression of anti-government demonstrators, led by Buddhist monks.

Here's some background on the country and its politics:

Which is it, Burma or Myanmar?

The country was known as Burma when it was a British colony, and became the Union of Burma when it achieved independence in 1948. In 1989, the military junta adopted the name Myanmar, which stems from one of the country's literary names in the Burmese language. The move was part of an effort to eradicate traces of colonialism, and it also involved changing the name of the principal city from Rangoon to Yangon.

Opponents of the military regime still refer to the country as Burma, to show that they don't recognize the military's authority to change the name. The United Nations recognizes the name Myanmar, but the United States and Britain do not. That's why President Bush consistently refers to Burma in his speeches.

How did the military come to power?

When the country became independent, it did so with a British-style parliamentary system under Prime Minister U Nu. Although Burma was in relatively good economic shape, U Nu was derided as a dreamer and an ineffectual leader. General Ne Win seized power in 1962 and ruled for nearly 26 years. Like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Win called his regime "socialist," but used his control of the economy to benefit his friends and allies. That model is still in place under the current ruler, Senior General Than Shwe.

Why don't we hear more about these generals?

"Because they don't want you to know," says Marvin C. Ott, professor of National Security Policy at the National War College. Ott, a former CIA official, calls the junta members "basically primitives, relatively uneducated men who are out of touch with the urban, cosmopolitan parts of the country." As an example, he tells the story of the former strong man, General Ne Win, who consulted an astrologer on a daily basis. In 1987, he ordered the country's currency, the kyat, to be re-issued in denominations of 15, 30, 45 and 90, reportedly because an astrologer told him he would live to be 90 if he did so. The move caused chaos in Myanmar's financial system.

Ott says the generals "have utterly mismanaged the economy. In the 1950s, Burma was considered to be one of the developing countries that were in the best position to succeed. Now it's one of the poorest countries in the world."

With a record like that, how has the military remained in power?

Myanmar's army is huge — about 400,000 members — relative to its population of nearly 49 million. That's partly because the government has been fighting ethnic rebels, mostly in the hill country of the north. Much of that fighting has subsided in recent years, as the government signed peace deals with some of the main tribes — deals that, according to Professor Ott, allowed some of them to keep up their activities in the opium trade.

Just as important, though, Ott says, is that the junta has received strong backing from China. The Chinese have provided Myanmar with military and economic aid and political cover in the United Nations, when other countries were condemning the junta for its repression of dissidents, including Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Even though President Bush has announced new economic sanctions on Myanmar's rulers, Ott says that the generals have little to lose as long as China backs them up.

But Ott does have one caution for the junta. He says China is concerned that the junta has mis-managed its affairs so badly as to provoke widespread opposition. If some parts of Myanmar's military refused to go along with the repression, the generals could be ousted and China would probably support whomever seemed likeliest to come out on top, even opposition leader Suu Kyi.

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