Deadly Crackdown Intensifies in Burma

Sandals lie scattered on a street in downtown Rangoon after Burmese soldiers firing automatic weapons dispersed a crowd demonstrating against the military government.
Sandals lie scattered on a street in downtown Rangoon after Burmese soldiers firing automatic weapons dispersed a crowd demonstrating against the military government. (Mandalay Gazette Via Associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 28, 2007

BANGKOK, Sept. 27 -- Intensifying their crackdown despite pressures from abroad, Burmese security forces raided a half-dozen Buddhist monasteries Thursday and opened fire on pockets of demonstrators who continued to demand an end to military rule.

The Burmese government announced that nine people had been killed in the violence, making it the bloodiest day in weeks of escalating protests. In Rangoon, the country's principal city, soldiers marched down the streets warning over loudspeakers that protesters risked getting shot, according to reports reaching exile groups in Thailand.

The dead included a Japanese journalist, Kenji Nagai, who had been covering the demonstrations, according to his employer, APF News. Another foreigner, reportedly a Caucasian woman, was also seen shot and wounded in the street, according to the exile groups.

Communications from Burma were sporadic, making the scale of the violence difficult to assess. But the heavy presence of soldiers and armed police, and their willingness to open fire, indicated that the country's military rulers have decided to disregard international appeals to enter into negotiations with political opponents.

With no sign of compromise on either side, the confrontation appeared to be a test of wills between the military junta -- led by Senior Gen. Than Shwe -- and the informal network of monks who have spearheaded the movement, alongside students and other lay political activists.

After news of Thursday's violence reached Washington, the White House renewed its demand that the Burmese junta end the crackdown.

"The world is watching the people of Burma take to the streets to demand their freedom and the American people stand in solidarity with these brave individuals," President Bush said in a written statement. He added: "Every civilized nation has a responsibility to stand up for people suffering under a brutal military regime like the one that has ruled Burma for too long."

The U.S. Treasury Department designated 14 senior Burmese figures under new sanctions announced by Bush earlier in the week, including Than Shwe; the army commander, Vice Senior Gen. Maung Aye; and the acting prime minister, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein. Any assets they have in U.S. jurisdictions will be frozen, and Americans are now banned from doing business with them. U.S. officials hope to leverage that to influence foreign banks and institutions to follow suit.

The European Union also vowed to seek tighter sanctions. The United Nations, meanwhile, has said it will send an envoy to Burma, a move that the Burmese foreign minister said Thursday would be welcomed.

Video images from Burma, also known as Myanmar, showed a preponderance of lay people in the demonstrations on Thursday, most of them of student age. Some news agencies estimated that as many as 70,000 people took to the streets of Rangoon and other cities, despite the soldiers' warnings and the death of at least one protester on Wednesday.

Soe Aung, spokesman for the Thailand-based National Council of the Union of Burma, an exile group, said the number was probably much lower, perhaps as low as 10,000, which was sharply down from Wednesday. "This would be mainly because of the raids that took place before dawn in Rangoon," he said.

Until Thursday, students and other lay political activists had been following the lead of the monks, mostly young students in cinnamon-colored robes who are undergoing religious training in the monasteries. Although the protests started last month over sharp fuel price increases and economic hardships, they have blossomed over the last two weeks into a frontal challenge to the military's ruling State Peace and Development Council.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company