Two foreigners among six dead in Myanmar protests


Yangon/Oslo : At least six persons, including two foreign nationals, were feared dead Thursday in more confrontations in Myanmar between the heavily armed military and thousands of civilian demonstrators, reports in Yangon said.

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The Oslo-based opposition radio Democratic Voice of Burma corroborated the reports and said thousands of people carried forward their anti-military protest initiated by Buddhist monkhood in defiance against the hated junta.

One of the six dead in Yangon Thursday was a Japanese national believed to have been a photojournalist, the radio station’s daily news editor Htet Aung Kyaw said in a telephone interview.

Other victims were thought to include four monks who were beaten to death in connection with overnight raids on Yangon monasteries, he said. A male Caucasian foreigner, believed to be a photographer, was also shot dead as he tried to make his way through a blockade of soldiers, eyewitnesses said.

There were fewer monks in the crowds Thursday, as many of them were arrested in the overnight raids and because the monasteries were blocked by the security forces, according to witnesses.

Tens of thousands of marching monks who took over Yangon’s streets in recent days were replaced by angry but unarmed laymen after authorities cracked down on the clergy Wednesday and Thursday morning.

At midday, an estimated 10,000 people gathered near the Sule Pagoda, a flashpoint for the past 10 days of protests, shouting catcalls and clapping their hands in a show of contempt for the government troops around the temple.

After the police issued a verbal warning and fired warning shots, the crowds scattered. There were displays of increasingly violent dissent and brutal reprisals throughout the city.

Two senior leaders of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) were arrested including spokesman Myint Thin, Kyaw said.

Demonstrations were staged in several parts of Yangon, where soldiers have fired automatic rifles at the crowds but injury tallies were not available.

In Mandalay, the second largest city, too demonstrations were staged. Information was sketchy since many phone lines were cut, but witness accounts aired by the station suggested the soldiers used a live electric power line to disperse demonstrators.

In Kachin state in northern Burma near the Chinese border, two monasteries were raided Tuesday evening and some 400 monks arrested, the radio station’s sources said.

Earlier, the station’s news editor Moe Aye said that an order had been issued to discharge patients from the main hospital, suggesting that the military were preparing to deploy violence against the protesters there.

The opposition radio station, funded by among others the governments of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, broadcasts via satellite and shortwave to Myanmar.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 villagers in South Okkalapa township on the eastern outskirts of Yangon attacked an army truck, pelting the soldiers on board with stones until they shot 10 tear-gas canisters into the mob to make a getaway.

The villagers were reportedly outraged that the military had raided the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery early Thursday morning, arresting monks and leaving its revered abbot severely beaten.

Witnesses said a lieutenant colonel leading three truckloads of soldiers in the raid beat some of his soldiers when they refused to attack monks in the monastery.

Pitched battles followed between the soldiers and residents living near the monastery.

After dawn Thursday, angry local residents gathered at the scene of the violence. Many of them were crying with rage.

“It is impossible to believe that the government would brutalize the holy monks,” said one resident of the area who witnessed the melee. “The government is not doing this for stability. This is sacrilege to the religion we believe in.”

A similar scene was witnessed later Thursday at the intersection of Kyaikasan and Leydaungkan roads, in eastern Yangon, where hundreds of people blocked the road and faced off with soldiers. After firing warning shots, the soldiers attacked the protesters, loading hundreds on to five trucks that moved them to nearby Kyaikasan Grounds, a public park turned holding centre.

The protests continued Thursday evening, with reports that thousands of people were marching from Ahlone township to Kyimyiutine township in western Yangon.

“There are people willing to shoot and people willing to die,” said one Western diplomat of the ongoing showdown in Yangon.

The ruling junta cracked down Wednesday on monk-led marches that started small on Sep 18 and peaked Monday with an estimated 100,000 participants.

On Wednesday riot police and soldiers beat back monks and their laymen followers with batons and tear gas from the Shwedagon Pagoda and fired warning shots at the mob around the Sule Pagoda.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper claimed that the clash was sparked by protesters throwing stones at the security officers.

“On account of the unavoidable circumstances, the members of the security forces fired some shots employing the least force to disperse the mob,” claimed the government mouthpiece.

It claimed one civilian was killed in the melee and two others wounded. Other sources said at least five people, including monks, died on Wednesday and more than 100 were injured.

Barricades and troops were in place Thursday morning at key sites in Yangon, including the Shwedagon Pagoda and Bogyoke Street, two of the main rallying spots for the past nine days of protests in the city.

Many schools were closed as fearful residents kept their children at home.

Roadblocks were removed Thursday from the Pagoda Road that leads to Sule Pagoda, but the temple was heavily guarded.

Myanmar’s monks, said to number 400,000, have a long history of political activism. The monkhood played a pivotal role in Myanmar’s independence struggle from Great Britain in 1947 and the anti-military demonstrations of 1988 that ended in bloodshed.