Yangon : Hundreds of armed soldiers took over the streets of Yangon Saturday, hunkering down behind barbed wire at strategic spots in preparation for more anti-government demonstrations.
By noon Saturday the city was remarkably peaceful, enjoying its first lull in almost two weeks of increasingly violent protests against the ruling junta and the country’s deteriorating economy.
United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari was scheduled to arrive in the city at 3.30 p.m. on Silk Air flight 518 from Singapore.
Gambari has been assigned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to make an assessment of the situation in Myanmar after almost weeks of sporadic and persistent protests against the country’s military regime who have lorded over this once prosperous South-East Asian nation for the past 45 years.
Gambari, who last visited Myanmar in May 2006, is expected to seek talks with religious leaders, political detainees and democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for more than four years.
Peaceful protests initially started in Yangon on Aug 19, in response to a government decision to double fuel prices.
Myanmar’s monkhood took up the movement in early September and started to march against the fuel-price hikes 12 days ago in Yangon.
The movement eventually escalated into the largest and most violently suppressed anti-government demonstrations since 1988.
Riot police and soldiers cracked down on the monks Wednesday, first beating them back from Yangon’s famed downtown pagodas of Shwedagon and Sule, and then raided their monasteries Thursday, arresting hundreds of the clergy.
The government attack on the monkhood outraged laymen, and led to clashes between people and security personnel Thursday that left at least nine dead, according to state sources.
Independent sources claim the death toll was much higher.
Hundreds of monks have reportedly fled their monasteries in Yangon for other temples.
No monks came to collect alms in many parts of Yangon on Saturday morning, as is their normal practice.
“Now there is no merit making, just demerits,” said one Yangon resident. Buddhist laymen believe they earn merit by giving alms to monks.
While Myanmar’s 400,000-strong monkhood is generally revered in this predominantly Buddhist country, it is not above being disciplined by the military.
The army crackdown on anti-military demonstrations in Sep 1988 left an estimated 3,000 people dead, hundreds of whom were monks who had joined the protests.
The crackdown has prompted almost universal condemnation of the regime, drawing harsh rebukes even from Myanmar’s neighbours in South-East Asia.