Protests Continue Despite Arrests
YANGON, Myanmar - Defiant pro-democracy activists took to the streets Thursday for the third time this week, forming a human chain to try to prevent officers from dragging them into waiting trucks and buses.
The demonstration came a day after 300 people marched to protest the military junta's imposition of fuel price increases despite the earlier arrest of at least 13 democracy activists.
The protests have been one of the most sustained anti-government demonstrations in years. Myanmar's ruling junta, which has received widespread international criticism for violating the rights of its citizens, tolerates little public dissent, sometimes sentencing activists to long jail terms for violating broadly defined security laws. It has held opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, under house arrest for 11 years.
On Thursday, about 40 people, mostly from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, walked quietly without placards for about two miles toward the party headquarters in eastern Yangon before being stopped by a security cordon.
Authorities ordered bystanders, and especially reporters, out of the area as the protesters were overwhelmed after a 30-minute standoff. Some reporters were roughed up by security personnel who shouted abusive language.
Protesters sat on the pavement and formed a human chain in an attempt to prevent officers from dragging them into the waiting trucks and buses. A dozen protesters, however, were dragged and shoved into the vehicles, where some were slapped around, said witnesses, who asked not to be identified for fear of being called in by the police.
A former political prisoner, Ohn Than, also staged an apparently solo protest outside the U.S. Embassy before being hauled away by plainclothes officers. He was holding a sign calling for U.N. intervention to make the government convene parliament, a witness said.
The NLD party called on the ruling junta to stop brutal suppression and inhumane treatment of protesters and demanded an immediate release of those arrested.
"Unable to bear the burden of spiraling consumer prices, the public express their sentiments through peaceful means. However authorities have arrested, tortured, beaten up and endangered the lives of those who are peacefully expressing their wishes," the NLD said in a statement.
Wednesday's march was broken up prematurely when a gang of government supporters assaulted some protesters with sticks and seized eight who were accused of being agitators, witnesses and participants said. The eight were later freed unharmed.
The demonstrations came after the arrests Tuesday of leaders of the group 88 Generation Students, the country's boldest, nonviolent dissident group. It has been defying the generals by staging petition campaigns, prayer vigils and other activities urging the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and calling for an end to military rule that began in 1962.
"Though our leaders had been arrested, we will continue with our movement. We will not fear any arrest or threat," Mie Mie, a member of 88 Generation, said during the Wednesday march, which was monitored by plainclothes police.
State-controlled media reported earlier that 13 leaders of 88 Generation Students had been arrested and could face up to 20 years in prison.
The newspaper New Light of Myanmar said "agitators" in the group were detained Tuesday night for trying to undermine the "stability and security of the nation." On Sunday, they had led some 400 people in another march through Yangon to protest the doubling of fuel prices Aug. 15.
Leaders of 88 Generation Students were at the forefront of a 1988 democracy uprising and were subjected to lengthy prison terms and torture after the rebellion was brutally suppressed by the military.
The 1988 unrest was preceded by public protests over rising rice prices, a sudden government declaration that made most currency invalid, and other economic hardships.
Those arrested Tuesday included Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, two of the most prominent activists, New Light of Myanmar said. Min Ko Naing spent 16 years in prison despite international calls for his release and numerous awards for his nonviolent activism for democracy.
"Their agitation to cause civil unrest was aimed at undermining peace and security of the state and disrupting the ongoing National Convention," the newspaper said, adding that such activity violated a 1996 law that mandates prison terms of up to 20 years.
Organized by the junta, the National Convention is drafting guidelines for a constitution as part of a so-called seven-step roadmap to democracy in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. Critics call the process a sham.
The arrests drew condemnation abroad. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called for the release of all the detainees.
"The government's strategy of arbitrarily arresting its critics reinforces the severe hardship the people of Burma are going through," a statement from the group said. "Burma's military rulers run the country — and the economy — without any regard for human rights."