Myanmar soldiers shoot at protesters, killing at least 9
YANGON, Myanmar -- Soldiers with automatic rifles fired into crowds of anti-government demonstrators Thursday, killing at least nine people in the bloodiest day in more than a month of protests demanding an end to military rule.
Bloody sandals lay scattered on some streets as protesters fled shouting "Give us freedom, give us freedom!"
On the second day of a brutal crackdown, truckloads of troops in riot gear also raided Buddhist monasteries on the outskirts of Yangon, beating and arresting dozens of monks, witnesses and Western diplomats said. Japan protested the killing of a Japanese photographer.
Daily demonstrations by tens of thousands have grown into the stiffest challenge to the ruling junta in two decades, a crisis that began Aug. 19 with rallies against a fuel price hike then escalated dramatically when monks began joining the protests.
With the government ignoring international appeals for restraint, troops fired into packs of demonstrators in at least four locations in Yangon, witnesses and a Western diplomat said. Protesters -- some shouting "Give us freedom!" -- dodged roadblocks and raced down alleys in a defiant game of cat and mouse with soldiers and riot police that went on for most of the day.
Some 70,000 protesters were on the streets at the height of the chaos, though the total was difficult to estimate as different groups broke up and later reformed.
Sandals were strewn by a pool of blood at one spot where people fled approaching police. In a brave challenge, a bare-chested man emerged from one crowd to advance toward riot officers, then was felled by a rubber bullet and suffered a beating by officers who took him away.
The junta's heavy-handed tactics did not bode well for the monks and pro-democracy activists who are trying to bring down a military regime in power since 1962.
State radio said security forces fatally shot nine people, including a Japanese citizen, and wounded 11 people.
Some of the day's most striking photographs showed a gunshot victim identified as the dead Japanese journalist lying in the street, camera still in hand, after two or three bursts of gunfire sent protesters running. One picture, posted on the Web site of the Japanese television network Fuji, showed a soldier pointing his rifle down at the man lying face up on the ground clutching a camera.
Japan's new foreign minister, Masahiko Komura, told reporters in Washington that his country held Myanmar's government accountable for the killing of journalist Kenji Nagai, 50, who was covering the protests for the Japanese video news agency APF News.
The bloodshed followed lesser violence Wednesday, in which the government said police bullets killed one person, while media and dissident reports said up to eight died on the first day of the crackdown in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
Dramatic images of bloodied protesters and fleeing crowds have captured world attention and prompted the United Nations and many governments to call for the junta to end the confrontation peacefully.
The United States imposed economic sanctions Thursday on more than a dozen senior Myanmar officials, including the junta's two top generals, and it again urged China as Myanmar's main economic and political ally to use its influence to prevent further bloodshed.
"We feel admiration and compassion for the monks and peaceful protesters calling for democracy," President Bush said. "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."
Every other time the regime has been challenged, it has responded with harsh force, including in 1988 when troops killed as many as 3,000 pro-democracy protesters. Negotiations are unlikely and compromise is not in the military's vocabulary, analysts said.
"Judging from the nature and habit of the Myanmar military, they will not allow the monks or activists to topple them," said Chaiyachoke Julsiriwong, a Myanmar scholar at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.
Some people had hoped the widespread reverence for Buddhist monks in Myanmar might weaken the resolve of rank-and-file soldiers to pursue the crackdown. Most males, including soldiers, serve briefly as monks as their youth. But so far no soldiers have changed sides as happened in 1988 when some air force personnel joined demonstrations.
"The soldiers shooting might be special troops, recruited from the hill country, often from orphanages. They have no family. They are raised [by the military] to do whatever they are told to do," said Aye Chan Naing, chief editor for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition shortwave radio station based in Norway.
The second day of the crackdown began just after midnight Wednesday, with security forces raiding several monasteries considered hotbeds of the democracy movement.
At Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery, chief abbot U Yaywata said soldiers shot up the complex, stole gold and dragged off 70 monks and lay disciples. He said he saw bullet holes in the walls and blood stains on some beds.
"This was not just a robbery. We have been attacked by rebels," he said.
A Western diplomat said she had reports from another monastery where soldiers stormed the compound, destroyed images of Buddha and stole gold. They arrested as many as 80 monks, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity citing protocol.
Photos said to be from one of the monasteries show smashed up furniture and bloodstains.
Angry protesters threw stones and shouted at soldiers as word spread about the early morning raids.
"I really hate the government. They arrest the monks while they are sleeping. These monks haven't done anything except meditating and praying and helping people," said a 30-year-old service worker who watched the confrontations from his workplace.
Soldiers also staged a raid on the Mahamuni Paya pagoda in Mandalay, the country's second-largest city, about 430 miles north of Yangon. Witnesses said troops blocked the road to the pagoda from downtown and locked hundreds of monks inside the compound.
As it has in the past, the junta accused protesters of instigating the violence and suggested that a vast conspiracy of "domestic and external elements" -- its usual code words for Western governments and democracy activists -- was trying to destabilize the country.
The regime uncharacteristically did little to stop demonstrations as they grew last week, but authorities leaped into action after Monday saw some 100,000 people take to the streets of Yangon, the country's largest city.
First came official warnings Tuesday against protests, then an overnight curfew was ordered. On Wednesday, the regime finally flexed its military might as soldiers and police beat demonstrators, arrested monks and political activists and, for the first time, fired into some crowds.
Still, by Myanmar standards, the crackdown has been somewhat restrained.
Though no one doubts the military's aim is to snuff out the threat, its response may reflect how the political landscape has changed since the bloody crushing of the 1988 uprising.
Myanmar is now part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has called for the regime to show restraint, and the regime has opened up the economy to foreign investors.
China also has been quietly counseling the junta for months to speed up its long-stalled transition to democracy. Some analysts say Beijing wants to avoid a bloodbath in an ally that could taint its hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games.
"China hopes that all parties in Myanmar exercise restraint and properly handle the current issue so as to ensure the situation there does not escalate and get complicated," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday.