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Security presence stifles protests in Myanmar's biggest city

Security presence stifles protests in Myanmar's biggest city

Myanmar's military government employed menacing gangs of civilians to keep watch at key points in the country's biggest city Wednesday as it sought to crush a rare wave of protests by pro-democracy activists against fuel price hikes.
While the protesters showed no sign of giving up, their movement _ the best organized and sustained in a decade _ appeared to be sputtering as the general public remained reluctant to join in.
Rumors swept the city of further planned protests despite the government's strong-arm tactics, but no demonstrations were known to have taken place Wednesday in Yangon, the country's commercial center.
"The struggle thus far is one-sided, with numbers, organization and will in the hands of the rulers," Josef Silverstein, a Myanmar expert and retired professor of Rutgers University in New Jersey, said earlier.
He predicted that under such circumstances the current wave of protests could not last very long. Bystanders are reluctant to join the activists, he said, because, "Everyone knows that to be arrested is to be punished and jailed, tortured and even killed."
Demonstrations triggered by fuel price hikes began Aug. 19 and have continued almost daily. Government efforts to crush the dissenters have drawn international condemnation.
Tension was especially high at Yangon's busy Hledan Junction, where security officials and their civilian auxiliaries clamped down Tuesday on a protest within minutes of its start.
They pushed through crowds of onlookers to rough up about 15 demonstrators before tossing them into waiting trucks to take them away for detention, witnesses said.
Three trucks, each carrying about 20 tough-looking young men, were parked on either side of the road Wednesday, watching for any protesters in what has become a familiar scene on the city's streets over the past week. About 20 plainclothes security officials roamed nearby sidewalks at the intersection, a traditional site for protests.
Protests were said to have taken place in two or three other towns, but information about them could not be independently confirmed.
The European Union presidency said in a statement Tuesday that it was concerned about recent arrests of leading activists and the "decision to detain individuals who were exercising their right to peaceful demonstration."
Many of the protests have been spearheaded by members of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy.
A spokesman for the party, Nyan Win, said 20 of its members marched in protest against the fuel hike Tuesday in the central town of Meikhtila after attending a morning prayer session for Suu Kyi's release. He was unable to say whether a new protest had been held there Wednesday.
"The group staged a peaceful protest, shouting slogans calling for a reduction of the fuel price but no arrests were made," he said.
Mizzima News, an online news service operated by Myanmar exiles in India, quoted Thein Lwin, an NLD official in Meikhtila, as saying the protesters had been followed and photographed by people belonging to the pro-government Swan Arrshin and Union Solidarity and Development Association groups, but allowed to march unmolested.
Members of the two government-sponsored groups are widely believed to be the civilians responsible for the violent swoops on protesters in Yangon.
Mizzima News also reported that hundreds of people protested for a second straight day in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in western Myanmar. On Tuesday, 200 to 300 people, including many Buddhist monks, demonstrated there.
Monks were active in past movements against British colonialism and military dictatorship, and the government is said to have warned senior abbots around the country against letting monks participate in the current demonstrations.
Another report that university students in the city of Dawei, also known as Tavoy, in southern Myanmar staged a protest Wednesday could not be confirmed.
In 1988, public protests over rising rice prices were a prelude to a burst of major demonstrations.
Those protests, which sought an end to military rule that began in 1962, were violently subdued by the army, with thousands of people estimated to have been killed around the country. The junta held general elections in 1990, but refused to honor the results when Suu Kyi's party won.
The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders called on European countries on Wednesday to publicly defend the rights of Myanmar's journalists to work without obstruction.
It accused the junta of employing "heavy-handed repression, intimidation and censorship" against the press.


Updated : 2021-07-27 09:22 GMT+08:00