(photo credit: AP)
Thousands of Buddhist monks and pro-democracy activists marched Wednesday in Yangon in defiance of the military government's new ban on assembly, after police tried to disperse protesters at a key landmark with warning shots.
The junta had banned all public gatherings of more than five people and imposed a nighttime curfew following eight days of anti-government marches led by monks in Yangon and other areas of the country, including the biggest protests in nearly two decades.
The march toward the center of Yangon followed a tense confrontation at the city's famed Shwedagon Pagoda between the protesters and riot police who fired warning shots into the air, beat some monks and dragged others away into waiting trucks.
About 3,000 monks and 4,000 students along with members of the party headed by detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi set off from Shwedagon to the Sule Pagoda in the heart of Myanmar's largest city where dozens of riot police and soldiers were waiting.
Some carried flags emblazoned with the fighting peacock, a key symbol of the democracy movement in Myanmar.
About 100 monks stayed behind at the eastern gate of the Shwedagon, refusing to obey orders to disperse after riot police there failed to dislodge them despite employing tear gas, batons and warning shots.
Soldiers with assault rifles had earlier blocked all four major entrances to the soaring pagoda, one of the most sacred in Myanmar, and sealed other flashpoints of anti-government protests.
A comedian famed for his anti-government jibes became the first well-known activist rounded up following the protests.
Zarganar, who uses only one name, was taken away from his home overnight by authorities shortly after midnight. His family members said on Wednesday that they were told he had been "called in for temporary questioning."
Zarganar, along with actor Kyaw Thu and poet Aung Way, led a committee that provided food and other necessities to the monks who have spearheaded the protests. He had earlier been imprisoned twice and his comedy routines were banned for their satirical jokes about the regime.
The fates of the actor and poet were not immediately known, but there were unconfirmed reports from dissident groups of more than half a dozen other arrests.
Myanmar's leaders warned monks to stop the protests after some 100,000 people joined marches in the country's biggest city, Yangon, on Monday in the largest anti-government demonstrations since a 1988 pro-democracy uprising was violently suppressed.
The junta imposed the 9 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew and ban on public assembly after 35,000 people monks and their supporters defied the warnings to stage another day of protests Tuesday.
The junta has not used force so far to stop the demonstrations. But troops in full battle gear and police swarmed around Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda and Mahamuni Paya Pagoda, among the most sacred sites in the country.
In Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city, dozens of soldiers and riot police stopped 300 monks and 30 nuns from entering the Mahamuni Paya Pagoda. After a heated confrontation, the clergy marched toward the city where other security forces were waiting.
"We are so afraid, the soldiers are ready to fire on civilians at any time," a man near the pagoda said, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
If the military responds to new protests with force, it could further isolate Myanmar from the international community. It would almost certainly put pressure on Myanmar's top economic and diplomatic supporter, China, which is eager to burnish its international image before next year's Olympics in Beijing.
If monks who are leading the protests are mistreated, that could outrage the predominantly Buddhist country, where clerics are revered. But if the junta backs down, it risks appearing weak and emboldening protesters, which could escalate the tension.
When faced with a similar crisis in 1988, the government harshly suppressed a student-led democracy uprising. Security forces fired into crowds of peaceful demonstrators and killed thousands, traumatizing the nation.
Foreign governments and religious leaders have urged the junta to deal peacefully with the situation. They included the Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, both Nobel Peace Prize laureates like Suu Kyi.
US President George W. Bush announced new US sanctions against Myanmar, accusing the military dictatorship of imposing "a 19-year reign of fear" that denies basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship.
Bush said the US would tighten economic sanctions on leaders of the regime and their financial backers, and impose an expanded visa ban on those responsible for human rights violations and their families.
The European Union also threatened to strengthen existing sanctions against the regime if it uses violence to put down the demonstrations.
Britain's ambassador to Myanmar, Mark Canning, met Tuesday with some of Myanmar's leaders, urging continued restraint. Canning said he told ministers that the "demonstrations have been peaceful and well-disciplined."
"It will be disastrous in the eyes of the world on Myanmar if the authorities use force," he told them, saying that they assured him the situation would be handled with caution.