YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s military junta arrested 13 prominent dissidents and put gangs of spade-wielding supporters on the streets of Yangon on Wednesday to halt protests against soaring fuel prices and falling living standards.
Armed police also took up positions across the country’s biggest city alongside truckloads of men from the army’s feared Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Many were carrying brooms and shovels, pretending to be road sweepers.
Despite the clampdown and the overnight arrest of the activists, 100 people staged an hour-long march before being dispersed. Five women and a man were arrested, although there was no violence, witnesses told Reuters.
“Onlookers applauded but failed to join the march,” one said.
In a rare announcement in all state-run newspapers, the junta said the 13 dissidents were arrested for “agitation to cause civil unrest” and “undermining peace and security of the state” -- charges that could put them in jail for up to 20 years.
Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Zeya, Ko Jimmy, Ko Pyone Cho, Arnt Bwe Kyaw and Ko Mya Aye -- all leaders of a 1988 student-led uprising crushed by the military -- were among those named. Friends and relatives confirmed the arrests.
Min Ko Naing, Myanmar’s second-most prominent political figure after detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was released in November 2004 after 15 years in jail. He was re-arrested in September for four more months.
“Military intelligence and government intelligence seized their houses and searched their houses,” another dissident, Htay Kywe, said in a recording e-mailed to Reuters by Myanmar exile groups in neighboring Thailand.
Government agents had taken papers and mobile phones, said Htay Kywe, who evaded capture during a raid on his home and went into hiding, one of the exile groups said.
The swoop came ahead of a planned protest on Wednesday against last week’s shock hikes in fuel prices, the latest in a rare series of demonstrations against deteriorating living conditions and galloping inflation in the former Burma.
The U.S. government condemned the arrests and urged the junta to begin “meaningful dialogue” with pro-democracy forces and move toward civilian democratic rule.
“The United States calls for the immediate release of these activists and for an end to the regime’s blatant attempt to intimidate and silence those who are engaged in peaceful promotion of democracy and human rights in Burma,” State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said in Washington.
The Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma said it feared for the safety of the detainees, especially Min Ko Naing, winner of U.S., Canadian and European human rights awards.
“Min Ko Naing and the other leaders arrested have all been severely tortured during previous incarcerations and we are gravely concerned for their immediate well-being,” policy director Aung Din said in a statement.
Min Ko Naing’s 88 Generation Students Group led a march on Sunday tapping into public anger at the 500 percent rise in the price of compressed natural gas -- a hike that came without warning and brought Yangon’s bus networks to a standstill.
Myanmar has some of Asia’s largest natural gas reserves and has just decided to export production of two major fields worth billions of dollars to China.
Min Ko Naing, a Burmese nom de guerre meaning “conqueror of kings,” was not linked to Wednesday’s protest planned by Ko Htin Kyaw, an activist already arrested four times this year.
The world’s biggest rice exporter when it won independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar is now one of Asia’s poorest countries after 45 years of unbroken military rule.
Suu Kyi, 62, has been in prison or under house arrest for much of the past 17 years. Human rights groups and the United Nations say as many as 1,100 others are behind bars for their political beliefs.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington
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