YANGON (Reuters) - Crowds taunted and cursed security forces that barricaded central Yangon on Friday to try to prevent more mass protests against Myanmar’s 45 years of military rule and deepening economic hardship.
Potentially deadly games of cat and mouse went on for hours around the barbed-wire barriers in a city terrified of a repeat of 1988, when the army killed an estimated 3,000 people in crushing an uprising in the former Burma.
The junta faced a torrent of international condemnation but usually ignores outside pressure and appeared to have cut off access to the Internet, through which much of the news about their crackdown reached the rest of the world.
In one small concession, it agreed to admit U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, of Nigeria, who was expected to arrive on Saturday. Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yong-Boon Yeo said he believed Myanmar’s government would “be restrained in what it does” during Gambari’s visit.
“If he fails, then the situation can become quite dreadful,” Yeo said. “He’s the best hope we have. He is trusted on both sides.”
Few Buddhist monks were among the crowds on Friday, unlike in previous days, after soldiers ransacked 10 monasteries on Thursday and carted off hundreds inside.
When the troops charged, the protesters vanished into narrow side streets, only to emerge elsewhere to renew their abuse until an overnight curfew took effect.
“F—- you, army. We only want democracy,” some yelled in English. “May the people who beat monks be struck down by lightning,” others chanted in Burmese.
Far fewer protesters turned out in Yangon than earlier in the week, when they had marched alongside thousands of maroon-robed monks.
Shots were fired on Friday but there was no word of more casualties a day after troops swept through central Yangon. Security forces fired on several crowds on Thursday and state-run television said nine people were killed.
“I am afraid we believe the loss of life is far greater than is being reported,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Friday after talking by telephone with U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Monks turned what began as small marches against fuel price hikes last month into a mass uprising when they lent their moral weight to demonstrations against the ruling generals.
A “united front” of clergy, students and activists had been formed to continue the struggle, some monks told foreign Burmese-language broadcasters.
Bush and Brown discussed the need to maintain international pressure on Myanmar’s rulers and the White House condemned the crackdown as “barbaric.” Bush authorized new U.S. sanctions on Thursday against the Myanmar government, which has been operating under similar restrictions for years.
The European Union summoned Myanmar’s senior diplomat in Brussels and warned him of tighter sanctions.
EU experts looked into possible restrictions on exports from Myanmar of timber, precious metals and stones but reached no decisions, one diplomat said. Investments by specific Europeans in the country were not raised, he said.
Activist Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign U.K., calling the EU sanctions “pathetic,” said a freeze on assets had netted less than 7,000 euros in all 27 EU member states and many countries allowed their companies to do business in Myanmar.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said sanctions were premature but he was sorry to hear about civilian deaths. “As far as sanctions are concerned, this is a topic to be especially considered in the United Nations,” he Putin.
Russia is, like China, a veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member and has shown growing interest in energy cooperation with Myanmar.
China, the junta’s main ally, publicly called for restraint in Myanmar for the first time on Thursday. But at the United Nations, China has ruled out supporting sanctions or a U.N. condemnation of the military government’s use of force.
The junta told diplomats summoned to its new jungle capital Naypyidaw that it was “committed to showing restraint in its response to the provocations,” one of those present said.
One man killed on Thursday was Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai, 50. He was shot point-blank, according to video footage, when soldiers charged crowds near Sule Pagoda in Yangon, now deep inside the sealed-off area.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda also said he spoke with the Chinese premier by phone and Wen had assured him Beijing would seek to exercise its influence over the junta.
The Association of South East Asian Nations, which rarely criticizes a member directly, expressed “revulsion” at the crackdown. There were protests across Asia, with many people wearing red to symbolize the blood spilled in Myanmar, and, chanting “Free Burma” and holding signs such as “Burmese blood on Chinese hands,” about 150 people gathered outside the United Nations building in New York.
“We believe that China is the only one that can stop them,” said Mala Htun, an assistant professor of political science. “If China doesn’t forcefully condemn the crackdown ... then we should not support China for the Olympics.”