YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar’s junta imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the country’s two main cities on Wednesday after pouring security forces into Yangon to try to end the biggest protests against military rule in 20 years.
Troops and police on Tuesday had surrounded the Sule Pagoda in Yangon, the focus of two days of mass demonstrations led by thousands of maroon-robed Buddhist monks.
The area around the pagoda was the scene of the worst bloodshed during a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1988 in which 3,000 people are thought to have been killed.
The escalating tension in the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma gripped the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, where the international community -- mindful of the 1988 violence -- urged restraint by the junta.
U.S. President George W. Bush, in a speech to the assembly, called on all countries to “help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom” and announced fresh sanctions by Washington against the generals, their supporters and families.
The 27-nation European Union said it would “reinforce and strengthen” sanctions against Myanmar’s rulers if the demonstrations were put down by force.
The generals have been living with sanctions for years.
In another sign of a potential clash, a well-placed source said detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been moved to the notorious Insein prison on Sunday, a day after she appeared in front of her house to greet marching monks.
Loudspeaker announcements in Yangon, the former capital of 5 million people, and in the second city of Mandalay said the curfew would run from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., witnesses said. The announcements also said both cities would be under direct control of the local military commanders for 60 days.
Some analysts said the junta was caught off guard by how sporadic marches over a sharp hike in fuel prices in mid-August mushroomed into mass action against 45 years of military rule.
The U.N. human rights investigator for Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, said he feared “very severe repression.”
“It is an emergency,” he said, singling out China as a regional power that could play a “positive role” in defusing the crisis.
Tuesday had echoed with reminders of one of the darkest days of Myanmar’s modern history.
Vehicles with loudspeakers toured Yangon, blaring threats of action under a law allowing troops to break up illegal protests. People came in huge numbers anyway and, in Taunggok, a coastal city 250 miles to the northwest, witnesses said thousands of monks and civilians took to the streets.
Protesters were led in Yangon by 10,000 monks chanting “democracy, democracy” and, in a gesture of defiance, some waved the bright red “fighting peacock” flag, the emblem of the student unions that spearheaded the 1988 uprising.
The streets were lined with people clapping and cheering as the column of monks stretched several blocks on their march from the Shwedagon Pagoda, the nation’s holiest shrine and symbolic heart of the campaign, to the Sule Pagoda.
British Ambassador Mark Canning told Reuters two of the junta’s ministers had assured him the protests “would be dealt with in a ‘correct’ fashion, whatever that means.”
The message behind the loudspeaker warnings was lost on no one in Yangon, a week after monks started to march in protest against warning shots fired over the heads of fellow monks.
“I‘m really worried about the possible outbreak of violence,” one street vendor said. “We know from experience that these people never hesitate to do what they want.”
Ethnic Karen rebels on the Thai border told Reuters that troops of the 22nd Division had been redeployed to Yangon.
That division played a major role in the 1988 carnage and the report lent weight to threats issued by the religious affairs minister, Brigadier-General Thura Myint Maung.
State radio quoted him as saying action would be taken against senior monks if they did not control their subordinates in protests he said were fomented by political extremists.
China, the closest the junta has to a friend, has been making an effort recently to let the generals know how worried the international community is, a Beijing-based diplomat said.
China said on Tuesday it “certainly hopes Myanmar can maintain stability and resolve the issue in its own way” but left it unclear what kind of pressure it was exerting.
Other countries urged the generals to address the grievances of Myanmar’s 56 million people who, in the past 50 years, have watched their country go from being one of Asia’s brightest prospects to one of its most desperate.
France’s foreign ministry summoned Myanmar’s representative in Paris to note the junta “would be held responsible for the security of the protests and more generally for the Myanmar population.”
Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Bangkok, Paul Taylor at the United Nations and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva