Burma's Defiant Monks: At Least One Dead in Yangon Protests

Burma's saffron rebellion is defying the regime's attempts to quell demonstrations, with 10,000 monks and activists marching through the streets of Yangon. At least one demonstrator has been killed and several injured with police trying to put an end to the protests.

Tensions in Burma are rising as thousands of monks and pro-democracy activists continue to defy the military regime and march through the center of the former capital Yangon Wednesday. Riot police have tried to disperse the protestors by firing warning shots above their heads and using tear gas.

About 300 monks and activists have been arrested, dissidents said. One person has been shot dead and five received gunshot wounds, hospital sources told Reuters. The government of Burma, also called Myanmar, confirmed on state-run television and radio that one person was killed and several injured. The victim, a 30-year-old man, was not identified. The announcement said he was killed by a ricocheting bullet. Dissident groups say the death toll is higher, and includes Buddhist monks.

The biggest anti-junta protests in almost 20 years are continuing despite a government ban on public gatherings and a nighttime curfew. The demonstrations started Aug. 19 after the government hiked fuel prices in one of Asia's poorest countries. But they are based in deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the repressive military rule that has gripped the country since 1962.

The number of participants has sharply dropped since Monday when 100,000 people joined marches in Yangon in the largest anti-government demonstration since a pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

An estimated 10,000 monks and civilians are reported to have marched towards the Sule Pagoda on Wednesday, where riot police and soldiers were waiting. Many monks wore surgical masks to try to counteract the effects of teargas. As many as 200 monks are reported to have been arrested outside the Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma's holiest Buddhist shrine.

The confrontation pits Burma's two most powerful forces -- military might and the moral authority of Buddhist monks -- against each other. If the monks are mistreated, the regime could provoke the population to rise up, but at the same time it risks appearing weak if it backs down. The leadership has chosen repression before, harshly crushing the student-led democracy movement in 1988, during which an estimated 3,000 people were killed.

Foreign governments have urged restraint amid fears of a repeat of the bloodshed. The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation. Meanwhile US President George W. Bush has announced new sanctions against the military regime, which he accused of imposing a "19-year reign of fear." The European Union has also threatened to strengthen sanctions if violence is used against the demonstrators. "The age of impunity in neglecting and overriding human rights is over," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

If the military responds to new protests with force, it could embarrass China, Burma's top economic and political supporter, which is trying to burnish its image leading up to the Olympic Games in Beijing next year.

smd/ap/reuters

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