YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar's military government, seeking to tame continuing street protests against fuel price increases, strong-armed demonstrators for a second day Thursday as they marched peacefully through the streets of the country's main city, Yangon.
The defiant protesters, many of them supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, marched Thursday for the third time this week to protest the ruling junta's doubling of fuel prices last week in the impoverished country.
Plainclothes security personnel and tough-looking civilians stopped about 40 people, mostly from Suu Kyi's party, as they walked quietly for 2 miles toward their party headquarters in eastern Yangon.
Authorities ordered bystanders, and especially reporters, out of the area as the protesters — outnumbered by about three-to-one — were overwhelmed after a 30-minute standoff.
Protesters sat on the pavement and formed a human chain in an attempt to prevent officers from forcing them into waiting trucks and buses. A dozen protesters, however, were dragged and shoved into the vehicles, where some were slapped around, said witnesses, who asked not to be named for fear of being called in by the police.
Reporters were also roughed up by security personnel, who shouted abusive language and warned that they would also be their targets.
The number of protesters decreased from Wednesday, when about 300 people marched to protest the fuel hikes despite the arrests of 13 top activists who helped organize the rally. Several hundred people had staged a similar protest on Sunday.
Wednesday's march was broken up when a gang of government supporters assaulted some protesters with sticks and seized eight who were accused of being agitators, witnesses and participants said. The eight were later freed unharmed after interrogation by authorities.
"Unable to bear the burden of spiraling consumer prices, the public express their sentiments through peaceful means. However, the authorities have arrested, tortured, beaten up and endangered the lives of those who are peacefully expressing their dissatisfaction," Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party said in a statement Thursday.
It was economic dissatisfaction that sparked the country's last major upheaval in 1988, when mass street demonstrations broke out seeking an end to military rule that began in 1962. The protests were violently subdued by the army, which held a general election in 1990 but refused to honor the results when it was won by Suu Kyi's party.
The current protests are nowhere near the scale of the 1988 events, but the junta appeared to be taking no chances.
It seemed that the pro-government civilians, whose exact affiliation could not be ascertained, were being employed to quash protests. Three or four trucks carrying dozens of such men were parked near Yangon's City Hall, where it had been rumored more protests would take place.
It has been a government tactic in the past to use members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association — ostensibly a social welfare organization, but closely linked to the junta — to assault and intimidate the junta's opponents.
The USDA was linked to attacks against Suu Kyi and her party supporters in Yangon in 1997, and in northern Myanmar on May 30, 2003. The latter clash led to her detention, which the military said was for her own protection.
Wednesday's demonstration came shortly after the arrests of leaders of the 88 Generation Students group, which has been boldly staging petition campaigns, prayer vigils and other nonviolent activities to free political prisoners and promote a return to democracy.
State-controlled media reported Wednesday that 13 leading members of the group had been arrested Tuesday night and could face up to 20 years in prison.
Members of the 88 Generation Students still at large issued a statement calling for the release of their leaders and demanding that the junta solve the country's economic and political problems.
The group called on Buddhist monks, the people and students to join their movement. Monks and students have been in the forefront of past social and political protests, against both British colonialism and military rule.
Leaders of the 88 Generation Students helped lead the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and were subjected to lengthy prison terms and torture after the rebellion was suppressed.
The 1988 uprising was preceded by public protests over rising rice prices, a sudden government declaration that made most currency invalid, and other economic hardships.
Myanmar's junta has been widely criticized for human rights violations, including the 11-year house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi.
Also Thursday, a former political prisoner staged an apparently solo protest outside the U.S. Embassy before being hauled away by plainclothes officers.
Ohn Than was holding a sign calling for U.N. intervention to make the government convene parliament, said witnesses. He had served two years in prison for taking part in a protest in front of a U.N. office in 2004, and had been temporarily detained at least twice this year for taking part in further protests.