YANGON, Myanmar - – Myanmar's military junta moved swiftly Friday to crush the latest in a series of protests against fuel price hikes, arresting more than 10 activists in front of Yangon City Hall before they could launch any action, witnesses said.
The arrests came after protests spread beyond the main city of Yangon, and amid mounting international condemnation of the government's suppression of the peaceful, but rare, displays of opposition in the tightly controlled country.
Demonstrators on Thursday had marched through the oil-producing town of Yaynang Chaung to protest the fuel price hikes. The protest — the first known of outside Yangon — ended peacefully, said residents who requested anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
Another protest planned there for Friday was canceled after authorities agreed to reduce bus fares, which had been raised as a result of the fuel price increases. Nevertheless, in Yangon, rumors swirled Friday of more upcoming demonstrations.
Myanmar's ruling junta has been widely criticized for human rights violations, including the 11-year house arrest of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta tolerates little public dissent, sometimes sentencing activists to long jail terms for violating broadly defined security laws.
The activists arrested Friday mostly belonged to a recently formed group called the "Myanmar Development Committee," which in February staged its first protest in busy downtown Yangon holding placards calling for better health and social conditions and complaining of economic hardship.
On Thursday, plainclothes security personnel and tough-looking civilians stopped about 40 people, mostly from Suu Kyi's party, as they walked quietly for two miles toward their party headquarters in eastern Yangon.
Authorities ordered bystanders, 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 into the vehicles, where some were slapped around, witnesses said.
The number of protesters had decreased from Wednesday, when about 300 people marched against the fuel price hikes despite the arrests of 13 top activists who had helped organize the rally. Several hundred people had joined a similar protest on Sunday.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos urged Myanmar's government "to proceed down a path of democracy and respect of individuals and human rights."
Similar calls were issued by France, Britain and a number of international human rights groups.
A U.N. spokesman said that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the authorities to exercise maximum restraint in responding to any demonstrations and encouraged all parties to avoid provocative action.
Vaclav Havel, a fellow Nobel laureate and former president of the Czech Republic, urged in a statement Thursday that the junta "listen to the demands of its fellow citizens, to release Aung San Suu Kyi, Min Ko Naing and other political prisoners and to not attempt to remain in power through force."
Economic dissatisfaction sparked the country's last major upheaval, in 1988, when mass demonstrations broke out seeking an end to the military rule that began in 1962. The protests were violently subdued by the army. The junta held a general election in 1990, but refused to honor the results when Suu Kyi's party won.
The current protests are nowhere near the scale of the 1988 events, but the junta has appeared to be taking no chances in trying to clamp down on the demonstrations.