YANGON, Myanmar – Pro-government gangs on trucks staked out key streets in Myanmar's largest city on Wednesday as the country's military rulers sought to crush a rare wave of dissent by pro-democracy activists protesting fuel price increases.
There were reports from Myanmar democracy activists and media in exile of protests in two other towns.
The protests, which began Aug. 19, are the best organized in a decade.
Tension was especially high at Yangon's busy Hledan Junction, where security officials, backed by menacing but unarmed gangs in civilian clothing, clamped down Tuesday on an attempted protest within minutes of its start. They roughed up about 15 demonstrators before tossing them into waiting trucks to take them to a detention facility, witnesses said.
On Wednesday, about 60 tough-looking young men sat in three trucks parked on either side of the road, watching for protesters in what has become a familiar scene on the city's streets in the past week. About 20 plainclothes security officials roamed nearby sidewalks, a traditional site for protests. But there was no sign of renewed demonstrations in Yangon, the country's commercial center.
"Peaceful protests are brutally cracked down upon and I want to tell the international community that there is no rule of law in Myanmar," Su Su Nway, a prominent labor activist and former political prisoner, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Su Su Nway took part in Tuesday's protest in Yangon, but managed to escape arrest. She said many of her colleagues were beaten up and dragged into waiting cars while she fled with others in a taxi.
Su Su Nway is a member of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and said she has a heart condition and is not fit to take part in street demonstrations. But with other prominent activists in jail, she said she felt it was her duty to take part.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The ruling junta, which has come under widespread international criticism for violating the human rights of its citizens, tolerates little public dissent. It has held Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, under house arrest for 11 years.
The government's strong-arm tactics have drawn international condemnation. The European Union said Tuesday it was concerned about recent arrests of leading activists and "condemns this decision to detain individuals who were exercising their right to peaceful demonstration."
The protests — triggered by fuel price increases — have continued almost daily for more than a week. Government security forces clamping down on the demonstrations have been backed by organized bands of tough-looking young civilian men in trucks throughout the capital.
Reports from Myanmar activists and media in exile said other protests took place Wednesday in the central town of Meikhtila and in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in western Myanmar.
Mizzima News, an online news service operated by Myanmar exiles in India, quoted a member of Suu Kyi's NLD, Thein Lwin, as saying that about 20 party members marched peacefully in Meikhtila after attending a morning prayer session for their leader's release.
He said they were followed and photographed by people belonging to the pro-government Swan Arrshin and Union Solidarity and Development Association groups — whose members are believed to be the civilians harassing protesters in Yangon.
Mizzima also reported that hundreds of people marched in Sittwe, where 200-300 people including many Buddhist monks were said to have demonstrated on Tuesday.
In 1988, public protests over rising rice prices were a prelude to a burst of major upheaval. Those protests, which sought an end to military rule, were violently subdued by the army, with thousands of people estimated to have been killed around the country.
The junta held general elections 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, and their extension into a second week — as well as to several upcountry towns — represents surprisingly sustained defiance.
But most ordinary citizens are reluctant to risk taking part, and many of those protesting have been members of Suu Kyi's party.