YANGON, Myanmar – Hundreds of Buddhist monks held an anti-government protest march Wednesday in a central Myanmar town, halting their demonstration only after soldiers fired warning shots and arrested several of them, media reports and a witness said.
Details of the protest in the town of Pakokku were reported by opposition media in exile and the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia.
A resident of the town contacted by telephone confirmed that the monks held a protest and that it broke up after gunshots were heard.
The demonstration added a new dimension to three weeks of scattered protests of price increases of fuel and consumer goods. The protests had started lagging in the face of fierce government repression, and most still taking part were committed activists.
It was the first time that guns were reportedly used in suppressing the current round of protests in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
The government has detained scores of activists and used gangs of hired thugs to suppress the rare wave of protests, triggered by fuel price increases last month of as much as 500 percent.
Monks have been at the forefront of past protests of British colonialism and military dictatorship, but have been kept on a tight leash by the current junta, which took power after violently quashing mass pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988.
The number of monks reported marching in Pakokku was 300, according to Radio Free Asia, while the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exile-run shortwave radio station based in Norway, said on its Web site that they numbered 600. Mizzima News, an online news service run by exiles in India, said 500 monks took part.
All three have been reporting extensively on the protest, and their reports have generally proven accurate, although with sometimes-exaggerated numbers.
According to Radio Free Asia, the monks carried placards protesting high prices and calling for the releases of political prisoners. All three media outlets said soldiers were sent in to stop the demonstrations and fired warning shots into the air, before starting to arrest participants. The arrests were accompanied by beatings, they said.
Democratic Voice of Burma quoted a monk as saying that their economic situation was so dire that they could not even afford razors to shave their heads.
"We can't sit back and watch the people who sponsor us sink into poverty. Their poverty is our poverty as well," the unidentified monk added.
No public protests have been reported in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, for more than a week, though they have been have been continuing sporadically in other towns, with one involving as many as 1,000 people claimed to have taken place Wednesday in Bogalay, a town in the Irrawaddy delta, about 80 miles south of Yangon.
The report from the opposition National League for Democracy party could not be independently confirmed. Many of the protests in the past week have involved a handful of people, in one case two men standing at a marketplace with placards. NLD spokesman Nyan Win said the head of the party's local chapter, who organized the protest, was later detained.
Leaflets demanding that U.S. and British diplomats stop their "blatant support" of pro-democracy protests in Myanmar were found Wednesday morning in front of those countries' embassies, saying they should cease their interference or be driven out.
"We, the Myanmar people, are going to punish those Myanmar traitors who rely on foreign countries," said one of several leaflets left in front of the embassies. "Your blatant support and encouragement toward those scoundrels amounts to insulting the Myanmar people. We demand that such actions be stopped immediately."
Another, signed by the "New Generation Burma Students Union" — a previously unknown group — vowed that "All traitors, neocolonialists and embassies that interfere in the internal affairs of our country will be driven out."
The junta and the state-controlled press have frequently accused the U.S. and Britain of colluding with pro-democracy activists in efforts to oust the government. Both nations have imposed economic and political sanctions against the junta because of its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.
President Bush said he would raise the issue of human rights violations in Myanmar at a weekend summit of the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Sydney, Australia.
"It's inexcusable that we have this kind of tyrannical behavior in Asia," Bush said at a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
In Washington, first lady Laura Bush called for an end to the recent crackdown on pro-democracy activists must end, saying that the country's people are suffering.
"I want them to know that the rest of the world does condemn these actions of the Burmese government, the harassment and jailing of political peaceful demonstrators," she told a group of reporters. "All these demonstrators want is for the government to be responsive to them."
Mrs. Bush also raised the imprisonment of Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent more than 11 of the past 18 years in detention.
"She represents to me really the hopes of everyone in Burma, of all the Burmese, who long for a day of democracy there, a day without an oppressive regime," the first lady said.