YANGON, Myanmar – Angry Buddhist monks in northern Myanmar took about 20 officials hostage for several hours Thursday until a senior abbot intervened, but tensions remained high over the beating of monks during an anti-government protest the previous day, witnesses said.
In an escalation of recent protests against the military junta's economic policies, hundreds of monks — highly revered in Buddhist Myanmar — marched Wednesday in the town of Pakokku, political activists and town residents said.
Soldiers fired warning shots into the air and kicked and beat some of the monks to break up the march, they said.
On Thursday, local government and religion department officials went to the monastery to apologize for the confrontation and ask that no further protests be held, a senior monk said. Young monks seized the officials and held them captive because of anger over their rough treatment Wednesday, he said. Four of the officials' cars were burned, witnesses said.
"Bystanders cheered as the monks torched the cars one by one," an activist who witnessed the events said when contacted by phone. The senior monk and activists spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of official retaliation.
The senior monk said the monastery's revered head abbot pleaded with the monks to disperse before authorities took serious measures against them. The officials were freed only after an anti-government crowd of as many as 1,000 people outside the monastery was convinced to disperse, he said.
Wednesday's march was apparently the first time the military has used guns to suppress protests triggered by last month's fuel price increases of as much as 500 percent.
The government has detained scores of activists and used gangs of hired thugs to block the demonstrations, and the monks' dramatic protest indicates the depth of discontent with the military regime.
Pakokku, about 390 miles northwest of Yangon, is a center for Buddhist learning with more than 80 monasteries, including at least 15 used for teaching.
Historically, Buddhist monks were at the forefront of protests of British colonialism and military dictatorship. The military fears the participation of monks in protests, because using force to disperse them draws great popular ire.
Monks played a prominent part in a 1988 pro-democracy uprising against military rule that has been in place since 1962. The uprising was violently crushed by the junta.
Myanmar media, under state control, have not reported on Wednesday's or Thursday's events.
Residents of Pakokku said 200 Buddhist monks took part in Wednesday's march, although reports by overseas Myanmar exile groups put the numbers as high as 600.
Monks chanted prayers along the way until they were stopped by authorities, including pro-government senior monks, and warning shots were fired, they said. At least three monks were arrested and several injured. The activist said the three monks were released Thursday, they said.
No public protests have been reported in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, for more than a week, although they have been continuing sporadically in other towns, reportedly involving as many as 1,000 people.
President Bush said he would raise the issue of human rights violations in Myanmar, also known as Burma, 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 Wednesday at a joint news conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.