YANGON, Myanmar – Thousands at a government-staged mass rally in Yangon shouted slogans Saturday against Western powers and the foreign media, whom the military regime accuses of fomenting recent pro-democracy protests.
"Down with BBC! Down with VOA! Down with Radio Free America," the crowds chanted at the rally, held amid growing international pressure on the junta to negotiate with the pro-democracy opposition. Many in the crowd were offered cash to attend, local officials said.
The rally-goers also yelled "Oppose internal and external destructive elements!" — using the junta's lingo to refer to detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Western countries.
Military trucks cut off access to the area around northeastern Yangon where people bused in from other parts of the city gathered at a sports ground for the rally, which officials said 120,000 attended.
Local officials said on condition of anonymity that they had been ordered by the government to round up delegations from various parts of the city to attend, offering some of them payments of about 80 cents a person.
The regime, whose violent crushing of anti-junta protests last month triggered condemnation Thursday by the U.N. Security Council, has organized similar rallies elsewhere in the country, but this was the first held in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, since the pro-democracy protests.
The opposition, meanwhile, still grappled with the human toll of the Sept. 26-27 crackdown, in which thousands were arrested. The government says 10 people were killed in the clashes and 2,100 people detained, but diplomats and dissidents say the toll is much higher and as many as 6,000 people were taken into custody.
The United Nations has spearheaded an international effort to push the military, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962, to enter negotiations with Suu Kyi and move toward democratic reforms.
The Security Council issued its first statement on Myanmar on Thursday, condemning the violence against protesters. The U.N. was dispatching a special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, back to Asia to coordinate efforts among regional capitals before holding his second meeting with the junta.
Myanmar has rebuffed the criticism, declaring Friday that it would stick to its own plan to draft a new constitution and eventually hold elections — a plan critics say has no clear timetable and is simply a ruse to allow the military to hold onto power.
Gambari's first stop was set to be in Thailand on Sunday. Gambari met with the junta's leaders earlier this month during a four-day trip to Myanmar after troops opened fire on peaceful protests in Yangon.