YANGON, Myanmar – At least 70 people detained by the military government following protests in Myanmar — including 50 members of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party — have been released, a party spokesman said Friday.
But hundreds of armed riot police moved into position in Yangon, a sudden show of force after several weeks of relative quiet.
The detainees were released Thursday from the infamous Insein Prison in Yangon, said Nyan Win, the National League for Democracy party spokesman.
The government has said it detained about 3,000 people after last month's pro-democracy demonstrations, but that most were released. There are many reports they have been mistreated in custody.
Riot police tightened security at the eastern gate of the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, where monks were beaten as police broke up a pro-democracy demonstration a month ago.
Barbed wire was erected around the area while police also took up positions near the Sule Pagoda in the heart of the city and other sites of earlier protests.
Friday also marked the end of the Lent period, an important Buddhist holiday when monks can leave their monasteries to travel after several months of monsoon season retreats.
There were no immediate signs that any public protests would take place but thousands of pilgrims thronged to the Shwedagon and other pagodas.
A Myanmar reporter who tried to take a photo of the pilgrims climbing up the eastern gate of the Shwedagon was immediately surrounded by nearly a dozen riot police and a police officer confiscated the flash card from the camera.
The reappearance of heavy security in Yangon came a day after detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi met with a newly appointed Myanmar government official, part of a U.N.-brokered attempt to nudge her and the military junta toward reconciliation.
It was the first known meeting between Suu Kyi — under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years — and "minister for relations" retired major general Aung Kyi, who was appointed to the post on Oct. 8 to hold talks with her.
"I hope this is the beginning of the (reconciliation) process," Nyan Win, spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, said Friday.
But some residents and Western diplomats remained skeptical, noting that such earlier meetings produced nothing and seemed merely aimed at easing international pressure on the junta.
Television images showed Suu Kyi and Aung Kyi seated in high-backed chairs having a discussion, a scene that suggested two dignitaries in a meeting rather than someone under house arrest.
Myanmar's government has been strongly criticized for sending troops to crush peaceful protests in late September. The military junta said 10 people were killed, but diplomats and dissidents say the death toll is likely much higher. Thousands were arrested, and the hunt for participants is reportedly continuing.
Earlier this month, the government said the junta leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, was willing to meet with Suu Kyi — but only if she met certain conditions, such as renouncing support for other countries' economic sanctions against the military regime. Than Shwe has only met Suu Kyi once before, in 2002.
Myanmar's military has ruled the country since 1962. The current junta took power in 1988 after crushing the democracy movement led by Suu Kyi. In 1990, it refused to hand over power when Suu Kyi's party won a landslide election victory.
The protests in Myanmar began Aug. 19 after the government raised fuel prices in one of Asia's poorest countries. But they were based in a deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the repressive military rule that has gripped the country, previously known as Burma, since 1962. The protests were faltering when Buddhist monks took the lead late last month.
The junta's mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, reported Thursday authorities would charge what they called the "bogus" Buddhist monks who led the protests.
"Most of the monks from the National Front of Monks are ex-convicts and the bogus monks who led the protests in violation of cleric rules" will be charged, the newspaper quoted Religious Affairs Minister Brig. Gen. Thura Myint Maung as saying during a meeting with senior monks in Yangon.
The minister said authorities had detained several monks for questioning but are releasing those who had unwittingly taken part in the protests. He did not mention how many. The report also did not say what the "bogus" monks would be charged with.
Buddhist monks enjoy great respect among the country's population at large, and the violent suppression of their protests has seriously hurt the junta's reputation.
To counter the bad impression, state media have been filled with stories suggesting the monks who took part in the protests were a tiny minority and not entirely religious, and reporting virtually daily on junta members visiting monasteries to make donations.