YANGON, Myanmar – Soldiers in Myanmar clubbed anti-government activists and fired tear gas to break up demonstrations Friday before they could gain momentum. Troops also occupied Buddhist monasteries and cut public Internet access, raising concerns a deadly crackdown was set to intensify.
The government claims 10 people have been killed since the violence began earlier this week, but diplomats say the toll is likely much higher. Dissident groups have put the number as high as 200.
Witnesses said security forces aggressively broke up a rally of about 2,000 people in the largest city, Yangon, on Friday. Several people were seen being dragged into a truck and driven away. Elsewhere, protesters raced down streets in a defiant game of cat and mouse with soldiers and riot police.
Demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people demanding an end to 45 years of military dictatorship have grown into the stiffest challenge to Myanmar's ruling junta in nearly two decades. Protests began Aug. 19 when people in the desperately poor nation started rallying against an overnight fuel price hike.
It escalated dramatically after monks joined in, taking a leading role.
The government seemed intent Friday on clearing the streets of the orange-robed clergymen, who are revered in Myanmar, sealing off key monasteries and blocking nearby roads with barbed wire. Eliminating their role could embolden troops to crack down harder on remaining civilians protesters.
Getting accurate casualty figures has been difficult, with journalists barred from openly entering the country and people in Yangon too frightened to speak out. Bob Davis, Australia's ambassador to Myanmar, said he had unconfirmed reports that the death toll following two days of violence was "several multiples of the 10 acknowledged by the authorities."
The Washington-based dissident group, U.S. Campaign for Burma, said about 200 protesters were killed and scores more arrested and beaten. The bloodiest day was Thursday, when troops opened fire into a crowd.
Efforts to squelch the protests appeared to be working Friday, with soldiers and riot police packed into 20 trucks blocking off the biggest rally near Sule Pagoda. Security forces also moved quickly to disperse groups of 200 to 300 in other areas, sealing off at least one Yangon neighborhood.
"The military was out in force before they even gathered and moved quickly as small groups appeared breaking them up with gunfire, tear gas and clubs," said Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar. "It's tragic. These were peaceful demonstrators, very well behaved."
Hundreds of people have been arrested, carted away in trucks at night or pummeled with batons in recent days, witnesses and diplomats said, as residents began losing hope that the daring pro-democracy uprising would succeed.
The international community appealed for an end to the violence, with the European Union saying Friday it was examining whether to impose additional economic or diplomatic sanctions.
Even Myanmar's fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed "revulsion" and told the junta "to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution." Officials in neighboring Thailand said airplanes were on standby to evacuate ASEAN nationals in case the condition deteriorated.
But by Myanmar standards, the crackdown has so far been muted, in part because the regime knows that killing monks could trigger a maelstrom of fury.
Authorities told Southeast Asian envoys Friday that a no-go zone had been declared around five key Buddhist monasteries, one diplomat said, raising fears of a repeat of 1988, when troops gunned down thousands of peaceful demonstrators and imprisoned the survivors. There was no sign of monks in the streets.
"We were told security forces had the monks under control" and will now turn their attention to civilian protesters, the Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol.
The government's apparent decision to cut public Internet access — which has played a crucial role in getting news and images of the pro-democracy protests to the outside world — also raised concerns.
Thursday was the most violent day in more than a month of protests — which at their height have brought an estimated 70,000 demonstrators to the streets. Bloody sandals lay scattered on some streets as protesters fled shouting "Give us freedom, give us freedom!"
Video emerged of Thursday's most striking image — the shooting death of a man identified as Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai of APF News agency. The Democratic Voice of Burma released video of security forces opening fire on protesters, including a man falling forward after apparently being shot at point-blank range.
The opposition shortwave radio station based in Norway identified the victim as Nagai, 50.
Truckloads of troops in riot gear also raided monasteries on the outskirts of Yangon, beating and arresting dozens of monks, witnesses and Western diplomats said.
"I really hate the government. They arrest the monks while they are sleeping," said a 30-year-old service worker who witnessed some of the confrontations from his workplace. "These monks haven't done anything except meditating and praying and helping people."
Images of bloodied protesters and fleeing crowds have riveted world attention on the escalating crisis. The United Nations' special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, was heading to the country to promote a political solution and could arrive as early as Saturday, one Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Though some analysts said negotiations were unlikely, the diplomat said the decision to let Gambari in "means they may see a role for him and the United Nation in mediating dialogue with the opposition and its leaders."
The protesters won support from countrymen abroad as more than 2,000 Myanmar immigrants rallied peacefully in Malaysia and smaller demonstrations against the junta took place in Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Australia, Cambodia and the Philippines.
China, Myanmar's largest trading partner and closest friend, for months quietly counseled the regime to speed up its long-stalled political reforms and stepped up pressure Friday by telling its citizens to reconsider visits to the closed-off nation.
But every other time the regime has been challenged, it has responded with force.
"Judging from the nature and habit of the Myanmar military, they will not allow the monks or activists to topple them," said Chaiyachoke Julsiriwong, a Myanmar scholar at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.