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Myanmar Junta Cracks Down on Monks' Protest


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Myanmar has begun cracking down on protests against the government, protests led by thousands of Buddhist monks. Reports are now coming out of that closed country that some protesters have been killed, possibly including monks. Earlier reports told of monks being beaten, loaded onto trucks, and hauled away. Today, thousands defied the government ban on public assembly and marched toward a pagoda in the center of the country's main city Yangon.

We go now to NPR's Michael Sullivan, who has spent the last several days in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country, which formerly was known as Burma.

And, Michael, this is clearly a challenge to the military government that's ruled Myanmar with an iron hand for decades, and yet these huge demonstrations have been going on now for days.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Yeah. And I think it's really caught the government off-guard, and I think that's one of the reasons why they may have taken so long to respond to this thing. Either they were just surprised by the outpouring of support by ordinary citizens for these monks or maybe the military was just trying to infiltrate the monks to find out who the leaders of this movement were, so they could arrest those leaders and put an end to the thing. Or maybe they were just deciding to let these things play themselves out, hoping that these people would take to the streets for a couple of days and then, you know, it will just go away and, of course, that hasn't happened.

MONTAGNE: Put this in perspective for those of us who, you know, Myanmar is a country that is not much spoken of or heard from. What did the monks want there?

SULLIVAN: Well, this whole thing started about a month ago after the government raised fuel prices. They basically doubled the price of fuel and that made people angry because it made everything else more expensive in Myanmar. There were protests in the streets that were led by opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists, and of course, those people were immediately arrested. And then the monks took up the torch and I think, you know, again, this surprised the government because they pretty much thought that once they went after the pro-democracy people and threw a bunch of them in jail that would be it. It tends to work in Myanmar because the military is so good at violently suppressing these people that if you just round up a few hundred, that pretty much puts an end to things.

Nothing like this has ever happened since 1988. 1988 was the last time that the people actually got out in large numbers in the streets and, of course, that had a really, really bad ending for the people. An estimated 3,000 died when security forces open fire on these people. So people who are marching - the monks and their supporters - you know, they're excited but they're keeping this in the back of their minds that the military could, at any point, start shooting again.

MONTAGNE: And in the several days that you spent in Myanmar, what did you see?

SULLIVAN: I saw an amazingly poor country. I mean, the country has so many natural resources and it has a tremendous amount of natural gas that I couldn't figure out why these people live so poorly. And, obviously, the answer is it's the regime.

It's very hard to get people to talk to you in Myanmar because people are so afraid of that regime. Spies are everywhere. Ordinary people in Myanmar will not talk to you in the presence of another person because they think that person might be a spy. So this gives you a little idea of just how, omnipresent, the security apparatus is there and why the military has been able to stay on as long as they have.

MONTAGNE: And any question of a repeat of 1988?

SULLIVAN: I think it's wide open at this point. I mean, it's going to be a long fight. I mean, clearly, the early rounds have gone to the protesters, to the monks and to their supporters. And yesterday in Yangon, just the looks on the faces of the people as the monks and their supporters went by, the looks on the faces on the onlookers. I mean, people were very, very excited, but they are also terribly apprehensive because they know that history. They know what could happen. It's going to be a long fight. I think the government effectively counterpunched today. I mean, we did see protesters on the streets but not in the numbers that we've seen them in the last couple of days. So the security forces are clearly trying to get a handle on this thing and I think it's still early days.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michael Sullivan who's just left Myanmar. He spoke to us this morning from Bangkok, Thailand.

Thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.