YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar’s military leaders imposed a nighttime curfew and banned gatherings of more than five people Tuesday after 35,000 Buddhist monks and their supporters ignored the junta’s warnings and staged another day of anti-government protests.
Early today, police fired warning shots to disperse more than 100 Buddhist monks who defied the ban on public assembly by trying to penetrate a barricade blocking Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda.
Firing shots into the air, beating their shields with batons and shouting orders to disperse, the police chased some of the monks and about 200 of their supporters while others tried to stubbornly hold their place near the eastern gate to the vast shrine complex.
Some fell to the ground amid the chaos and at least one monk was seen struck with a baton.
The forceful response could further alienate already isolated Myanmar from the international community. It will almost certainly put pressure on Myanmar’s top economic and diplomatic supporter, China, which is keen to burnish its international image before next year’s Olympics in Beijing.
Mistreatment of monks could also outrage the predominantly Buddhist country, where clerics are revered. But if the junta backs down, it risks appearing weak and emboldening protesters, which could escalate the tension.
When faced with a similar crisis in 1988, the government harshly put down a student-led democracy uprising. Security forces fired into crowds of peaceful demonstrators and killed thousands, traumatizing the nation.
Authorities announced the ban on gatherings and a 9 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew through loudspeakers on vehicles cruising the streets of Yangon, the country’s biggest city, and its second city, Mandalay. The announcement said the measures would be in effect for 60 days.
Earlier Tuesday, the army began deploying troops in the heart of Yangon after tens of thousands of people led by barefoot monks in maroon robes defied orders to stay off the streets and marched for against the junta.
Troops were also seen gathering at a military center in Mandalay, and military trucks rumbled through the streets of both cities late into the night, witnesses said.
The potential for a violent crackdown had already aroused international concern, with pleas for the junta to deal peacefully with the situation coming from government and religious leaders worldwide. New York-based Human Rights Watch said Myanmar’s allies including China, Thailand, India and Russia, should urge the military government to respond to the peaceful protests without violence.