Soldiers blockaded Buddhist shrines in Myanmar on Friday and authorities restricted phone and Internet access, as the military leadership appeared at least temporarily to repress the democracy movement that has shaken the country.
Exiled activists and news agencies with correspondents in Myanmar reported that hundreds of people had gathered near the Sule Pagoda, in the city of Yangon, only to be dispersed by soldiers marshaled behind coils of concertina wire and rows of trucks. Otherwise, they said, the downtown area seemed to be sparsely populated as residents reeled from the violence of Thursday, when tens of thousands of angry protesters taunted security forces.
The relative calm came after nearly two weeks of sustained demonstrations led by maroon-robed monks and aimed at ending nearly half a century of military control. Just days ago, protesters had defied warnings from the junta and swarmed streets in cities across the country. On Friday, the Associated Press reported that monks in Yangon and Myanmar’s second-largest city, Mandalay, had been besieged in their monasteries and penned in by locked gates.
The violence has killed nine people and injured 31, according to an account read on official Myanmarese television. Exile groups said Friday they had received information indicating that the death toll was considerably higher. The U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based dissident group, said about 200 protesters were killed. That number could not be verified.
With the flow of information sharply curtailed and most foreign correspondents barred from the country, activist groups said satellite imagery could also play a role in determining what was happening. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which released a report Friday on long-standing military campaigns against ethnic rebels in outlying areas, said satellites also are being deployed to collect images of troop movements in such centers of the current uprising as Yangon and Mandalay.
Protesters also took to the streets in Mandalay on Friday, exiles said, but the size of the protest was not known. Soe Aung, a spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma, an exile organization based in Thailand, said his group had also heard reports of dissent in the armed forces, with some soldiers refusing orders to fire on protesters in Mandalay. But he stressed that the reports were unconfirmed, citing the lack of reliable communications.
Demonstrators said some of the weapons fire Thursday seemed to have come not from soldiers and police in the streets, but from nearby buildings, suggesting the military was using snipers to pick off protest leaders, Soe Aung said.
Video images from Mynamar on Thursday showed a preponderance of lay political activists among the demonstrators, rather than monks who had previously led the rallies.
“The monks have done their job, and now we must carry on with the movement,” one student leader in downtown Yangon told the Agence France-Presse on Friday, according to the news agency’s Web site.
The new Japanese prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, said in Tokyo that his government expected a full explanation from the ruling junta on what led to the killing of a Japanese cameraman who was among those acknowledged shot during clashes Thursday.
Southeast Asian diplomats were called in by Myanmarese authorities Friday. The envoys told news agency reporters in Yangon that they were informed the military felt it had neutralized the monks’ anti-government network with arrests. The junta’s security forces planned to turn their attention next to lay political activists and pro-democracy politicians in the National League for Democracy, the party headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, they said.
Some of her followers have been arrested, exile sources reported. Suu Kyi, 62, has been under house arrest for most of the past 18 years because of her demands for political change.
Sympathizers with the struggle under way in Myanmar staged rallies Friday across Asia, as well as in Washington and New York, condemning the junta’s crackdown and demanding stronger international action against a military leadership known for brutality.