YANGON (Reuters) - Soldiers in army-ruled Myanmar fired warning shots on Wednesday to halt a protest march of 500 Buddhist monks, the first time troops have been called in against a rare two-week outbreak of dissent, a resident said.
The monks in Pakokku, around 370 miles (600 km) northwest of Yangon, were waving banners condemning last month’s price hikes and reciting Buddhist scriptures when the army broke them up by firing shots over their heads, the woman told Reuters.
The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a news service run by exile dissidents, said some of the thousands of onlookers cheering the march from both sides of the road were beaten.
There was no word on numbers of injured. Repeated phone calls to the town did not connect.
One bystander told DVB the soldiers fired “10 to 15 bullets, before they started to drag away the monks and beat up bystanders with bamboo sticks”.
“The soldiers were in full uniform. Now they are clearing up slippers left by the monks when they fled the scene,” the bystander was quoted as saying.
More than 100 people have been arrested in the two-week crackdown, one of the harshest in the former Burma since the army crushed a nationwide uprising of monks, students and government workers in 1988. Around 3,000 people were then thought to have died.
The Pakokku march is the first in this year’s string of small protests about declining living standards to have elicited major support from a public normally too cowed to voice any sort of dissent against the ruling junta.
The military has been loathe to put soldiers on the streets, perhaps mindful of the bloodshed in 1988, a watershed moment in Myanmar’s post-independence history. Instead, it has relied on paid gangs to break up marches in Yangon, the former capital.
Intervening against monks in Pakokku is particularly risky for the junta as the town is only 80 miles (130 km) from the second city of Mandalay, the religious heart of a devoutly Buddhist nation and home to 300,000 monks.
Historically, the monasteries have played a major role in political uprisings, both in 1988 and in frequent sporadic outbursts against colonial master Britain.
News reports from dissident organisations suggest the generals who first seized power in 1962 have been pressuring the heads of Mandalay’s monasteries not to become involved in the fuel price protests.
“They seem to be more nervous. Once the monks in Mandalay start to rise, they won’t be able to control it,” a Yangon-based politician said.
Most of the leaders of the 1988 protests, including Min Ko Naing, the most influential dissident after detained Nobel laureate and NLD chief Aung San Suu Kyi, have been arrested.
The generals are tightening the net on those still at large, stopping and searching buses in the capital and on the road to Thailand, a major escape route in 1988.