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Rare Protest in Burma Brought to Quick End

The day after the Burmese authorities allowed a rare public demonstration in Rangoon, official media have warned that the protest was illegal. At least one protester has already been arrested. Ron Corben reports from Bangkok.

The protest, by a group calling itself the Myanmar Development Committee, came late Thursday in Rangoon. About 25 people showed up near a major market with banners and placards calling on the military government to address the deteriorating economy. The protesters wanted lower consumer prices, improved health care and education, and pension benefits.

Any form of public expression is tightly controlled in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, and reports of such demonstrations are rare. The police initially allowed this one to go ahead, then halted it after 30 minutes.

The crowd was allowed to disperse peacefully, but at least one man, the protest leader, was arrested immediately, and three local journalists covering the event were briefly detained for questioning.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Friday morning that the protest was "totally against the law," and that further action might be taken against those involved.

Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for the human rights group the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, says inflation is soaring. She says the price of fuel has risen almost 1,000 percent in a year, and prices for foods have gone up as a result.

"It signals what most people in Burma have been concerned about: the mismanagement, the misrule in Burma has affected people's lives at a very fundamental level," she said. "People in Rangoon are starting to realize they can no longer afford to keep quiet about this - it just goes beyond opposition politics."

She says public dissatisfaction with the economy has been increasing, and she expects more protests in the future.

"Ordinary people have been taking a stand in public much more frequently, despite fear and despite threats of harassment, and I think it's likely to continue," she said.

Burma's economy is one of the worst in Southeast Asia. The military, in power since 1962, did take steps to liberalize the economy in the 1990's, by opening the country to foreign direct investment. But economic reform has slowed or been reversed in recent years.

Power failures, which undermine business and manufacturing, are a daily occurrence in most of the country. One of the banners at Thursday's protest read: "24-hour electricity is our cause."

The situation has been exacerbated by economic sanctions imposed by Western countries, including the United States and the European Union. The sanctions are an attempt to force the government to improve its human rights practices.

The economy has been kept from even further collapse by Burma's neighbors, China, India and Thailand, all of which continue to do considerable business with the country.