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Burma's Security Forces Block Third Protest in a Week


Police and government supporters in Burma have blocked yet another protest - the third such demonstration this week. Protests are normally rare in Burma. The unrest comes after the military government imposed sharp increases in the cost of fuel, putting further pressure on people already struggling in the country's battered economy. VOA's Luis Ramirez has more from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

Reports from the main city, Rangoon, say scores of demonstrators began a march Thursday only to be stopped by security forces and government supporters.

Witnesses say some of the demonstrators were beaten, dragged into government vehicles, and driven away.

It was the week's third protest sparked by the military government's decision to double fuel prices - causing severe hardship for many among Burma's impoverished population.

Burma has massive reserves of natural gas and other resources, and benefits from investment by nations including China and India, yet it is among the world's poorest nations. Despite a boom in world energy prices, Burma's annual economic growth is less than three percent a year, the lowest in Southeast Asia.

Critics attribute the economic problems to mismanagement by the military, which has controlled the country since 1962. The military controls key economic sectors including energy, rice production and trade, and heavy industry.

Debbie Stothard is with the Alternative Asean Network for Burma, a human rights organization in Bangkok.

"The irony of it is that Burma is one of the richest countries in natural resources," she said. "It just has a government that is incredibly irresponsible, a government that would rather buy guns than buy food for its people."

Burma's military has in the past not hesitated to use force to quell protests, and this time is no exception. Authorities have arrested a number of activists since the protests began on Sunday, prompting calls from the United States and other countries for the activists' release.

However, the protests have continued to erupt despite warnings from the government, which jails most opposition leaders and dissidents.

Stothard says there are signs that the anger triggered by the price hikes and the overall conditions of hopeless poverty are presenting the government with a growing challenge to its control.

"The regime is feeling very fragile because they have seriously mismanaged the economy," she explained. "People in Burma have been living a hand-to-mouth existence. So now, with the latest fuel prices, people can't even afford to go to work or even afford to buy food for themselves. The price of food has doubled."

The last major demonstrations in Burma happened in 1988 and were triggered by discontent with the economy. An estimated 3,000 people were killed when the army put down the protests.

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