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Protests Continue in Burma as Monks Clash with Government Forces

  • Luis Ramirez

Buddhist monks have clashed with government forces in the central Burmese town of Pakokku, and witnesses have been quoted as saying the monks have been holding government officials captive. The incident is the latest in a series of protests against the country's military government during the past two weeks. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

Buddhist monks have been among those taking to the streets in the protests of the past two weeks. The demonstrations were sparked by the military government's decision to raise fuel prices, triggering anger among many people already suffering in one of the region's poorest economies.

Security forces have put down demonstrations, but protests continue to erupt. One clash occurred Thursday in the town of Pakokku, about 600 kilometers northwest of Rangoon. Town officials went to a monastery there and ordered the Buddhist monks to stop participating in anti-government marches, resulting in a confrontation.

Telephone communications between Thailand and Burma were down for much of the day, but a reporter with the VOA Burmese service was able to reach several of the monks, who said they had set fire to government vehicles.

One monk says the vehicles were burned because they are angry over the arrest and beatings of monks during a protest rally the day before.

Witnesses said soldiers fired warning shots over the heads of protesting monks on Wednesday.

One eyewitness told VOA the town officials arrived at the monastery with at least five vehicles. He says monks threw stones at the vehicles and torched them.

Hours into the confrontation, witnesses said at least some of the officials were still in the monastery. The monks refused to confirm or deny to VOA whether the officials were being held against their will. They said officials had begun to leave the monastery Thursday afternoon.

The authorities have repeatedly tried to halt the demonstrations, and have arrested scores of pro-democracy activists. International human rights organizations have condemned the government response, saying detainees in many cases have been severely beaten and tortured by security forces and government supporters.

Observers say the military junta is especially eager to quell the unrest in Pakokku. The town lies near Mandalay, a religious center in the devoutly Buddhist country.

Buddhist monks have in the past had a major role in political uprisings, including in 1988, when massive protests led to a crackdown that left 3,000 people dead.

Members of the international community have condemned the latest crackdowns, and called on Burma's military - in control of the country since 1962 - to undertake democratic changes.

The military leadership last week wrapped up preparations for writing a new constitution, a process that took 14 years of on-again, off-again work. U.S. officials have called the constitutional talks a sham, since all of the delegates were handpicked by the government, and the major opposition figures either were not allowed or refused to participate.

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