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Protests Spread in Burma; Government Urged to Exercise Restraint


Reports from Burma say protests over a doubling of fuel prices appear to be spreading beyond the main city, Rangoon, to other parts of the country. Witnesses say security forces have fanned out across Rangoon to prevent further demonstrations, which analysts say could threaten the military's control of the country. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

The new reports of unrest in Burma come as international concern has mounted over the military rulers' decision to halt peaceful protests this week. Security forces have arrested scores of activists, some of them dragged and beaten in the streets.

Witnesses on Friday said security forces, including plain-clothes police agents, patrolled the streets of Rangoon looking for new protests.

The protests this week bring memories of 1988, when thousands of people demonstrated against the military government, demanding democratic change. The military used guns and tanks to crush the demonstrations, killing about 3,000 people.

The latest demonstrations are over the doubling of fuel prices, which has caused transportation costs to skyrocket in the impoverished country.

Tadzrul Tahir is the Southeast Asia Program officer for Forum Asia, a Bangkok human rights group that follows events in Burma. He says the protests this week, while small in comparison, have parallels to those of 1988.

"The uprising was prominently demanding democracy and it become a movement of the people demanding the basic rights of the people," said Tahir. "I think the impact of the fuel price increase will go beyond the '88 movement or the pro-democracy moment because the impact will finally hit the ordinary people. And this is not just an increase in oil prices, but also an increase in ordinary consumer items, like rice, sugar and oil."

He notes that in decades past, similar economic crises and price increases contributed to uprisings that drove out long-time rulers in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Members of the international community - long critical of the government's human rights record - are calling for dialogue to quell the unrest.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he is following events in Burma with concern. He urged the authorities to exercise maximum restraint in responding to the demonstrations and also called on both sides to avoid provocation. He called for a constructive dialogue toward national reconciliation.

Earlier this week, the United States called for the release of dissidents arrested in the demonstrations and urged Burma's leadership to engage in meaningful dialogue with members of democratic movements.