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Military Dictatorship Increases Crackdown in Burma

Burma's military dictatorship has redoubled efforts to crush anti-government demonstrations, even as former soldiers defecting to Thailand report signs of dissension within the leadership's ranks. Chad Bouchard reports from Bangkok.

Witnesses in Rangoon say soldiers arrested dozens of people late Wednesday during raids on protesters' homes. The streets were apparently quiet Thursday, and state-run media reported the government had restored stability.

But restrictions by the government on telecommunications, the Internet and visits by foreign journalists have made it difficult to get complete reports from inside the country.

There are some reports of dissension within the army's ranks, with soldiers reported to be defying orders to beat or shoot the monks who originally led the protests.

One such report came from a former colonel, who declined to allow his name to be used. In an interview with VOA in Bangkok, he says he fled to Thailand because he could not obey such orders.

He says he saw the monks peacefully reciting prayers and people offering them food, and he felt it was bad that the military had to crush them violently.

The colonel says he served under the military government for 21 years, but left when violence escalated in Rangoon.

He says other soldiers have expressed regret at having to inflict violence on the monks.

He says most of the soldiers are Buddhists and are unhappy with the beatings and arrests. He says they will have to make their own decisions about whether to follow orders.

In Burma, Buddhist monks are considered to represent the highest moral authority, and are widely respected.

Protests by small groups of monks over increased fuel prices intensified early last week, with tens of thousands of monks being joined by thousands more lay people.

The military began rounding up thousands of monks, beating some, killing others, and detaining hundreds in temporary prisons. In addition, soldiers beat marchers in the streets, and in some cases opened fire on them.

Meanwhile, U.N. special envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari is scheduled to report on his four-day visit to Burma in a meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Mr. Ban said Wednesday that he could not call the trip a success, but he said the United Nations had delivered a strong message to the ruling generals' about the crackdown against peaceful protesters.

The European Union has increased its sanctions against Burma. Japan, the largest aid donor to the country, is considering reducing aid to protest the shooting death last week of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai.

Dissident groups have reported the death toll from the crackdown could be as high as 200, with six-thousand people detained. Diplomats based in Burma have also said the death toll is many times higher than the 10 people the government says were killed.