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RARE PROTESTS SPARK ARREST OF ACTIVISTS AND CRACKDOWN ON FREE EXPRESSION

Protests against soaring fuel prices held in Burma's capital Rangoon last week - including the largest rally in a decade - have sparked the arrest of at least 70 activists and a crackdown on the media and lines of communication, report Mizzima News, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) and news reports.

In late-night raids on 21 August, Burma's military leaders arrested 13 prominent pro-democracy activists who had spearheaded a protest two days earlier against a sharp rise in fuel prices, which has more than doubled public transport costs and drastically affected commodity prices. The 500-strong rally is believed to be the largest in more than 10 years.

In a rare announcement in all state-run newspapers, the junta said the 13 had been arrested for "agitation to cause civil unrest" and "undermining peace and security of the state", charges that could put them in jail for up to 20 years.

Those arrested included at least seven leaders of the 88 Generation Students, the group of students who led the 1988 pro-democracy uprising that was violently suppressed by the military. Among those arrested were Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Min Zeya - some of Burma's most prominent dissidents along with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. University students and activists from other pro-democracy groups were also reportedly arrested in separate sweeps, says Mizzima. Following a search across the Rangoon region, Htin Kyaw, who has been detained three times this year for protesting over living standards, was beaten as he was seized on 25 August, the BBC reports.

SEAPA says the military regime has also confiscated the mobile phones of the Generation 88 leaders, in an effort to prevent international media from obtaining the latest information about the protests. Callers to the well-known dissidents said they received a message informing them that the government has cut off the number.

"With the junta's iron-fist hold on information and all channels of communication, the people rely on foreign media for the truth, even when it comes to events within the country," says SEAPA.

According to the BBC, the arrests were probably an attempt by the military to pre-empt a repeat of Sunday's protest. But the protests continue. On 22 August, about 200 people defied the visible presence of armed police and marched through Rangoon, while being cheered by onlookers. Today (28 August), more than 100 Buddhist monks in Sittwe town of Arakan state led a march demanding a decrease in commodity prices.

The junta has also deployed gangs of supporters, some wielding brooms and shovels and pretending to be road sweepers, on the streets of Rangoon to halt further protests. According to media group Democratic Voice of Burma, a local journalist had his camera confiscated and destroyed by the gangs on 22 August. The following day, a Reuters correspondent was threatened and pushed away by a similar mob as he tried to cover a sporadic protest, while local journalists were ordered to stay away from demonstrators.

Mizzima News also reports that editors from a leading journal in Rangoon were interrogated by police the day after Sunday's rally, and were accused of favouring the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party that was denied the right to govern despite winning a landslide victory in the 1990 polls.

Within the country, there is virtually no coverage of the protests. "The difficulties and harassment experienced by journalists is leading to further self-censorship in Rangoon's local journals," SEAPA says.

SEAPA reports that the Burmese junta is tightening the already restricted telecommunication channels in the country to prevent information about the ongoing mass protests and arrests in Rangoon from leaking out.

Internet users in Burma who are trying to communicate with their contacts outside the country are experiencing constantly disrupted connections, while friends and relatives overseas are finding it difficult to reach those inside on mobile phones.

According to the BBC, the prospect of economic protests linking up with the 1988 veterans would be especially alarming to the military government - it was this combination of factors the led to the near overthrow of the military regime during that first uprising 19 years ago.

In a separate development, an ethnic Arakanese human rights activist exiled in Bangladesh has won the Yayori Award, a Japan-based honour given to women activists who work with marginalised groups, reports "The Irrawaddy". Saw Mra Raza Linn, chair of the Rakhaing (Arakan) Women's Union and a member of the Women's League of Burma, led thousands of people in pro-democracy marches in 1988, before fleeing to Bangladesh and continuing to fight against human rights violations in Burma and violence towards women and children.

Visit these links:
- IFEX alerts on Burma: http://tinyurl.com/2voc8y
- Mizzima News: http://www.mizzima.com/
- SEAPA: http://www.seapabkk.org/
- BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6964282.stm
- Democratic Voice of Burma: http://english.dvb.no/index.php
- Free Burma: http://freeburma.org/
- BurmaNet News: http://www.burmanet.org/news/2007/08/
- "The Irrawaddy": http://www.irrawaddy.org/
(Photo: More than 500 people marched in a procession in Rangoon on 19 August 2007, demonstrating against the military junta's unannounced increase in fuel prices in Burma. Photo courtesy of Mizzima News)

(28 August 2007)

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