Witching hour comes early in fearful Yangon

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YANGON, Sep 28 (Reuters) Noon is the witching hour in Myanmar's main city.

Before the clock strikes 12, people rush about on errands and business.

Women barter over slabs of red meat and handfuls of chilis in Yangon's open-air markets. Young men make telephone calls at stalls equipped with landlines and stopwatches. 30 kyat per minute.

In the afternoon, all this stops as the demonstrations come, and then the soldiers.

''At noon, I go home. After that it's a bad time,'' said one 49-year-old taxi driver, glancing nervously at a passing military truck.

Like most people in army-ruled Myanmar, one of the world's most repressive nations, he was too scared to give his name.

What started out last month as small protests against fuel hikes has quickly transformed into daily mass demonstrations against the military junta.

Before yesterday, the marches were led by maroon-robed monks and began in the afternoon to allow them to collect their their morning alms.

But since a string of government raids on 10 monasteries on Wednesday, the monks have been taken off the streets. Yangon's outraged civilian population has taken over.

For the past two days, thousands of ordinary people have gathered in the early afternoon close to the Sule Pagoda at the heart of the dilapidated but elegant city, chanting, clapping and demanding freedom.

On Wednesday, troops fired over their heads. Yesterday, they shot at them.

Hundreds of soldiers and police combed the side streets, searching for protesters. Every now and then, the crackle of automatic gunfire could be heard.

A night-time curfew has been imposed.

Yangon's major shrines are padlocked and guarded by barefoot soldiers armed with rifles.

Around the Sule Pagoda, money shops and offices remained shuttered, some with their windows boarded up.

The mighty Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest shrine in the devoutly-Buddhist country also known as Burma, has been cordoned off with barricades and barbed wire around one kilometre from its gilded spires.

State-owned media say the junta is ''patiently handling the situation''.

The English-language New Light of Myanmar said demonstrators had used slingshots and swords against the police and military, wounding 31. Nine male protesters were killed.

''The soldiers are violent,'' a 22-year-old student whispered at the Koehtatgyi Pagoda, famed for its 20-metre sitting Buddha, northwest of the city centre.

In the shrine grounds, more than 100 troops, each with a red, green or purple handkerchief around his neck, lined up for orders.

Smaller groups of soldiers, some puffing on thick, green cheroots, watch the worshippers.

''I am scared,'' said a student.

REUTERS SG RK1044

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