Cowed, Myanmar border town longs to join protests

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TAMU, Myanmar, Oct 1 (Reuters) In a small town everyone knows your name. So when pro-democracy activists tried to organise a protest rally on Myanmar's border with India last week, they were hardly surprised that only 30 people came forward.

''As you could see here people are scared of the military and the intelligence officers,'' said a leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Tamu, who refused to be identified.

The protesters were dispersed by soldiers with a warning -- ''turn out again and you will all go to jail''.

The activist, wearing a white vest with a green sarong wrapped around his waist, sat in a small tea-shop in the town, speaking quietly and glancing around nervously as he spoke.

Senior officers have been going around town, reinforcing that threat, he said. So far it seems to have worked.

''I want to go and join the uprising but I'm scared they will come and kill my family if I do that,'' said Johan, a 44 year-old man, sitting on the wooden floor of his bamboo-walled and tin-roofed house in a tribal village outside Tamu.

''People support the movement for democracy but are terrified of the brutal military.'' The internet has been cut in this town of 80,000 people, a few kilometres from the Indian border in northwest Myanmar, and locals said telephone landlines and mobiles were all being tapped.

Remarkably, though, satellite television is still allowed, and many residents have been glued to the Democratic Voice of Burma channel, transmitted from Norway, for news of protests led by monks against Myanmar's military regime.

Tamu is a relatively wealthy town by local standards, with paved roads and concrete buildings. Traders sell Chinese and Thai imports to Indians who cross the border, including alcohol, gold and precious stones.

Others make their money in the illegal trade in drugs and weapons, often in league with Indian insurgent groups who have camps in the jungles on this side of the border.

But trade has dried up and anger mounted with sky-rocketing fuel prices -- rises that sparked protests over the last few weeks in major cities and towns in Myanmar.

Shops in Tamu are open but largely empty, and food is increasingly scarce.

The town is almost deserted, with many homes shuttered. Soldiers are stationed in and around Tamu, police in plain clothes wander the streets carrying walkie-talkies.

Informers are everywhere.

''I'm living in a dangerous position,'' said another NLD leader, talking on a deserted sidestreet. ''Any moment they might detain me.

They are tapping my phones and my movements are monitored.'' ''Please do not talk to me or try to meet me again. If they come to know I've spoken to you they'll put me in jail for a minimum of six years.'' PROTESTS SUPPRESSED IN NEARBY TOWN In the larger town of Kalaymyo, around 140 km by road from the Indian border, around 500 monks and people took the streets on several occasions last week, holding silent processions and saying prayers, locals say.

But armed soldiers beat many people on their shoulders and the backs of their necks, and 60 activists and protest leaders were jailed. For the past few days the town has been quiet.

In Tamu, soldiers are watching all 17 of its small monasteries, monitoring the comings and goings of monks who tour the town every day collecting offerings from house to house.

Tribes in the surrounding villages practise Christianity and complain of repression by the military. Town residents say they need permission from the military even to build or repair their houses and complain corruption is high.

But anger and fear is mixed with resignation.

''This uprising is going to fizzle out soon because the people won't be able to withstand the brutality of the army,'' said shopkeeper Ucho.

''Unless we get external support, this movement will not be able to continue for long,'' said the second NLD leader. ''For how long do you think the monks and unarmed civilians can continue the struggle against the military?'' REUTERS SKB BD1755

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