Myanmar junta threatens action against protesters

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YANGON, Sep 25 (Reuters) Myanmar's generals threatened action against further attempts at demonstrations today and parked military trucks at Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, the assembly point for monks leading the main protests.

Loudspeaker vehicles touring central Yangon did not specify what action would be taken after the biggest protest against the junta since 1988, when the military crushed pro-democracy demonstrations and killed an estimated 3,000 people.

''People are not to follow, encourage or take part in these marches. Action will be taken against those who violate this order,'' the message broadcast across the former Burma's largest city said.

The broadcasts also accused factions within the deeply revered Buddhist monkhood of instigating protest marches ''with intent to incite unrest''.

The warnings and the sight of albeit small numbers of soldiers of the Light Battalion 77 outside Myanmar's holiest shrine are likely to sharpen fears of a repeat of the 1988 crackdown.

The Burma Campaign UK said its sources had reported the junta ordering 3,000 maroon monastic robes and telling soldiers to shave their heads, possibly to infiltrate the mass ranks of monks marching for an end to 45 years of unbroken military rule.

In 1988, the last time the Southeast Asian nation's people took to the streets in the tens of thousands, agents provocateurs were seen stirring up the crowds, thereby giving the military the excuse to come in and restore order.

Although more than 150 people have been arrested since August 19 in protests initially against shock fuel price rises, the junta has remained reluctant to put soldiers on the streets, perhaps mindful of the 1988 bloodshed.

MONKS THREATENED Today's deployment was the first sighting of military vechicles at the gilded Shwedagon, Myanmar's holiest shrine and symbolic heart of the protest movement since monks joined in a week ago.

After crowds estimated at between 50,000 to 100,000 dispersed on Monday, state radio quoted Religious Affairs Minister Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung as saying action would be taken against senior monks if they did not control their charges.

He was also quoted as telling the State Monks Council the protests were incited by ''destructive elements who do not want to see peace, stability and progress in the country'' - junta shorthand for the political opposition.

World leaders urged the generals to exercise restraint and address the grievances of Myanmar's 53 million people who, in the last 50 years, have watched their country go from being one of Asia's brightest prospects to one of its most desperate.

China - the closest the generals have to a friend - has remained silent apart from calling for national reconciliation and a ''democracy process that is appropriate for the country'' at an Asia-Pacific summit in Sydney earlier this month.

A senior U.S. official said President George W Bush would announce new sanctions and call for support for political change in a speech at the United Nations today.

UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari said he was praying the generals opted for compromise and dialogue with the monks and opposition party of detained democracy Aung San Suu Kyi rather than sending in the troops.

PRAYER FOR PEACE ''For the sake of the people of Myanmar, for the sake of neighbouring countries and for the sake of Myanmar's place in the world, we certainly hope that the same reaction that took place in 1988 will not be the case now,'' he told CNN.

The European Union urged Myanmar's military junta to show the ''utmost restraint'' in dealing with the demonstrations.

''We hope that the regime will use this opportunity to launch a process of real political reform,'' said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

On the streets of Yangon, the mood was one of jubilation on Monday as years of frustration were allowed into the open and trepidation at the possible consequence from generals caught on the horns of a major dilemma.

''I'm very excited and frankly I'm worried too,'' said one teacher who watched the columns of monks carrying placards calling for ''Better Living Conditions'' and the ''Release of Political Prisoners''.


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