Buddhist monks in Myanmar staged a protest march yesterday -- their first since soldiers crushed a pro-democracy uprising a month ago and ahead of a visit by UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari.
A Yangon-based Asian diplomat said Gambari, who first visited shortly after the army crackdown, would arrive on Saturday on a second mission to coax the generals into talks with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The latest march in the town of Pakokku, 600km northwest of Yangon, suggests the crackdown merely managed to stifle, not eradicate, widespread anger at 45 years of military rule and deepening poverty.
The town has been a flashpoint since soldiers fired over monks' heads of monks in early September, transforming small, localized protests against shock hikes in fuel prices into the biggest anti-junta uprising in two decades
A witness said about 200 monks chanted prayers as they walked three abreast through the center of the town.
The Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident radio station based in Norway, said the monks were sticking to their demands for lower fuel prices, national reconciliation and release of all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.
"We are not afraid of getting arrested or tortured," a monk was quoted as saying.
In related news, Human Rights Watch yesterday released a report saying that the Burmese military, struggling to meet recruiting quotas, was buying, kidnapping and terrorizing boys as young as 10 to fill its ranks.
The report by the New York-based group said military recruiters and civilian brokers scour train and bus stations, markets and other public places for boys and coerce them to serve.
Some simply disappear without their families' knowledge and spend years on the front lines of a brutal war against ethnic insurgencies, it said.
"In recent years, the military has continued to expand while at the same time losing large numbers of soldiers to desertion," said Jo Becker, director of children's rights advocacy for Human Rights Watch.
"Recruiters and civilian agents are sweeping boys as young as 11 and 12 off the streets. Children are literally being bought and sold by recruiters," she said.
The recruiters and agents receive cash payments and other incentives for recruits, even those who fail to meet basic health and age requirements, said the report, which was based on interviews in Myanmar, Thailand and China.
Becker said it was impossible to say how many child soldiers serve in Myanmar. But the report said that in interviews with 20 former soldiers, all but one estimated that at least 30 percent of their fellow trainees were boys under 18.