Myanmar's military rulers arrested 13 leading dissidents yesterday in a series of midnight raids in Yangon designed to quash protests against a hefty rise of fuel prices and falling living standards.
The junta also deployed armed police on the streets of the former capital, as well as truckloads of men from its feared Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) network.
Dozens of USDA members carrying brooms and spades took up position in the city center, pretending to be road sweepers. The atmosphere was tense, with many parents choosing not to take their children to school.
In a rare announcement in all state-run newspapers, the junta said the dissidents 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.
Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Zeya, Ko Jimmy, Ko Pyone Cho, Arnt Bwe Kyaw and Ko Mya Aye -- all leaders of a 1988 student-led uprising crushed by the military with heavy loss of life -- were among those detained.
Min Ko Naing, Myanmar's second-most prominent political figure after detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, was released in November 2004 after 15 years in jail. He was detained again in September for four more months.
The arrests came ahead of a planned protest yesterday against last week's shock hikes in fuel prices, the latest in a rare series of demonstrations against deteriorating living conditions and galloping inflation.
Despite the security clampdown, around 100 people staged an hour-long march in a northern district before being dispersed.
Yesterday's protesters, most of them women, marched for about two hours until about 200 supporters of the military regime blocked their path.
People hung out of their apartment windows to cheer on the protesters, while others in the streets stood on the pavements and applauded -- a rare move as even observing a protest is an act of defiance in Myanmar.
Five women and one man were arrested, witnesses said.
The Washington-based US Campaign for Burma said it feared for the safety of the detained dissidents, especially Min Ko Naing, winner of US, Canadian and European human-rights awards.
"Min Ko Naing and the other leaders arrested have all been severely tortured during previous incarcerations and we are gravely concerned for their immediate well-being," policy director Aung Din said in a statement.
Min Ko Naing's 88 Generation Students Group led a protest march on Sunday, tapping into public anger at the 500 percent rise in the price of compressed natural gas -- a rise that came without warning and brought Yangon's bus network to a standstill.
Myanmar has some of Asia's largest reserves of natural gas and has just decided to export production of two major fields worth billions of dollars to China.
Min Ko Naing was not linked to yesterday's planned protest under the auspices of Ko Htin Kyaw, a social activist who has been arrested four times this year.
Ko Htin Kyaw had said yesterday's protest would go ahead unless the military regime that has been in charge for the past 45 years rescinded the price rises.