Defiant pro-democracy activists, many of them supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, took to the streets yesterday for the third time this week to protest the military junta's imposition of fuel price hikes.
But police and a pro-junta mob broke up the march after a brief standoff, dragging about a dozen of the protesters into trucks and other vehicles. Witnesses said several of those detained were punched and slapped inside the vehicles.
About 300 people marched on Wednesday to protest the fuel hikes despite the arrest of at least 13 democracy activists who organized the rally.
Yesterday, about 40 people, mostly from Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, walked quietly without placards for about 3km toward the party headquarters in eastern Yangon before being stopped by a security cordon.
Authorities ordered bystanders, and especially reporters, out of the area as the protesters were overwhelmed after a 30-minute standoff. Some reporters were roughed up by security personnel who shouted abusive language.
Protesters sat on the pavement and formed a human chain in an attempt to prevent officers from dragging them into the waiting trucks and buses. A dozen protesters, however, were forced into the trucks.
Wednesday's march was broken up prematurely when a gang of government supporters assaulted some protesters with sticks and seized eight who were accused of being agitators, witnesses and participants said. The eight were later freed unharmed.
The demonstration came after the arrests of leaders of the "88 Generation Students" group, who have been defying the junta's grip by staging petition campaigns, prayer vigils and other activities to free political prisoners -- including Suu Kyi -- and promote a return to democracy.
"Though our leaders had been arrested, we will continue with our movement. We will not fear any arrest or threat," Mie Mie, a member of the 88 Generation group, said during the morning march, which was monitored by plainclothes police officers.
The marchers encouraged onlookers to join the rare public display of dissent, witnesses said on condition of anonymity, citing fears of reprisals. The ruling junta tolerates little public dissent, sometimes sentencing dissidents to long jail terms for violating broadly defined security laws.
A planned afternoon protest in a busy downtown area near Sule Pagoda fizzled when plainclothes security personnel quickly seized at least three activists -- some with placards -- and hustled them away in waiting buses.
Before he was taken away, 25-year-old pro-democracy activist Than Htut Maung showed reporters bruises he said he sustained at the hands of junta supporters during their morning confrontation.
State-controlled media reported earlier that 13 leading members of the 88 Generation Students -- the country's boldest nonviolent dissident group -- had been arrested Tuesday night and could face up to 20 years in prison. On Sunday, they had led more than 400 people in another protest march through Yangon against the doubling of fuel prices on Aug. 15.
Leaders of the 88 Generation Students were at the forefront of a 1988 pro-democracy uprising and were subjected to lengthy prison terms and torture after the rebellion was brutally suppressed by the military.
The 1988 uprising was preceded by public protests over rising rice prices and a sudden government declaration that made most currency invalid.