About 50 pro-democracy activists were briefly arrested yesterday outside Yangon, as the Myanmar junta clamped down on dissent following a series of protests last week against a sharp hike in fuel prices.
The protest was the latest in a series of bold demonstrations against the military, which for 45 years has ruled this impoverished country with an iron fist and kept a tight lid on any dissent.
The activists marched in silence from a market in Bago, a town about 75km northeast of Yangon, witnesses said.
They did not chant slogans or wave banners, but people on the sidewalks clapped as they walked by. After about 30 minutes, the entire group was arrested and taken to local authorities for questioning, witnesses said.
The activists were all released after two hours, in part because a crowd of about 100 bystanders had followed them to make sure the authorities would not mistreat them, according to Kyaw Win, one of the protest leaders.
"People who had gathered to watch our protest followed us after we were arrested. The guarded us and waited outside the authorities' offices until we were released," Kyaw Win said by telephone.
Authorities made them promise not to stage any more rallies. Kyaw Win said they were not mistreated in custody.
He and other members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) said they would continue to protest against the Aug. 15 fuel price hike, which doubled transport costs overnight.
"The NLD will stand in front of the people, because we NLD members want to solve their problems," he said.
The march in Bago came after four days of protests last week, mainly in Yangon, over the price increase.
Plainclothes security forces have been deployed across Yangon to try to quell the protests, leaving the nation's economic hub shrouded in fear.
State media said that 56 people had been arrested over last week's protests, but Thailand-based political dissidents yesterday said that number was at least 100.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP) said that many of those arrested are believed to be held in the notorious Insein prison in northern Yangon, where international rights groups have alleged abuse and torture are rampant.
"I am sure those arrested are now being tortured by the junta," said Tate Naing, the secretary of AAPP and a former political prisoner.
"We know from firsthand experience that those arrested in Burma are always brutally tortured -- both physically and psychologically -- immediately upon arrest," he said.
Among those arrested last week was Min Ko Naing, who is considered the country's most prominent pro-democracy leader after detained opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.