Internet, phone access blocked

Myanmar tries to halt spread of protest news and images

September 29, 2007|By Henry Chu and Maggie Farley | Henry Chu and Maggie Farley,Los Angeles Times

NEW DELHI -- The military regime in Myanmar yesterday tried to shut down the Internet and cell-phone service in a bid to block news and images of the third day of its violent clampdown on dissent from being sent outside the tightly controlled country.

Such images have been crucial in galvanizing international condemnation of the military's iron-fisted response to the largely peaceful protests, which pose the stiffest challenge to the government since 1988, when thousands of pro-democracy protesters were massacred.

Authorities closed Internet cafes and suspended two key service providers, but embassies and companies linked to the Web by satellite remained online.

Soe Myint, a longtime dissident and editor of Mizzima News, a Web site focusing on news from Myanmar, said that although cell-phone service was disrupted, some protesters had been able to use text messages to communicate.

Despite the restricted access, photographs and video continued to trickle out yesterday, showing protesters challenging and fleeing advancing riot police and soldiers amid dark fumes in Yangon, also known as Rangoon. One young man ripped open his shirt and shouted angrily at the security forces ranged in front of him, as if daring them to shoot.

"Modern technology has become the generals' worst enemy. There were only rusty phones, if you could get through [in 1988]," said Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert and author of several books on the country.

Graphic footage also emerged of what appeared to be a soldier firing point-blank at a veteran Japanese photojournalist, Kenji Nagai, who was killed Thursday. Nagai was shown lying on the ground, his camera still held up in his hand, as a soldier pointed his rifle at him. Tokyo has demanded an explanation from the Myanmar government.

Nagai was one of nine fatalities acknowledged by state news media during the unrest. Diplomats and activist groups in exile say the real death toll is surely higher, possibly 100 to 200 people, their bodies quickly carted away by army or police trucks to prevent an accurate count.

"We really cannot know. We may not know for some time," Myint said.

The streets of Yangon were quieter yesterday as the military regime confined protesting monks to their monasteries and broke up smaller crowds of demonstrators with batons and warning shots.

Witnesses and dissident groups said that scattered rallies in central Yangon attracted up to 5,000 people at a time, far fewer than the tens of thousands who marched during 10 previous days of anti-government protest. Security forces, however, were taking no chances, firing tear gas and clubbing and dragging off activists.

"There have been clashes during the day, and there have been ... running skirmishes," British Ambassador Mark Canning told the British Broadcasting Corp. from inside Myanmar, also known as Burma. "There have been several gunshots. We don't know if they caused casualties."

Information was sketchy, but Myint said there were indications that security forces might be trying to minimize fatalities yesterday. "Today they apparently didn't shoot into the crowds," he said. "They used rubber bullets. But there are people who are injured. We don't have any confirmation on that yet."

U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon expressed "grave concern" about the continued crackdown. "The authorities in Myanmar must exercise restraint, engage without delay in dialogue, release detained leaders and initiate a national reconciliation process," he said.

A special United Nations envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, is expected to arrive in Myanmar today. He said he hopes to meet with the military regime's top leaders, a U.N. spokesman said, and has also asked to see pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an influential and well-respected opposition figure who is considered key to any solution to the conflict.

Gambari intends to urge the government to stop using force and to convey the heightened level of the world's concern about the violent crackdown. But it is not clear whether the Myanmar government accepted his visit only because of pressure from its strategic ally, China, or whether it considers the United Nations as having something to offer.

Henry Chu and Maggie Farley write for the Los Angeles Times.

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