Brutality and defiance marked the second day of an armed crackdown in Myanmar on Thursday as the military junta tried to crush a wave of nationwide protests in the face of harsh international condemnation.
The violence began before dawn with raids on Buddhist monasteries and continued through the day with tear gas, beatings and volleys of gunfire in the streets of the country’s main city, Yangon, according to witnesses and news agency reports from inside the closed nation.
Witnesses said soldiers fired automatic weapons into a crowd of protesters. State television in Myanmar reported that nine people had been killed and that 11 demonstrators and 31 soldiers were injured. The numbers could not be independently verified, and exile groups said they could be much higher.
International pressure on Myanmar built when President Bush asked countries in the region influential with Myanmar’s authorities to urge them to cease using force, and the Treasury Department imposed economic sanctions on 14 senior Myanmar government officials.
China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, at the White House for a scheduled meeting on Thursday with the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, soon found himself in an impromptu Oval Office session with the president. Bush urged Yang to have Beijing “use its influence” in Myanmar to facilitate a peaceful transition to democracy, the White House spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe, said.
As Myanmar’s chief international patron, China on Wednesday blocked an effort by the United States and European countries to have the Security Council condemn the violent crackdown. On Thursday, while not going as far as Bush might have wished, China added its voice to criticism from abroad when it publicly called for restraint.
“As a neighbor, China is extremely concerned about the situation in Myanmar,” the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said at a news briefing in Beijing. “China hopes that all parties in Myanmar exercise restraint and properly handle the current issue so as to ensure the situation there does not escalate and get complicated.”
Despite a heavy military and police presence, protests gained momentum through the day in several parts of Yangon. But with the authorities clamping down on telephone and Internet communications, human rights groups and exiles said they were having increasing difficulty in getting information.
The violence of the past two days has answered the question of whether the military would fire on Buddhist monks, the highly revered moral core of Burmese society. For the past 10 days, the monks have led demonstrations that grew to as many as 100,000 before the crackdown began.
“The military is the one who proudly claims to preserve and protect Buddhism in the country, but now they are killing the monks,” said Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a magazine based in Thailand that has extensive contacts inside Myanmar.
Like others monitoring the crisis, which began Aug. 19 with scattered protests against steep fuel price increases, he said it was difficult to learn the numbers of dead in a chaotic situation in which hospital sources are sometimes reluctant to talk. Aung Zaw said he had been told of one death Thursday when soldiers attacked two columns of monks and other people.