Burmese troops round up activists

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The Independent Online

The Burmese regime has stepped up its search for democracy activists in the aftermath of last week's demonstrations - rounding up suspected participants and dividing them into "passers-by", "those who watched", "those who clapped" and "those who joined in".

Patrolling the streets of Rangoon before dawn in trucks equipped with loudspeakers, troops broadcast a series of messages that warned: "We have photographs. We are going to make arrests!"

The increased effort to find those who may have been involved in the demonstrations that began in mid August and last week spread to a massive show of defiance in Rangoon, came as the UN special envoy to Burma flew back to New York, tight-lipped about his crisis talks with the regime's most senior general.

Ibrahim Gambari passed through Singapore en route back to the UN where he is due to deliver a briefing to Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon tomorrow. Though Mr Gambari declined to comment on his talks with senior General Than Shwe and his deputies, the envoy’s predecessor told reporters he believed it was a positive sign that the normally reclusive Burmese leader had finally agreed to a meeting. "I think it has been a successful trip because he has been able to meet the main man," said Razali Ismail.

Whether that proves to be anything more than positive spin remains to be seen. Mr Gambari was able to meet twice with a tired-looking Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy. However, at the same time, the regime's determination to arrest as many activists as possible suggests it is not seeking to soften its stance any time soon.

Quite how many people have been arrested is unclear. Prior to last week's demonstrations in which thousands of the nation’s Buddhist monks played a leading role, it was reported that around 120 activists and civilians involved in marches and protests had been detained and were being held in a series of holding camps and jails. It was also known that the regime had a list of 22 other leading activists it wanted to arrested in order to head off further actions.

Now various reports from exiled Burmese media claim that as many as 6,000 monks and civilians are being held. Equally unclear is the precise death toll from last week's violence perpetrated upon demonstrators; the regime claims 10 people were killed but exile groups say the figure could be as high as 200.

At the same time, the Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident radio station based in Norway, said authorities have released 90 of the 400 monks detained in Kachin state's capital, Myitkyina, during a midnight raid on monasteries on September 25. Five journalists, including one who works for a Japanese newspaper, have also been released.

However, it seems the regime is not treating everyone in the same way. Reuters reported that a relative of three women who had been released said those being interrogated were being divided into four groups, depending upon their level of alleged involvement in the demonstrations.

Yesterday it was reported that eight truckloads of people were rounded up by the military and driven from their homes in Rangoon. At one house near the Shwedagon pagoda, a rallying point for last week's demonstrations, a 13-year-old girl was by herself. She said her parents had been taken away. "They warned us not to run away as they might be back," she said.

In August, members of the 88 General Students group, a pro-democracy organisation, seized on a massive rise in fuel prices by the government, to launch protests and marches in Rangoon and other cities. While those demonstrations were quickly stubbed out, the decision by the country's monks to defy the authorities led to the largest demonstrations since a 1988 democracy campaign that was brutally crushed with the death of up to 6,000 people.