Rangoon flooded with police as Burma celebrates independence

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The Independent Online

Four months after huge protests erupted against the military regime, Burma marked 60 years of independence from Britain by flooding Rangoon, its biggest city, with uniformed and plainclothes policemen.

Riot police took up positions outside the city hall and Shwedagon and Sule pagodas, all of which were the focus of protests in September. City residents reported seeing groups of officers clustered at bus stops and on street corners.

Official celebrations were low key. Senior figures in the junta watched as the national flag was raised in a park near Shwedagon pagoda and a brief, patriotic message by the junta's supreme leader, Senior General Than Shwe, 75, was read out.

Ignoring the democratic opposition which won a crushing victory in elections held in 1990, General Shwe called for the country's co-operation in building "a discipline-flourishing democratic state".

Meanwhile dozens of members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party whose leader Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than 12 years under house arrest, demonstrated silently outside their party headquarters wearing the prison uniform of dark blue longyi and pale blue shirts with the words "Free Political Prisoners" written on the back. About 350 people including Western diplomats gathered for the sombre ceremony, closely observed by members of a civilian militia force.

"We have not given up on the chance of dialogue," the NLD party spokesman Nyan Win told Reuters. "We do hope dialogue takes place and national reconciliation emerges in 2008. We want 2008 to be the year of reconciliation." The party called for the immediate release of all political prisoners and monks "who peacefully demonstrated their beliefs and wishes" in the protests last year.

In a new attempt to hamper access to free information of ordinary Burmese, the junta has hoisted the price of annual satellite television licences from 6,000 kyat (3) per year to 1 million kyat (500), a 166-fold increase. People with existing licences who fail to pay the steep new charge within a month of expiry will face fines of 30,000 kyats. Many Burmese followed last year's demonstrations and their violent suppression on satellite news channels and the regime has described foreign news broadcasts as "a skyful of lies".

Up to 50 Burmese monks will be among protesters gathering at Marble Arch in London at noon today for a silent march across the city. "After 60 years of independence, Burmese people are not free to walk or talk," said U Uttara, one of the organisers, himself a monk and UK secretary of the International Burmese Monks' Organisation.