Worldwide day of protest sends stern message to junta

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Thousands of red rose petals will drift down the Thames today and campaigners will take to the streets as part of a worldwide day of protest at the continuing oppression of the Burmese people by the ruling military junta.

The march in London will coincide with similar demonstrations across the nation and the globe, voicing horror at the recent violence and drawing attention to the lack of coordinated action by the international community.

"We are expecting demonstrations in 25 countries. There have never been such a number of events around the world for Burma. This will dwarf any previous demonstrations in the UK," said Mark Farmaner, acting director of the Burma Campaign.

The international day of action comes 24 hours after Aung San Suu Kyi's party dismissed junta chief Senior General Than Shwe's offer of talks – an unrealistic proposal that was held forth only on condition that the detained opposition leader stop supporting international sanctions.

After years of little attention, the plight of the people living under the military junta came to the fore once more when Buddhist monks took to the streets to protest fuel price rises in August. The peaceful demonstrations spread to a massive show of defiance, during which troops fired into the crowds when they ignored orders to disband. Some people were arrested and beaten.

While state media in Burma said that 10 people had been killed and 2,100 detained, dissident groups put the death toll at up to 200, with 6,000 arrests. Mr Farmaner said that the complexity of trying to get information out of the country made it almost impossible to assess the true figures.

"They try to destroy the evidence. That is why it is so hard to say. They are burning bodies and we have heard reports of crematoriums in Rangoon working through the night last week, so it fairly safe to say hundreds were killed," he said.

"The regime wants the world to forget about Burma. That is why they have shut down communication and stopped images coming out of the country. It is important for people around the world to maintain pressure and make sure world leaders keep their focus on trying to bring about change."

As many as 20,000 people are expected to turn up today for the London march. Led by up to 100 monks, many of them Burmese, the protesters, sporting the red headbands of the democracy movement, will assemble at Tate Britain at 11am before crossing Westminster Bridge at midday to drop the petals in the river, each one symbolising the lives threatened in Burma. Some marchers will then tie their headbands to the gates of Downing Street before joining a rally in Trafalgar Square to be addressed by the political exile Myo Thein, who endured imprisonment and torture at the hands of the military regime.

"The events in London are designed to show the people of Burma that we stand with them, and the generals that we are watching their every move," Myo Thein said yesterday. "We also hope the protests will force the UK Government to do more to demand an end to the military crackdown and get the UN Security Council to act."

The protest will coincide with similar events across the country, from Edinburgh to Llandudno, Brighton to Birmingham. Rallies and candlelit vigils will also be held in countries as diverse as Belgium, Mongolia, Chile and Denmark.

Burma has been ruled by the military since 1962. The current junta came to power after routing a 1988 pro-democracy uprising in bloodshed that killed at least 3,000 people. Suu Kyi's party won elections in 1990 but the junta refused to accept the results.