Troops fired shots over the heads of large crowds in Myanmar’s main city on Wednesday, sending people scurrying for cover as a crackdown against the biggest anti-junta protests in 20 years intensified.
One person was killed and five wounded by bullets in Yangon, a hospital source said, but it was not known whether any of the victims were monks, who have been at the forefront of the demonstrations.
At least two witnesses saw the bloodied body of a monk being carried away after security forces stopped one procession as the city centre seethed with tens of thousands of people rebelling against decades of military rule.
It was not clear whether he was dead or alive.
People have came out in force despite fears of a repeat of the bloody suppression of a 1988 uprising, when soldiers killed an estimated 3,000 people.
The protests began a month ago after sudden fuel price rises and have become a mass movement against military repression and economic hardship.
“They are marching down the streets, with the monks in the middle, and ordinary people either side. They are shielding them, forming a human chain,” one witness said over almost deafening roars of anger at security forces.
Riot police fired tear gas at columns of monks trying to push their way past barricades sealing off the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s holiest shrine and the starting point of marches over the past month.
World leaders have appealed to the junta to exercise restraint since the protests mushroomed into a major revolt after shots were fired over protesting monks in the central town of Pakokku on September 5.
France said it must be made clear to all Myanmar officials “that they will be held personally responsible for all acts of violence committed against the population”.
As many as 200 maroon-robed monks were arrested outside the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda as the Buddhist priesthood, the former Burma’s highest moral authority, went head-to-head with the might of a military that has ruled for an unbroken 45 years.
“This is a test of wills between the only two institutions in the country that have enough power to mobilise nationally,” said Bradley Babson, a retired World Bank official in Myanmar.
“Between those two institutions, one of them will crack,” he said. “If they take overt violence against the monks, they risk igniting the population against them.”
Many of the monks wore surgical masks to try to counteract the effects of tear gas and smoke. Some were beaten and manhandled by riot police as they were taken away from the Shwedagon, adding to the anger on the streets.
Despite defiant crowds swirling around downtown Yangon, the number of marching monks was well below levels on Monday and Tuesday when they stretched five city blocks chanting “democracy, democracy” with no visible security presence. Then, they defied junta warnings that military force could be used against illegal protests and a senior general telling top monks to rein in their young charges or face the consequences.