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Myanmar protest targets quality-of-life issues

A group of protesters staged a rare demonstration calling for lower consumer prices and improved health and education.

world Updated: Mar 26, 2007 16:38 IST

A group of protesters carrying placards and chanting slogans staged a rare demonstration Thursday in downtown Yangon, calling for lower consumer prices and improved health and education.

The protest ended peacefully after about 30 minutes, but at least one demonstrator was taken away by police as were three local journalists, two of whom work for foreign media, and one for a Myanmar publication. It could not immediately be determined if they were under arrest on criminal charges.

The protest on a busy downtown street -- Mahabandoola Road -- near a major market began at about 3:30 pm, and carried on for about 30 minutes.

About 15 people carried placards with slogans such as "Down with consumer prices," and "This is the people's cause." They also called on Myanmar's military-run government for improved health and education as well as better benefits for pensioners.

The junta tolerates little dissent, and strictly curbs freedom of the press.

The infrequent public demonstrations that have previously taken place in Yangon have usually targeted the legitimacy of the military government, and have been associated with the opposition party of detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, or other political activists.

Thursday's protest was one of the first to challenge the junta's competence instead. By targeting economic issues, it was likely to win the sympathy of many Yangon residents, who are facing strained financial circumstances as incomes fail to keep pace with inflation in what is already one of Asia's poorest countries.

One slogan shouted by the protesters, "24-hour electricity is our cause," was a reference to the scheduled brownouts and blackouts that affect most areas of the city due to the government's inability to afford enough oil and other inputs to generate sufficient power.

The group marched up and down the sidewalk, calling on bystanders to clap their hands if they agreed with their demands, and shouting that their action was "the peaceful expression of the people's desire".

At one point, in an apparent effort to emphasize that they were protesting over social issues rather than for a partisan political cause, the demonstrators chanted slogans such as "Long Live General Than Shwe," who heads the country's ruling junta.

Senior Gen Than Shwe is by no means a popular figure outside the military, so it is likely that some irony was intended.

More than two dozen police arrived on the scene after 15-20 minutes, but made no immediate move to end the protest. Only when the demonstrators looked as if they would cross the street to Sule Pagoda, a famous Buddhist temple that is one of the city's landmarks, did police intervene, with a senior officer asking that they stop.

After 30 minutes, the protest appeared to have ended, though some stragglers may still have remained on the busy street. The protest met with a mixed reception, with some bystanders expressing agreement with the cause, while many vendors on the busy street packed up their goods, saying they feared there would be trouble.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962, and the current junta was installed in 1988 after quashing mass pro-democracy demonstrations.

A general election was held in 1990, but the military refused to hand over power after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory.