Myanmar troops occupied key Buddhist monasteries on Friday to confine monks who have spearheaded anti-government protests, raising concerns they may be preparing to intensify a deadly crackdown on civilians.
At least 10 people have been killed in two days of violence in the country's largest cities, including a Japanese cameraman who was shot when soldiers with automatic rifles fired into crowds demanding an end to 45 years of military rule.
Exile groups say the toll could be much higher. Daily demonstrations by tens of thousands have grown into the stiffest challenge to the ruling military junta in two decades, a crisis that began on Aug 19 with rallies against a fuel price hike, then escalated dramatically when monks began joining the protests.
Hundreds of people have been arrested, carted away in trucks at night or pummeled with batons, witnesses and diplomats said, with the junta ignoring international appeals for restraint. The United States imposed new sanctions on a dozen senior Myanmar officials, including the junta's two top generals, and again urged China as Myanmar's main economic and political ally to use its influence to prevent further bloodshed.
Southeast Asian nations also expressed their "revulsion" and told the junta "to exercise utmost restraint and seek a political solution," with pro-democracy demonstrations held or planned in several cities across the region.
But by Myanmar standards, the crackdown has so far been muted, in part because the regime knows that killing monks, who are highly revered in the deeply Buddhist nation, could trigger a maelstrom of fury.
Southeast Asian envoys were told by Myanmar authorities on Friday that a no-go zone had been declared around five key Buddhist monasteries, one diplomat said, raising fears of a repeat of 1988, when troops gunned down thousands of peaceful demonstrators and imprisoned the survivors.
Gates were locked and key intersections near monasteries in Yangon and Mandalay were sealed off with barbed wire, and the streets were quiet in the two cities early on Friday. There was no sign of monks.
"We were told security forces had the monks under control" and will not turn their attention to civilian protesters, the Asian diplomat said on condition of anonymity, citing protocol. Getting the monks out of the way raised concerns that the government now would feel emboldened to take tougher measures against remaining protesters, the diplomat said.
Thursday was the bloodiest day in more than a month of protests which at their height have brought an estimated 70,000 demonstrators to the streets. Bloody sandals lay scattered on some streets as protesters fled shouting "Give us freedom, give us freedom!" Truckloads of troops in riot gear also raided Buddhist monasteries on the outskirts of Yangon, beating and arresting dozens of monks, witnesses and Western diplomats said.
"I really hate the government. They arrest the monks while they are sleeping," said a 30-year-old service worker who witnessed some of the confrontations from his workplace. "These monks haven't done anything except meditating and praying and helping people." Images of bloodied protesters and fleeing crowds have riveted world attention on the escalating crisis, prompting many governments to urge the junta in Myanmar, also known as Burma, to end the violence.
The United Nations' special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, was heading to the country to promote a political solution and could arrive as early as Saturday, one Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Though some analysts said negotiations were unlikely, the diplomat said the decision to let Gambari in "means they may see a role for him and the United Nation in mediating dialogue with the opposition and its leaders."
The protesters won support from countrymen abroad as more than 2,000 Myanmar immigrants rallied peacefully in Malaysia, chanting slogans of support for Buddhist monks and other pro-democracy demonstrators. Riot police backed by trucks mounted with water cannons stood watch in Kuala Lumpur's diplomatic enclave as the demonstrators shouted "We want democracy!" and held banners that read "Stop killing monks and people."
Smaller rallies took place in Thailand and Indonesia. China, Myanmar's largest trading partner, for months quietly counseled the regime to speed up its long-stalled political reforms. Some analysts say Beijing would hate to be viewed as party to a bloodbath as it prepares to court the world at the 2008 Olympic Games.
"China hopes that all parties in Myanmar exercise restraint and properly handle the current issue so as to ensure the situation there does not escalate and get complicated," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing Thursday. But every other time the regime has been challenged, it has responded with force.
"Judging from the nature and habit of the Myanmar military, they will not allow the monks or activists to topple them," said Chaiyachoke Julsiriwong, a Myanmar scholar at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.