Pro-democracy protesters hunted down

YANGON, Myanmar – Soldiers announced they were hunting pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar’s largest city Wednesday and the top U.S. diplomat in the country said that military police were pulling people out of their homes during the night.

Mae Sot, Thailand

A young Myanmar boy works as a helper at the border Mae Sot, Thailand, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007. Many Myanmar children do not attend school and work as laborers. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in southeast Asia and is ruled by a military junta. Photo: AP

Military vehicles patrolled the streets before dawn with loudspeakers blaring, “We have photographs. We are going to make arrests!”

Shari Villarosa, the acting U.S. ambassador in Myanmar, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press in Bangkok that people in Yangon were terrified, reports

“From what we understand, military police … are traveling around the city in the middle of the night, going into homes and picking up people,” she said.

Residents living near the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most revered shrine and a flash point of unrest, reported that police swept through several dozen homes in the middle of the night, dragging away several men for questioning.

The homes were located above shops at a marketplace that caters to the nearby pagoda, selling monks robes and begging bowls.

The security forces were looking for people who had participated in demonstrations since mid-August, which troops brutally crushed on Sept. 26 and 27 with live gunfire, tear gas and baton charges.

The government says 10 people were killed but dissident groups put the toll at about 200. In addition, they say, some 6,000 people have already been arrested, including thousands of Buddhist monks who led the demonstrations, which initially started to protest a massive hike in fuel prices.

Villarosa said her embassy staff had gone to some monasteries in recent days and found them completely empty. Others were barricaded by the military and declared off-limits to outsiders.

“There is a significantly reduced number of monks on the streets. Where are the monks? What has happened to them?” she said.

Meanwhile, the junta pursued other means of intimidation. An employee from the Transport Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was told to sign a statement saying he and his family would not take part in any political activity and would not listen to foreign radio reports.

Many Burmese use short-wave radios to pick up foreign English-language stations – a main source for news about their tightly controlled country.

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch in Bangkok presented a man they said was a Myanmar army major who had fled the country to Thailand. The group released a transcript of an interview with the unidentified man in which he expressed shock at the crackdown.

“They (the demonstrators) were very peaceful. Later when I heard they were shot and killed and the armed forces used tear gas, I was really upset and I thought the army should stand for their own people,” the man was quoted as saying.

Human Rights Watch declined to allow the AP to interview or photograph the man, saying it would compromise his safety.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The current junta came to power after snuffing out a 1988 pro-democracy movement against the previous military dictatorship. Some 3,000 people were killed in the 1988 crackdown.

The generals called elections in 1990 but refused to give up power when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won. She has spent nearly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.

Suu Kyi, who remain in detention, met twice with the United Nation’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, during his four-day mission to Myanmar that ended Tuesday. Gambari also met with junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe and his deputies.

Gambari transited in Singapore en route to New York Wednesday, but declined to comment on his trip. He was not expected to issue any statement before briefing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.

The junta also has not commented on Gambari’s visit and the U.N. has only released photos of Gambari and a haggard-looking Suu Kyi shaking hands during their meeting in a state guest house in Yangon.

In Singapore, Gambari met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc of which Myanmar is a member.

A Singapore government statement said Lee told Gambari that ASEAN “is fully behind his mission” to bring about “a political solution for national reconciliation and a peaceful transition to democracy.”

Gambari’s predecessor, Razali Ismail, told reporters in Singapore it was a good sign that the reclusive Than Shwe met the U.N. envoy. “So I think it has been a successful trip because he has been able to meet the main man,” said Razali.

But, Razali added, he doesn’t expect ASEAN to make any difference.

“They just go from conference to conference. It is up to the people of Myanmar to make changes. It is not going to be easy. With very meek ASEAN governments, what do you expect?” Razali said.

Razali also said that if it is proved that the junta regime massacred people, they “should be charged with crimes against humanity.”

Among those killed when troops opened fire on unarmed protesters in Yangon last week was Japanese television cameraman Kenji Nagai of the APF news agency. Nagai’s body was flown out of Myanmar on Wednesday to Tokyo.