Protests Continue in Burma Following Arrests of Activists

Witnesses in Burma say there have been new protests in the main city, Rangoon, despite a crackdown by the military government. Authorities this week arrested at least 13 activists following demonstrations that have been going on in Rangoon since Sunday over rising fuel prices. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

State-run media in Burma say the government arrested the activists, who are members of a student group. Newspapers quote authorities as calling the activists agitators, accusing them of using fuel price increases last week as an excuse to incite unrest.

Chaiyachoke Chulasiriwongs is a professor of international relations at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University and an expert on Burma. He calls it unusual that students, or anyone, would protest under the military leadership. He says the military is showing signs it is ready to suppress any further uprisings, as it has in the past.

"It's so used to controlling the people, suppressing the people," said Chaiyachoke. "I think the military mentality is it cannot allow any protest or violent demonstration in the country because that would affect the security of the country. I think they are afraid that it would destabilize its position as ruler."

The protests began on Sunday, and witnesses say as many as 300 demonstrators marched again in the outskirts of Rangoon Wednesday in anger over fuel price increases. Reports say the protesters clashed with government supporters.

Government-mandated fuel price hikes have in some cases caused transportation costs to double, making life harder for people who are already struggling with double-digit inflation in the impoverished country.

Prices over the past week doubled for diesel. Residents say the price of cooking gas increased in some cases by 500 percent.

Burma's government has a monopoly on the energy sector. Critics say the military junta is looking after its own financial interests as world demand for oil rises and prices continue to climb. Professor Chaiyachoke says the Burmese leadership in this case is, in his view, showing little regard for its people.

"I believe that with the demand of fuel around the world, the Burmese junta would like to increase its fuel price so that it can gain more money," he said. "You can see that it's not just China that are running after fuel in Burma but India also … therefore those who benefit would [be] the junta. In that sense they don't care about the people."

Burma's military has a long history of suppressing uprisings since it took control of the country in 1962. The government has come under strong international criticism for jailing dissidents and its suppression of the media.

International human rights groups quickly condemned the arrests of the activists following this week's protests.

Demonstrations are rare in Burma. The last major protests were in 1988, when the army staged a massive crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. The violence killed an estimated 3,000 people.