RANGOON, Burma - Buddhist monks seized government officials and burned their vehicles yesterday in response to soldiers manhandling them during a protest against rising prices, witnesses said.
Using force against the country's highly respected monks infuriates ordinary people, making such unrest one of the military government's greatest fears. Hundreds of protesting residents surrounded the monks' monastery in the northern town of Pakokku, delaying the officials' release for hours and forcing them to leave through a back door.
"Bystanders cheered as the monks torched the cars one by one," a local activist who witnessed the events said when contacted by telephone.
The developments prompted an announcement on state radio and television evening newscasts blaming the monks for causing violence - state media's first direct reference to three weeks of demonstrations against rising prices for fuel and consumer goods.
The announcement warned that attempts to destabilize the country would not be tolerated.
Residents said 200 monks took part in a march Wednesday in Pakokku, a center for Buddhist learning. Reports by independent Burmese media in exile put the number of monks as high as 600.
The monks marched and chanted prayers until they were stopped by authorities and pro-government senior monks, residents said.
They said about a dozen warning shots were fired, in what was apparently the first time during the protests that the military resorted to gunfire.
Residents said that at least three monks were arrested and several wounded. The activist said the three were released Thursday.
About 20 officials from local government and the religious affairs department went to Pakokku's Middle Monastery to apologize for the confrontation and ask that no further protests be held.
Instead, angry monks set four of the visitors' vehicles ablaze, and barricaded them in their monastery for about five hours, said a senior monk contacted by phone.