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Burma protesters call for help from outside world

UN envoy sent to negotiate with military

A resident walked yesterday past soldiers blocking off a road in Rangoon to prevent protesters from assembling. The city has been the scene of daily demonstrations that began last month. A resident walked yesterday past soldiers blocking off a road in Rangoon to prevent protesters from assembling. The city has been the scene of daily demonstrations that began last month. (Associated Press)

BANGKOK - Watching soldiers firing their guns and beating determined protesters with clubs in the streets of Burma, a distraught man decried the violent crackdown and pleaded for American intervention.

With the streets mostly quiet yesterday after the military's brutal suppression of three days of demonstrations, many protesters were losing hope and falling back on such familiar pleas for help from the outside world.

It's a call made every time the prodemocracy movement has dared stand up against Burma's 45 years of harsh military rule, only to be crushed.

Some of those challenging the regime in the most forceful demonstrations in nearly two decades still hope such help - even in the form of US bombing - may arrive.

About 300 protesters marched down a street in the Chinatown section of Burma's main city, Rangoon, yesterday, waving the peacock-emblazoned flags of the democracy movement. They dispersed when soldiers arrived.

Monks and other civilians called diplomats to report that troops had shown up at three monasteries late yesterday, but were prevented from entering by people in the neighborhood who massed outside them. The soldiers departed, but with threats of returning in larger numbers.

UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari also rushed to Burma yesterday and was taken immediately to Naypyitaw, the remote, bunker-like capital where the country's military leaders are based.

The White House urged the junta to allow Gambari to have access to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate who is under house arrest, and to ordinary Burma residents.

Many people in Burma said that despite Gambari's visit, however, they're resigned to a repeat of the 1988 uprising when the international community stood by as thousands were gunned down.

"Gambari is coming, but I don't think it will make much of a difference," said one hotel worker, who like other residents asked not to be named, fearing retaliation. "We have to find a solution ourselves."

A young woman who took part in Thursday's massive demonstration in Rangoon said she didn't think "we have any more hope to win." She was separated from her boyfriend when police broke up the protest by firing into crowds, and has not seen him since.

"The monks are the ones who give us courage," she said, referring to the clergymen who have been the backbone of rallies - both those of this week and in past years.

Most are now besieged in their monasteries, penned in by locked gates and barbed wire surrounding the compounds.

The demonstrations began last month with people angry over massive fuel price increases, then mushroomed to crowds of tens of thousands after the monks joined in.

The junta, which has a long history of snuffing out dissent, started cracking down Wednesday, when the first of at least 10 deaths was reported, and then let loose on Thursday, shooting into a crowd of protesters and clubbing them with batons.

The crackdown has triggered an unprecedented verbal flaying of Burma's generals from almost every corner of the world - even some criticism from top ally China.

But little else that might stay the junta's heavy hand is seen in the foreseeable future.

The United States, which exercises meager leverage, froze any assets that 14 Burma leaders may have in US financial institutions and prohibited American citizens from doing business with them. The leaders, including Than Shwe, are believed to have few if any such connections.

The United Nations has also compiled a lengthy record of failure in trying to broker reconciliation between the junta and Suu Kyi. Gambari, the top UN envoy on Burma, has been snubbed and sometimes barred from entry by the ruling State Peace and Development Council, as the ruling junta is formally known.

"Unless and until Beijing, Delhi, and Moscow stand in unison in pressuring the SPDC for change, little will change," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"The SPDC has virtually invented its own 'great game' in which it has become a masterful manipulator and has been winning to the consternation of the wider world."

However, China, India, and Russia do not seem prepared to go beyond words in their dealings with the junta, ruling out sanctions as they jostle for a chance to get at Burma's bountiful and largely untapped natural resources, especially its oil and gas.

The United States, Japan, and others have turned a hopeful eye on China - Burma's closest ally and biggest trading partner - as the most likely outside catalyst for change.

But some Chinese academics and diplomats say the international community may be overestimating what Beijing can do.

India has switched from being a vocal opponent of the junta to one trying to gain the support of the generals as it struggles to corner energy supplies for its own rapidly expanding economy.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-member bloc that includes Burma, also has given no indication that it is considering an expulsion or any other action.

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