YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar troops occupied Buddhist monasteries Friday to confine monks who have spearheaded protests against decades of military rule, raising concerns they may be preparing to intensify a deadly crackdown on civilians.
Though tens of thousands have taken to the streets in recent days, soldiers and riot police moved quickly to disperse a crowd of just 300 that started marching in the country’s largest city, Yangon, sealing the neighborhood and ordering them to disperse.
No one was detained and no shots were fired, witnesses said.
Daily demonstrations have grown into the stiffest challenge to the ruling military junta in two decades, a crisis that began Aug. 19 with rallies against a fuel price hike, then escalated dramatically when monks began joining the protests.
At least 10 people have been killed in the last two days, including a Japanese cameraman who was shot when soldiers with automatic rifles fired into crowds. Exile groups say the toll could be much higher.
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 has 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 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.