Burma's ruling military junta has confirmed at least one death after troops fired on crowds of anti-government protesters and police beat and carted away dozens of Buddhist monks in Rangoon on Wednesday.
It was the first show of force by the army and policeafter 10 days of mostly peaceful anti-government protests led by monks in the southeast Asian country, also known as Myanmar.
The government's announcement on state radio and television acknowledged a 30-year-old man had been shot to death and three wounded in Rangoon, also known as Yangon.
Two men — aged 25 and 27 — and a 47-year-old woman were hurt by gunfire in Rangoon, police said without giving details about the injuries.
There were unofficial reports of at least two deaths Wednesday. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a non-profit media agency, reported the death toll reached as high as eight, with five monks among the dead in Rangoon.
Rangoon, the largest city in Burma and its economic capital, was the administrative capital until 2005. The junta then changed the capital to a community 300 kilometres north, now named Naypyidaw.
At least 100 monks refused to obey orders to leave the city's famed Shwedagon Pagoda on Wednesday as police fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse the crowds. A mob of people also set fire to a motorcycle in front of the pagoda.
White House 'very troubled' by violence
Soldiers arrested 300 Buddhist monks and other activists, according to eyewitness accounts.
The protests began Aug. 19 after the government doubled the price of fuel in a country that is one of Asia's poorest. The move only increased the unpopularity of the junta, which has ruled the country in one form or another since 1962.
Dr. Sein Win — the prime minister ofBurma's self-declared government-in-exile — urged the international community to respond immediately to the crisis and condemn the violence.
"We are very much concerned about more loss of life," he told CBC News on Wednesday in an interview from Paris. "We aretrying to askthe countries around the world to send a message to the military not to use force."
The White House said Wednesday that it was "very troubled" by thereports of killings by security forces.
"If these stories are accurate, the U.S. is very troubled that the regime would treat the Burmese people this way," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Curfew imposed, ban on public gatherings
Police and army troops in full battle gear also gathered in the Burmese city of Mandalay, barring hundreds of nuns and monks from entering a pagoda there. The regime also imposed a curfew of 9 p.m. and banned all public gatherings of more than five people.
One of Burma's most famed comedians, who goes by the name Zarganar, was among those arrested Wednesday. He was taken away from his home in the middle of the night and family members said they were told he is being held for questioning.
Zarganar, known for his anti-government jokes, along with actor Kyaw Thu and poet Aung Way, led a committee that provided food and other necessities to the monks who have spearheaded the protests.
There were reports from protesters that the actor and thepoet had also been arrested, but it has not been officially confirmed.
International pressure building
Some fear the situation could get increasingly violent. In 1988, more than 3,000 people were killed when the military moved in to end pro-democracy street demonstrations.
The Burmese government is under pressure to avoid violence, with U.S. President George W. Bush tightening sanctions against Burma on Tuesday, while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged peace on Monday. The Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu have also spoken out.
The U.S. and the European Union issued a joint statement decrying the assault on peaceful demonstrators and calling on the junta to open talks with democracy activists, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for more than a decade.
"What's going on in Burma is outrageous," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.
The UN Security Council met in private Wednesday to discuss the issue and issued a brief statement expressing concern about the violent response, though did not go as far as to condemn it.
Meanwhile, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier issued a press release condemning "the use of deadly force by the military and police against the monks and other protesters" and called on Burma to put an immediate end to such violence.