European leaders condemned the violent crackdown by Myanmar's military rulers on the largest pro-democracy protests in 20 years and asked the UN to consider sanctions against the nation.
The military dictatorship in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, cracked down on escalating anti-government street protests on Wednesday, Sept. 26, with troops firing over the heads of large crowds in Yangon, the country's main city. Two monks and a civilian were killed, according to hospital and monastery sources, Reuters reported.
Riot police fired tear gas at columns of monks trying to push their way past barricades sealing off the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's holiest shrine and the starting point of marches that mushroomed from small protests against huge fuel price increases. Angry crowds filled the streets of Yangon, defying the military violence meant to curb the biggest anti-government protests in 20 years.
Yangon's pagoda area was the scene of the worst bloodshed in a 1988 crackdown on protests in which 3,000 people are thought to have been killed. Myanmar has had 45 years of military rule.
"No impunity" for human rights violators
The military's action against violence triggered anger in the West with the US and the European Union condemning the violence and asking the UN Security Council to consider sanctions against Myanmar. The Security Council planned to meet on the Myanmar crisis on Wednesday.
World leaders also called on the junta, as the military dictatorship is known, to exercise restraint. In a statement after a ministerial meeting on the fringes of the UN General Assembly, the US and the 27-nation EU called on the military rulers to stop violence and start a dialogue with pro-democracy leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnic groups.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned that the "age of impunity" in abusing human rights was over and said the EU was going to look at "a whole range of sanctions." He also said he hoped the UN would send a special envoy to Myanmar.
"There will be no impunity in future for those who trample the human rights of the people of Burma," Brown said, referring to the Asian nation by its former name. "I think everybody knows now that the whole issue of sanctions is going to take on a new dimension."
EU wants tougher sanctions
A number of European governments as well as the European Union have expressed concern in recent days about the situation in Myanmar and warned against any violent repression of pro-democracy protests.
France said it must be made clear to all Myanmar officials "that they will be held personally responsible for all acts of violence committed against the population."
The German government, which is under pressure from exiled politicians from Myanmar to ratchet up the pressure on the generals, has called for real reforms and an inclusive political dialogue in the country.
"We have shocking and worrying reports from Myanmar whose comprehensiveness and veracity, however, we could not verify in detail in the cabinet," deputy government spokesman Thomas Steg told reporters after a cabinet meeting.
"The peaceful protests that have taken place ... had and have our sympathy," Steg added. "The cabinet said clearly that it expects those in power (in Myanmar) to shun violence."
Germany's foreign ministry this week also urged an end to the house arrest for the head of the opposition and iconic pro-democracy figure, Aung San Suu Kyi. "We deeply wish to see her release," a ministry spokesman said.
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said he will ask the European Union to hold an urgent meeting on Myanmar to find ways to "halt the violence."
The European Union has also threatened to hit the junta with tougher economic sanctions. The EU first imposed sanctions against the government in Myanmar in 1996. They include an arms embargo as well as visa bans on the junta. Companies headquartered in the EU are not allowed to give credit to Burmese firms.
European Commission spokesman, Amadeu Altafaj Tardio said the EU was trying to verify reports indicating that military forces had fired shots at demonstrators.
"Firing warning shots over peaceful demonstrators clearly means a tactic of increased intimidation," he said during a regular news briefing. "[The] strong demand from the European Commission to the authorities to refrain from the use of force and violence against peaceful demonstrators. The citizens and monks, it is important to emphasize, are exercising their undeniable right for freedom of expression and assembly."
Myanmar in world spotlight
Referring to the images of thousands of defiant monks and civilians marching on the streets in Myanmar on television screens and on the Internet in recent days, Brown said the junta could not expect to get away with violence.
"The whole word is now watching Burma and its illegitimate and repressive regime should know that the whole world is going to hold it to account. The age of impunity in neglecting and overriding human rights is over," he said.
"I think the international pressure that can be made to be felt in the next few days is incredibly important," he added. "I want to see the whole of the world getting together on this, each continent of the world can come together."
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