YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – Thousands of soldiers and police were deployed in Myanmar’s largest cities Sunday, keeping even the most die-hard protesters off the streets. Scores of arrests were made overnight, further demoralizing those seeking an end to decades of military dictatorship.
The top U.N. envoy on Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, was trying to persuade the country’s leaders to end a deadly crackdown on demonstrators that has sparked international outcry, and China and Japan urged their political and economic ally to resolve the crisis peacefully. But such international pressure has had little impact in the past.
“I don’t think it will make much of a difference,” said a hotel worker, who like other residents asked not to be named, fearing retaliation. “We have to find a solution ourselves.”
The demonstrations began last month after the government sharply increased the price of fuel, but the focus soon shifted to frustration with decades of brutal military rule. Crowd sizes mushroomed to at least 70,000 in the past week after monks, highly revered in this Buddhist nation, started spearheading the marches.
The junta, which has a long history of snuffing out dissent, cracked down Wednesday and Thursday, opening fire into a crowd of peaceful protesters and chasing others down with batons. Though the official death toll is 10, foreign diplomats say the number is likely much higher.
The number of troops in Yangon, the largest city, swelled to around 20,000 after reinforcements arrived overnight Sunday, ensuring that almost all demonstrators would remain off the streets, an Asian diplomat said.
“The security forces are demonstrating their strength,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing protocol. “I think the chance of protesters coming to the road and mobilizing enough people to topple the junta is zero.”
People suspected of leading or organizing this week’s rallies continue to be arrested, he said, estimating that the total number could be as high as 1,000. With the main prison now overcrowded, people are now being detained in university buildings and educational institutes, he said.
The crackdown triggered an unprecedented verbal flaying of Myanmar’s generals from almost every corner of the world – even some criticism from No. 1 ally China, which said it was “very much concerned about the current situation.”
It urged the ruling junta to “exercise restraint and use peaceful means to restore its stability as soon as possible.”
Gambari was taken on arrival Saturday to Naypyitaw, the remote, bunker-like capital where the country’s military leaders are based. His schedule was not made public. The White House urged the junta to allow him to also have access to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi – the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is under house arrest in Yangon.
“We are not very hopeful, but it’s the best shot we have,” Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo said at the United Nations in New York.
The United Nations has compiled a lengthy record of failure in trying to broker reconciliation between the junta and Suu Kyi. Gambari’s efforts have been stymied, while his predecessor, Razali Ismail, was snubbed or sometimes barred from entry by the State Peace and Development Council, as the ruling junta is formally known.
Many people see China, Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, as the most likely outside catalyst for change.
But China – like India and Russia – do not seem prepared to go beyond words in dealing with the junta, ruling out sanctions as they jostle for a chance to get at Myanmar’s bountiful and largely untapped natural resources, especially its oil and gas.
“Unless and until Beijing, Delhi and Moscow stand in unison in pressuring the SPDC for change, little will change,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, a 10-member bloc which includes Myanmar, also has given no indication that it is considering an expulsion or any other action.
As governments heap criticism on the junta, activists from Myanmar – also called Burma – and foreign countries continue to call for concrete, urgent action.
“The world cannot fail the people of Burma again,” said the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile group based in Washington. “Selfless sacrifices deserve more than words and lip-service. They want effective intervention before it is too late.”
One presidential hopeful in the United States agreed.
“We should be putting every sanction on them that we can think of,” said John McCain , a senator from the state of Arizona. He said ASEAN should be told to “kick these guys out.”
“We should have every place in the world talking about how this kind of thing doesn’t work anymore.”