YANGON - Myanmar's junta arrested 48 activists on Friday for a protest march marking 20 years since the army crushed an "8-8-88" democracy uprising with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives, an opposition official said.
The group of mainly young men in t-shirts bearing the numbers 8-8-88 -- a reference to the August 8, 1988 nationwide revolt -- staged a silent walk through the northwest town of Taunggok before being stopped by a police barricade.
"They were all picked up and are being questioned at the moment," Ko Thein Naing, a local official from the opposition National League for Democracy, told Reuters.
Given last year's widespread fuel price protests, the junta was taking few chances with the anniversary, posting armed police and pro-government thugs at strategic sites in towns and cities.
Leaders of the 1988 uprising, the biggest challenge to army rule dating back to 1962, have been behind bars since the start of the fuel-price demonstrations last August. They are just a few of an estimated 1,100 political prisoners.
Some students in the northwest city of Sittwe wore black, one of them said, but for most of the former Burma's 57 million people, the sense of fear and futility, as well as the daily struggle to survive, trumped any lingering outrage.
"Nobody is happy with the present situation, but most people know from experience that protests will not change their lives," English teacher Hla Maung told Reuters.
Outside the pariah Southeast Asian nation, however, human rights groups and activists who fled the 1988 bloodshed staged demonstrations outside Myanmar and Chinese embassies.
China is being targeted on what is also the opening day of the Beijing Olympics because of its commercial and diplomatic ties to the generals, gate-keepers of Myanmar's plentiful reserves of natural gas and other resources.
In Bangkok and Manila, dozens of protesters chanted anti-junta slogans, burnt Myanmar flags and waved placards calling for the release of democracy icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest in Yangon.
August 8, 1988 was chosen as the start-point of the uprising because of its numerological connotations for most Burmese. It was also said to be a powerful foil to then military supremo Ne Win, whose lucky number was nine.
"This anniversary is testament to the Burmese people's enduring demand for freedom and to the world's failure to end repressive military rule," Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"And China, more than any other country, has enabled the survival of the brutal Burmese regime," she said.
Meeting Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein in Beijing ahead of the Games, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said he hoped Myanmar could sort out its problems "through democratic negotiation", the official Xinhua news agency said.
"China will continue to follow a good-neighborly policy towards Myanmar, and work with the international community to help Myanmar overcome difficulties," Xinhua quoted Wen as saying.
On Thursday, President George W. Bush used a visit to Thailand, home to more than 100,000 Myanmar refugees and more than a million migrant workers, to highlight the 1988 bloodshed and call yet again for Suu Kyi's release.
"The American people care deeply about the people of Burma and dream for the day the people will be free," he told former ex-political prisoners at a lunch in Bangkok.
Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani
© 2008 Reuters