Amid mounting concern that Burma's military rulers are preparing to launch a bloody crackdown on the thousands who have defied warnings to end their pro-democracy demonstrations, Gordon Brown has threatened to impose tighter sanctions on Burma.
As troops and armed police flooded into the centre of Rangoon yesterday, the Prime Minister asked the European Union to extend its sanctions against the regime. He ordered his officials to draw up a list of measures that Britain could impose unilaterally if the EU fails to act.
The Burmese regime – apparently caught off guard by the scale of the demonstrations that have spread through the country over the past week – held a crisis meeting at its headquarters at its new capital, Naypidaw, located deep in the jungle. With discussions apparently led by the Defence Ministry, the regime emerged to issue new, blunt warnings to the demonstrators to end their protests or face the government's response.
The protesters showed no sign yesterday of backing down. For the eighth day in succession, huge crowds marched through Rangoon, waving banners, and chanting slogans. Last night, as the authorities reportedly imposed curfews in the major cities, one eyewitness told The Independent: "Although the military government is giving more pressure to the people, the uprising is more than before. Maybe tomorrow or day after tomorrow, there might be some changes. The military government have sent their soldiers around the Sule pagoda tonight. Let's see what will happen tomorrow."
As marchers took to the streets in at least a dozen cities, the international community waited to see which way the repressive regime would decide to jump. Apparently under pressure from its most important trading partner, China, the generals have so far opted for restraint, but reports suggested the regime was gearing up for action. The BBC said unconfirmed reports claimed fire crews had been instructed to fill their machines with insecticide. Activists said that in many townships around Rangoon, trucks with loudspeakers had been driving round warning people that any gathering would be broken up "by force". The Asian Human Rights Commission said government-organised gangs had also been seen on the streets.
As President George Bush announced a new set of sanctions from the United States against Burma, it was reported that the imprisoned democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been moved from house arrest and placed in the notorious Insein jail.
Mr Brown, whose intervention was closely co-ordinated with Mr Bush, is also calling for the UN Security Council to issue a warning to the regime. He said: "We have all been watching with concern the unfolding human tragedy in Burma, which requires immediate international action. All those with influence on the Burmese government should now use it to deter violence and encourage reconciliation."
While the new US sanctions are unlikely to make much difference to the regime, which has lived with widespread sanctions from the US for many years, Mr Bush said Americans were "outraged by the situation in Burma".
Government ministers gathered at the Labour annual conference in Bournemouth praised The Independent for highlighting the crisis in Burma. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said: "The Independent is right to draw attention to the serious situation in Burma and giving such prominence to the story."
The EU has already imposed sanctions on Burma, including a ban on the export of arms, equipment that could be used for internal repression a ban on direct aid to the Burmese government and a visa ban and freeze on the assets of members of the regime and their families.
Mr Brown wants the EU to warn Burma's leaders that it will go further if they "make the wrong choices" in response to the demonstrations. He is urging the EU to ban all investment in Burma, a move which would most affect French companies; impose a "tourism ban" on people travelling from Burma to Europe and vice-versa; and consider restrictions on trade. The Prime Minister has written to his Portuguese counterpart, Jose Socrates, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, urging a new EU initiative and received a positive initial response.
The Prime Minister has asked Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, to press Burma to allow his special envoy to visit the country soon. He also wants a Security Council discussion which, even if it failed to lead to a resolution, would put more pressure on the junta. Britain plans to shame China which, along with Russia, has blocked attempts at the UN to act over Burma.
At the UN General Assembly in New York, Mr Bush announced a tightening of US economic sanctions on the regime's leaders and their financial backers and an expanded visa ban on people responsible for human rights violations, as well as members of their family.