(Washington, DC) - The Burmese government should immediately release protesters arrested for peacefully demonstrating against spiraling prices and deteriorating economic conditions, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The government’s strategy of arbitrarily arresting its critics reinforces the severe hardship the people of Burma are going through,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “The recent price hikes in Burma make it harder for ordinary people to sustain themselves by driving up prices of essential goods and services. Peaceful protest should not land them in jail.”

On August 15, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) hiked the price of fuel by as much as 500 percent. In response, several hundred people took part in peaceful demonstrations in Rangoon against the move. Large protests were held on August 19 and 22 and future demonstrations are expected.

The government has arrested several organizers and participants of the August 19 protests, including some of the government’s most prominent critics. These arrests violate fundamental rights of assembly, association and expression, and are arbitrary and unlawful under international law. Under Burma’s repressive regime the exercise of basic rights like the right to protest is routinely denied and large demonstrations rarely occur.

An estimated 150 to 300 demonstrators, mostly women, assembled peacefully in the northern part of Rangoon today and began a protest march. The protesters quickly dispersed after unidentified SPDC supporters began assaulting people in the crowd and rounded up at least eight protesters, who were later released, according to news accounts.

These news reports suggest police officers were present at the time of the assaults and detentions but did not act to prevent them. Members of the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), a social welfare movement formed and supported by the SPDC that acts as the regime’s civilian proxy, have been implicated in past attacks on activists.

Plainclothes security personnel detained at least two people at a follow-up protest in downtown Rangoon, according to wire reports.

On August 19, an estimated 500 people had gathered for a silent march to protest the fuel price increase in Rangoon. According to witnesses, Burmese authorities followed the marchers and videotaped the event. In the early hours of August 21, they detained 14 activists from the 88 Generation Students – a pro-democracy group. Several prominent opposition figures, including Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, were among those arrested.

The state-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper, which published a rare confirmation of the detentions, accused the 88 Generation Students group of “agitation to cause civil unrest.” That story revealed names of 13 of the 14 group members who were arrested on August 21.

In addition, five students were detained, reportedly while attempting to put up a poster decrying high prices.

All those arrested are believed to remain in custody. The crackdown on critics may have been a preemptive move against a widening of protests over the high cost of living.

Economic pressure has been a past source of unrest in Burma. A 1987 economic crisis under a previous military government sparked a major nation-wide uprising that resulted in the holding of elections the following year. The military, however, stepped in and formed a new junta rather than hand over power to the National League for Democracy, which had won the vote.

Burma is rich in natural resources, especially natural gas, but there is virtually no transparency or accountability over the use of public funds by the SPDC. Natural gas exports provide the principal source of hard currency for the government. The government does not properly account for the revenues or adequately disclose how they are spent.

Poor economic conditions have again sparked a series of demonstrations and arrests since February. On February 22, the government arrested nine protesters who participated in a peaceful demonstration against poor economic conditions and worsening living standards. They were later released without charge on February 27. More protests and arrests took place between late February and April. Since then, there have been smaller, sporadic protests throughout the country. In June, for example, news accounts reported that a protester in Arakan state was held for two days after he staged a one-person demonstration against inflation that drew crowds of onlookers. The protester was later released.

The August 15 price hike was sudden and unannounced. Vehicle owners were caught off-guard when prices for diesel fuel doubled and gasoline prices increased by 67 percent overnight. The cost of compressed natural gas, used in many buses and taxis, rose 500 percent according to most accounts. The changes made bus transport unaffordable for many poor residents. The sharp increase in the cost of transporting goods, together with panicked purchases by a hyperinflation-fearing public, quickly led to higher prices for basic items such as rice, a staple of the national diet.

A previous major fuel price increase in October 2005 also led to skyrocketing prices. The government has not given any explanation for the latest increase, but high international oil prices and low foreign reserves may have made government fuel subsidies unaffordable.

“Burma’s military rulers run the country – and the economy – without any regard for human rights,” said Ganesan. “The way the SPDC made this decision and responded to the ensuing public outcry demonstrates its gross disregard for the rights to freedom of information and assembly, and the right of its people to benefit from the country’s natural resource wealth.”