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MARK CANNING INTERVIEW - Wednesday 26th September, 2007

MARK CANNING, UK AMBASSADOR TO BURMA: Well about an hour ago, I mean, there's certainly a very heavy military presence on the ground. Troops, since this morning, have been placed in strategic areas, notably around the main pagoda, the Schwedagon Pagoda, around the sorts of places that the protesters had been marching. The question then was whether the protesters would show up again in the face of this, but they have. There were columns of protesters moving around the city, so judging the number is quite difficult. But about five minutes ago, we had an extraordinary scene outside this embassy where probably 8,000-10,000 people marched past, many of them applauding the embassy. There was a nucleus of clergy, of monks, but the vast majority of people were just civilians, many women, many students. They were followed at some distance by some truckloads of troops, but they didn't intervene. There has been the use of tear gas today. There've been two, if not more, volleys of shots over the heads of the crowd. We know that a number of monks were fairly severely beaten up by the Schwedagon today, but we haven't been able to confirm any deaths.

GEORGE NEGUS: Ambassador, you've said that the probability of a disaster, when you spoke to the BBC, was 'high', you felt. Is a full-on crackdown by the military imminent?

MARK CANNING: Well, you could say this is a crackdown. I mean, it's clearly a graduated crackdown. For the last seven or eight days, these protests have proceeded unhindered around the town, around Mandalay and other cities. Today has brought a different response, we've got a curfew coming in from dusk to dawn. We've got a prohibition on gatherings of more than five people, not that it appears to have had much effect. We've had a series of arrests of democracy activists overnight. So, taken with the violence I just mentioned, there is no doubt this is a crackdown, but it's not as severe, perhaps, as one might have feared, yet. But I suspect they will go about this in a military way and they will try this, and if that doesn't work, they will try, perhaps, something more. We very much hope they don't, we're encouraging them not to. We think it would be a disaster if they did use violence.

GEORGE NEGUS: Indeed, back in 1998, of course, during the protests, 3,000 people lost their lives. Are we staring the same sort of horrible slaughter in the face now?

MARK CANNING: We very much hope, you know, we pray that that's not the case. So far not. We're doing our best to ensure it doesn't prove the case. But there are all the recipes here, I'm afraid, for a very unhappy story of that kind. But we sincerely hope not. The protesters have been very smart, they've been disciplined, they've been peaceful. They haven't been bothering anyone. They clearly have got a political dent to them, if you like. But they are doing their very best not to give anyone the excuse to use violence.

GEORGE NEGUS: Ambassador, thanks very much for your time. We'll have to leave it there, but all the best with your diplomatic efforts, and we'll try to stay in touch.