Defiant monks resume street protests

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Buddhist monks spearheading Burma's biggest anti-government marches in nearly two decades defied orders from the military junta to stay out of politics and relaunched their protests in the country's two biggest cities today.

About 4,000 monks, cheered on by several thousand supporters, gathered for the eighth day of peaceful protest at Rangoon's soaring Shwedagon Pagoda, while some 700 marched in the country's second largest city of Mandalay.

The demonstrations came despite orders to the Buddhist clergy to halt all political activity and return to their monasteries, and as pro-junta supporters in pick-up trucks cruised Rangoon warning that large crowds were illegal.

The protests in Rangoon reached 100,000 yesterday, becoming the biggest demonstrations since a pro-democracy uprising 19 years ago. The authorities did not stop the protests, even as they built to a scale and fervour that rivalled the 1988 uprising when the military fired on peaceful crowds and killed thousands, terrorising the country.

The government has been handling the monks gingerly, wary of angering ordinary citizens in this devout, predominantly Buddhist nation.

But diplomats said troops have been discreetly deployed in downtown Rangoon and could easily be called in against the protesters. Some schools in the capital were closed.

Following yesterday's march, authorities in cars cruised Rangoon's streets today, announcing that the clergy have been directed not to take part in "secular affairs" and saying that certain elements were trying to instigate unrest in the country. Warnings were also sent out against all illegal gatherings in a country where an assembly of more than five can amount to breaking the law.

The government's New Light of Myanmar newspaper quoted Religious Affairs Minister Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung as saying that protests by monks had also spread to cities like Mandalay, Hinthada and Monywa in seven of the country's 14 states and divisions.

The demonstrations have escalated in just one week from a marginalised movement to mass protests, drawing not only the monks but people from all walks of life.

In Mandalay, ordinary people were starting to join the monks or follow them on foot, motorcycles, bicycles and trishaws, although many still appeared too afraid to show their open support.

"I support the monks. However, if I join them, the government will arrest me," said a man selling belts at a Mandalay market. He declined to give his name, fearing reprisals from officials.

The head of the country's official Buddhist organisation, or Sangha, issued a directive yesterday ordering monks to stick to just learning and propagating the faith, saying young monks were being "compelled by a group of destructive elements within and without to break the law", the newspaper said.

These agitators included members of the pro-democracy National League of Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, remnants of the defunct Burmese Communist Party and some foreign radio stations, the minister was quoted as saying.

"The authorities concerned are handling the current situation with care and the least mistakes," the minister said.

Following yesterday's Rangoon protest, led by a phalanx of barefoot monks, the US was poised to impose additional sanctions against Burma's military rulers.

US President George Bush was to announce the sanctions against key members of the junta and those who provide them financial aid in a speech at the UN General Assembly, the White House said.

Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush's national security adviser, said it was significant that monks had joined the protests.

"Our hope is to marry that internal pressure with the external pressure coming from the US and the United Nations and really all countries that are committed to freedom to try to force the regime into a change," Mr Hadley said.

The US already restricts imports and exports and financial transactions with Burma. Washington also has imposed an arms embargo on the country.

The current protests began on August 19 after the government sharply raised fuel prices in what is one of Asia's poorest countries. But they are based in deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the repressive military government which has ruled the country in one form or another since 1962.

The protests over economic conditions were faltering when the monks last week took the leadership and assumed a role they played in previous battles against British colonialism and military dictators.

At first the robed monks simply chanted and prayed. But as the public joined the march, the demonstrators demanded dialogue between the government and opposition parties, freedom for political prisoners, as well as adequate food, shelter and clothing.

The fleeting appearance of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi at the gate of the Rangoon residence where she is under house arrest firmly identified the protests with the long-time peaceful struggle of her party, the opposition National League for Democracy. She has been under detention for 12 of the past 18 years.