As Gordon Brown sent a message of hope to the people of Burma, the military regime has issued an ominous threat to the Buddhist monks who are leading the series of extraordinary democracy demonstrations.
After 100,000 people filled the streets of Rangoon yesterday – the largest demonstration by far since the protests of 1988 – a government minister told senior monks that if they did not rein in the activities of those heading the marches, the regime would take unspecified action.
The threat by Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung, the religious affairs minister, represents the first public acknowledgement by the regime of the mounting challenge it faces as thousands of monks in maroon robes chanting slogans fill the streets of the country's largest city on a daily basis with calls for peaceful change.
At the same time, it has heightened speculation that the regime is preparing to crack down hard against the demonstrators if the protests continue, possibly with mass arrests and detentions.
For the regime, the stakes are huge. Every day, the number of ordinary people willing to risk the police and militia grows. Every day, the increasingly large numbers of people join the monks as they march for miles through the country's major cities calling for change. The key question is whether the government will respond with shocking violence as it has in the past or seek a compromise with the demonstrators in an effort to head off the challenge peacefully.
Observers believe that pressure from China, Burma's most important trading ally, may have been responsible for what has so far been a cautious response from the regime, seeking to avoid confrontation with the monks who are highly revered in Burmese society. Yet unconfirmed reports last night suggested the regime was planning to disrupt the marchers, possibly by sending in troops dressed as monks to act as agent provocateurs among the demonstrators. One report said that one unit of troops had been ordered to shave their heads and that 3,000 monks' robes had been sequestered by the military in readiness for such an operation.
"We fear that they will infiltrate the demonstrations, start violence, and the regime will use that as a pretext for a crackdown," said one campaigner.
Those activists inside Burma looking for international help may have taken some succour from Mr Brown, who told the Labour Party conference: "You know, there is a golden thread of common humanity that across nations and faiths binds us together and it can light the darkest corners of the world. The message should go out to anyone facing persecution anywhere from Burma to Zimbabwe – human rights are universal and no injustice can last forever."
He also said: "People will look back on events in Darfur as they did in Rwanda and say why did you the most powerful countries in the world fail to act, to come to the aid of those with the least power?"
However, there was no mention of additional aid for Burma, as many campaigners had hoped for. Earlier this year, a cross-party group of MPs claimed that Britain's aid to Burma should be hugely increased.
Some of yesterday's marchers walked for almost 12 miles, beginning once again at Rangoon's vast Shwedagon pagoda, the country's most sacred Buddhist shrine and probably its most famous tourist location. The vanguard of monks were joined by members of the public, students and MPs who were elected in the 1990 election ignored by the regime. Witnesses said that at one point the marchers filled a one mile section of an eight-lane road.
Up to 10,000 monks and people also marched in the country's second city, Mandalay, while around 20 other cities also saw smaller demonstrations.
"People locked arms around the monks. They were clapping and cheering," one witness in Rangoon told Reuters.
For the third day in succession a small number of marchers tried to visit the house of imprisoned democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. While the marchers were successful on Saturday – resulting in the first public appearance of Ms Suu Kyi for more than four years – both on Sunday and yesterday they were stopped from advancing to her house by police manning road blocks. The marchers made no effort to push past the road block, instead chanting a Buddhist prayer with the words "May there be peace" before dispersing.
It was several hours later that Brigadier General Maung met with senior monks at the modern Kaba Aye pagoda, north of Rangoon's city centre. During the meeting, details of which were broadcast on state television, he told the clerics that the protesting monks represented just 2 per cent of the country's population.
He said the demonstrations had been incited by members of Ms Suu Kyi's opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the 88 Generation Students group and foreign activists, including the international media.
"Actions will be taken against the monks' protest marches according to the law if they cannot be stopped by religious teachings," he reportedly told the members of the State Monks Council. He denounced the "destructive elements who do not want to see peace, stability and progress in the country".
The wave of protests was sparked earlier this summer by a decision by the regime to increase fuel prices sharply. The government's move was seized on by democracy activists who used it to try and rally support. The government reacted quickly, seizing up to 120 activists and launching a hunt for those still at large.Reuse content