Suu Kyi lends support as thousands march in Burmese capital

Burgeoning alliance of protesting monks and civilians poses biggest challenge to military regime in 20 years
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The Independent Online

Burma's imprisoned democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, made a rare public appearance yesterday when thousands of Burmese monks, marching in protest against the military regime, passed the Rangoon property where she is under house arrest.

Ms Suu Kyi, hardly seen during her most recent term of confinement, which began four years ago, came to her gate and greeted the monks. She looked "fit and well", according to one protester who saw her. "The monks just walked past, chanting holy scriptures peacefully," one young man who had been following the procession told Reuters. "I saw 'Auntie Suu' inside the compound."

In the Burmese city of Mandalay, meanwhile, between 5,000 and 10,000 people marched in the largest of the protests that have electrified Burma over the past five days.

The alliance of Ms Suu Kyi and the Buddhist clergy could be crucial as the Burmese regime confronts its most sustained challenge in two decades.

"Aung San Suu Kyi has not been seen in public since 30 May 2003, when her convoy was attacked by [government-sponsored] thugs," said Mark Farmaner, of Burma Campaign UK. "By visiting her the monks are putting their spiritual authority behind the democracy movement. It is a strong message of unity."

While pro-democracy demonstrations led by civilians earlier this summer were easily broken up, it is much more difficult for the regime to confront the monks because of the revered position they hold within Burmese society. For the same reason, the monks could be a powerful force in persuading ordinary people to take to the streets.

Until now, the monks have discouraged others from joining their protests. But yesterday a group calling itself the All Burma Monks Alliance urged the public to "struggle peacefully against the evil military dictatorship until its complete downfall". Yesterday it was reported that up to 800 members of the public had joined the monks as they marched through rain-lashed Rangoon.

Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, is held with two other women at her home on Rangoon's University Avenue. The road is usually open to traffic, but in the past five days the authorities have closed it. Yesterday afternoon, however, police allowed the monks to pass through the barricades they had erected. While their status affords the Buddhist clerics some protection, they are still taking considerable risks. During the 1988 democracy uprising, monks were among the thousands of people killed by the regime.

In recent days the monks have taken the decision to "excommunicate" the regime and anyone associated with it by refusing alms. As they marched yesterday, some of the monks held their black begging bowls upside down to symbolise their rejection of the regime. In the Burmese language, the term for "boycott" comes from the words for holding a bowl inverted.