Thousands More Follow Monks in Protest

Associated Press
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

RANGOON, Burma, Sept. 24 -- As many as 100,000 protesters led by a phalanx of barefoot monks marched Monday in Burma's largest city in the strongest protests against the repressive government in two decades.

The ruling junta did not stop the protests, even as they built to a scale and fervor that rivaled the demonstrations suppressed by the army with mass shootings 19 years ago. On Monday night, however, the country's religious affairs minister appeared on state television to issue a warning.

Meeting with senior monks at Rangoon's Kaba Aye Pagoda, Brig. Gen. Thura Myint Maung said that if senior monks did not restrain the demonstrators, the government would take action. The protesters, he added, had been incited by "destructive elements who do not want to see peace, stability and progress in the country."

In Washington, the White House weighed in with the threat of additional sanctions against the Burmese government and those who provide it with financial aid. President Bush is expected to announce the sanctions Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly. The United States already restricts imports, exports and financial transactions with Burma, called Myanmar by the junta.

"The international community's got to stand up much more than it has," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an interview with Reuters on Monday.

The current protests began Aug. 19 after the government sharply raised fuel prices in what is one of Asia's poorest countries. More broadly, the rallies stem from deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the repressive military rulers.

"I don't like the government," said a 20-year-old monk participating in the protest in the central city of Mandalay. "The government is very cruel, and our country is full of troubles."

The protests over economic conditions were faltering when the monks last week took over leadership and assumed a role they played in previous battles against British colonialism and military dictators. At first the maroon-robed monks simply chanted and prayed. But as the public joined the march, the demonstrators demanded national reconciliation -- meaning dialogue between the government and opposition parties -- and freedom for political prisoners, as well as adequate food, shelter and clothing.

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

In what appeared to be a miscalculation by the junta, a crowd of about 500 monks and sympathizers was let through police barricades Saturday to her home, where she briefly greeted them in her first public appearance in four years.

On Monday, after the crowds marched for more than five hours and over 12 miles, a hard-core group of more than 1,000 monks and 400 sympathizers finished by walking up to an intersection where police blocked access to the street where Suu Kyi lives.

Making no effort to push past, the marchers chanted a Buddhist prayer with the words "May there be peace," and then dispersed. About 500 onlookers cheered their act of defiance, as 100 riot police with helmets and shields stared stonily ahead.

Monday's march was launched from the Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's most sacred shrine, and 20,000 monks took the lead. Students joined the protest in noticeable numbers for the first time. Security forces were not in evidence for most of the route.

Diplomats and analysts said Burma's military rulers were showing unexpected restraint this time because of pressure from China, the country's key trading partner and diplomatic ally.

"Beijing is to host the next summer's Olympic Games. Everyone knows that China is the major supporter of the junta, so if government takes any action it will affect the image of China," a Southeast Asian diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of protocol.

China, which is counting on Burma's vast oil and gas reserves to help fuel its booming economy, earlier this year blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Burma's human rights record, saying it was not the right forum. Much of the West applies diplomatic and political sanctions against the junta, but Chinese aid -- along with the oil and gas revenue -- effectively undercuts any leverage they might have had.

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