Buddhist monks march in protest in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday in the strongest show of dissent against the ruling generals in nearly two decades. Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets in two major marches that snaked their way through the nation's commercial capital led by robed monks chanting prayers of peace and compassion.
Buddhist monks march in protest in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday in the strongest show of dissent against the ruling generals in nearly two decades. Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets in two major marches that snaked their way through the nation's commercial capital led by robed monks chanting prayers of peace and compassion. AFP/Getty Images
Streams of orange-robed Buddhist monks marched though the streets of Myanmar's capital for the sixth day, joined by tens of thousands of protesters in the biggest wave of anti-government demonstrations in more than 20 years.
In cities across the country, as many as 100,000 protesters turned out for Monday's protests. The protest in the capital city of Yangon was characterized as the largest since the military crushed a 1988 pro-democracy uprising in which thousands were killed.
Although the military government has, for the most part, not interfered with the peaceful protests, officials issued a warning after Monday's demonstrations. Government officials told senior Buddhist clerics that unless they restrained their juniors, the government would take action on its own against those who were being encouraged by the regime's domestic and foreign enemies.
The series of protests began Aug. 19 as a movement against economic hardship in the Southeast Asian country after the government sharply raised fuel prices.
Arrests and intimidation kept initial demonstrations small and scattered until the monks joined the movement.
So far, the usually iron-fisted junta has allowed the protests to proceed with minimal interference. Diplomats and analysts said Myanmar's military rulers are showing restraint because of pressure from China, the country's key trading partner and diplomatic ally.
"The Myanmar government is tolerating the protesters and not taking any action against the monks because of pressure from China," said a Southeast Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of protocol. "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."
Monday's march, like those last week, began at the Shwedagon Pagoda. The site is a historical center for political movements and the country's most sacred religious shrine. Thousands of monks took the lead and onlookers joined in on what had been billed as a day of general protest.
Elsewhere in the country, 500 to 600 monks in the central city of Mandalay set off shortly after noon on their own protest march.
On Sunday, protesters stepped up their confrontation with the government by chanting support for detained democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
On Saturday, protesters walked to the dwelling where Suu Kyi is under house arrest. She greeted them from her gate in her first public appearance in more than four years.
The meeting symbolically linked the current protests to Nobel laureate's Suu Kyi's struggle for democracy, which has seen her detained for about 12 of the last 18 years. Access to her home was barred Sunday.
The growing wave of protests has raised both expectations of possible political change and fear that the military might forcefully stamp out the demonstrations, as it did in 1988.
China, which is counting on Myanmar's vast oil and gas reserves to help fuel its booming economy, earlier this year blocked the U.N. Security Council from criticizing Myanmar's rights record saying it was not the right forum.
But at the same time, the Chinese have employed quiet diplomacy and subtle public pressure on the Myanmar regime, urging it to move toward inclusive democracy and speed up the process of dialogue and reform.
Josef Silverstein, a political scientist and author of several books on Myanmar, said it would not be in China's interest to have civil unrest in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
"China is very eager to have a peaceful Burma in order to complete roads and railroads, to develop mines and finish assimilating the country under its economic control," Silverstein said.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press