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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A dramatic challenge this week to the military government in Myanmar or Burma. About fifteen hundred Buddhist monks marched through the capital city today - the fourth day of protest. Over the last month, other pro-democracy demonstrations were met with force by the junta. And memories are still fresh of protests that were crushed by the military in 1996 and in 1988, when thousands of protesters including monks were killed.

The BBC's Andrew Harding is just back from Myanmar. He describes the growing protest movement.

Mr. ANDREW HARDING (Asia Correspondent, BBC News): In the last four or five days, we've seen a really dramatic escalation as the monks - not just in Rangoon and Mandalay, the main cities, but in other smaller towns - have started to come out. They appear to be determined and they're making overtly political demands.

BLOCK: What are the demands that the monks are making?

Mr. HARDING: They're demanding negotiations on political issues between the regime and the opposition. They are demanding the release of those who've been arrested, more than 100 people believed to have been arrested - these are opposition leaders, members of student groups and so on. And they're demanding an apology for the brutal suppression of some earlier demonstrations by monks.

BLOCK: They are doing another thing, which is to refuse to accept alms from the military. Explain the symbolism of that.

Mr. HARDING: Yes. I went to some monasteries, and every morning, the monks go out with black alms bowls which they collect food in from the neighborhood. And often the military, which over the years, has tried really to kind of cozy up to the monks, because it knows they're a powerful force, now by going out with their bowls upside down, the monks are sending a very powerful signal to the generals. They're saying, essentially, you are excommunicated. You cannot take part in giving us donations, therefore, you cannot take part in an essential part of daily Buddhist ritual. So it's a huge public humiliation.

BLOCK: As these monks have taken to the streets, has anyone dared to march with them, anyone from the general population?

Mr. HARDING: Well, this is interesting and it's worrying for the generals. Because in the early days, the small demonstrations that took place were watched silently by a large - by the population. A few would dare to clap. The people were scared. I think the majority of people are still scared. But today, and for the last few days, we've seen people not just applauding but also forming a sort of human chain around the monks in support of them and in protection of them.

BLOCK: This has been a military regime in Burma or Myanmar that has lasted and been incredibly strong for decades now. Do you see any hint that that could change?

Mr. HARDING: I think anything is possible right now. I spoke to one U.N. official in Rangoon last week who said there are potentially the conditions for a perfect storm. It's not just these political protests. It's not just the monks. You have also a whole slew of other major crises brewing.

The key one is the economy. Most people are getting poorer and poorer. There is severe malnutrition in some areas. You also have an elderly leadership now. The senior generals are old. They spend a lot of time in Singaporean hospital. There is a transition going on, and it's not clear how smoothly that will go. But you also have China, which supports the government, which has huge political, economic investments in Burma. Which wants Middle East oil to start being pumped across Burma into its territory. Though I suspect it will be leaning as heavily as it can on the generals to calm things down.

BLOCK: Andrew Harding, thanks very much.

Mr. HARDING: Thank you.

BLOCK: Andrew Harding is Asia correspondent for the BBC talking with us about protests by monks in Myanmar.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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