Myanmar monks defy junta, resume rallies

28 minutes ago

YANGON, Myanmar - Tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and sympathizers defied orders from the military junta to stay out of politics, protesting Tuesday in the country's two biggest cities. Soldiers, including an army division that took part in the brutal suppression of a 1988 uprising, converged on the capital.

Cheered on by supporters, the monks marched out for an eighth day of peaceful protest from Yangon's soaring Shwedagon Pagoda, while some 700 others staged a similar show of defiance in the country's second largest city of Mandalay.

"The protest is not merely for the well being of people but also for monks struggling for democracy and for people to have an opportunity to determine their own future," one monk told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals from officials. "People do not tolerate the military government any longer."

A monk who appeared to be one of their leaders addressed the crowd and said the protests would continue until the government apologized for mistreatment of monks at an earlier demonstration in northern Myanmar.

Tuesday's protests came despite orders to the Buddhist clergy to halt all political activity and return to their monasteries. The junta sent 10 truckloads of troops to Sule Pagoda, a focal point of the protests, including the one on Tuesday.

According to an ethnic guerrilla commander, among the army divisions dispatched was the 22nd, which took part in the suppression of the 1988 uprising when the military fired on peaceful crowds and killed thousands, terrorizing the country.

"They could get there pretty quickly. By tomorrow, maybe today," said Col. Ner Dah Mya, a leader of the Karen National Union, which is fighting the central government. He was interviewed by telephone at the Thai-Myanmar border.

Warnings also were sent out against all illegal gatherings in a country where an assembly of more than five can amount to breaking the law.

On Monday, the demonstrations in Yangon reached 100,000, becoming the biggest demonstrations since a pro-democracy uprising 19 years ago. The authorities did not stop the protests Monday, even as they built to a scale and fervor that rivaled the 1988 uprising. The government, has been handling the monks gingerly, wary of angering ordinary citizens in this devout, predominantly Buddhist nation.

Joining the monks Tuesday were members of the pro-democracy National League for Democracy headed by Aung San Suu Kyi as well as university students. They marched more than a mile to the Sule Pagoda under a scorching sun.

The demonstrations have escalated in just one week from a marginalized movement to mass protests drawing not only the monks but people from all walks of life.

In Mandalay, ordinary people were starting to join the monks or follow them on foot, motorcycles, bicycles and trishaws, though many still appeared too afraid to show their open support.

"I support the monks. However, if I join them, the government will arrest me," said a man selling belts at a Mandalay market. He declined to give his name, fearing reprisals from officials.

The head of the country's official Buddhist organization, or Sangha, issued a directive Monday ordering monks to stick to just learning and propagating the faith, saying young monks were being "compelled by a group of destructive elements within and without to break the law," the newspaper said.

These agitators included members of the National League for Democracy, remnants of the defunct Burmese Communist Party and some foreign radio stations, the minister was quoted as saying.

Following Monday's Yangon protest, led by a phalanx of barefoot monks, the U.S. was poised to impose additional sanctions against Myanmar's military rulers.

President Bush was to announce the sanctions against key members of the junta and those who provide them financial aid in a speech at the U.N. General Assembly, the White House said.

Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said it was significant that monks had joined the protests.

"Our hope is to marry that internal pressure with the external pressure coming from the United States and the United Nations and really all countries that are committed to freedom to try to force the regime into a change," Hadley said.

The U.S. already restricts imports and exports and financial transactions with Myanmar. Washington also has imposed an arms embargo on Myanmar.

The current protests began Aug. 19 after the government sharply raised fuel prices in what is one of Asia's poorest countries. But they are based in deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the repressive military government that has ruled the country in one form or another since 1962.

The protests over economic conditions were faltering when the monks last week took the leadership and assumed a role they played in previous battles against British colonialism and military dictators.

At first the robed monks simply chanted and prayed. But as the public joined the march, the demonstrators demanded dialogue between the government and opposition parties, freedom for political prisoners, as well as adequate food, shelter and clothing.

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

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