Buddhist Monks Challenging Myanmar's Military Rulers

Hundreds of Buddhist monks protested Wednesday outside the locked gates of Myanmar's most revered temple, challenging the country's military rulers in the most sustained wave of demonstrations in a decade.

About 500 monks found the gates locked at the Shwedagon pagoda, a golden temple atop a hill dominating Yangon, the Southeast Asian country's biggest city.

They then marched through the streets, followed by a few hundred onlookers and scores of plainclothes security officials.

The Yangon march and rallies in other cities Wednesday were to protest hardship brought on by the government's economic policies, especially a sudden, major hike in fuel prices last month that first sparked the persistent demonstrations — first by pro-democracy activists and now primarily by monks.

In the central city of Mandalay, more than 1,000 monks marched, while about 100 others in dark saffron robes staged a peaceful march in the western Yangon suburb of Ahlone.

More than 100 Buddhist monks from some monasteries in South Okkalapa township in Yangon's northern suburbs also marched early Wednesday, later returning to their monasteries without incident.

"The monks are telling the public not to take part in the protests. They told onlookers that this is the monks' affair and that they would handle it themselves," a witness contacted by phone in Ahlone told The Associated Press. The person asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

There were no reports of intervention by the junta, which acknowledged in state media reports Wednesday that authorities used tear gas and fired warning shots in the air to break up protests Tuesday in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state in western Myanmar.

The state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, claimed Wednesday that bogus monks, "instigators" and foreign radio station reports helped the crowds swell on Tuesday. It said senior Buddhist leaders urged the monks to disperse, but the crowd retaliated by throwing stones and sticks.

The report said the authorities made no arrests and there were no injuries.

The marches on Tuesday marked the 19th anniversary of the 1988 crackdown in Myanmar in which the current junta took over after crushing a failed pro-democracy rebellion that sought an end to military rule, imposed since 1962.

The junta held general elections in 1990, but refused to honor the results when pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won. Suu Kyi has been detained under house arrest for more than 11 years.

Monks in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, have historically been at the forefront of protests — first against British colonialism and later military dictatorship. They also played a prominent part in the failed 1988 pro-democracy rebellion.

The authorities know that restraining monks poses a dilemma. Monks are highly respected in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, and abusing them in anyway could cause public outrage.

In addition to the protests, monks have threatened to cut off contact with the military and their families, and to refuse alms from them — a humiliating gesture that would embarrass the junta.

Peaceful protests by monks began on Aug. 30 in Sittwe. A second one on Sep. 5 in the northern town of Pakokku was cut short when troops fired warning shots. Junta supporters also manhandled some marchers.

In response, young monks angry at their mistreatment briefly took officials hostage, torched their vehicles and later smashed a shop and a house belonging to junta supporters.

Monks had given authorities until Monday to apologize for their mistreatment in Pakokku, a center of Buddhist learning, but it went unanswered.