YANGON, Myanmar – About 20,000 people led by Buddhist monks demonstrated against Myanmar's military junta Sunday, in what has quickly become the country's largest anti-government demonstrations since the failed democratic uprising in 1988.
Some 10,000 monks marched from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, to the nearby Sule Pagoda before passing the U.S. Embassy, witnesses said.
The monks shouted support for detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while a crowd of about 10,000 people protected them by forming a human chain along the route.
It was the sixth straight day monks have marched in Yangon, and came a day after they were allowed to walk past Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi's compound in a symbolic gesture of support.
Their defiant activities have given new life to a protest movement that began a month ago after the government raised fuel prices.
A monk gave a speech Sunday calling for Suu Kyi's release and national reconciliation before the monks set off from the Shwedagon Pagoda, the witness said.
The protest was the largest in the latest series to erupt in Yangon.
Earlier Sunday, the government had deployed about 20 pro-junta thugs and 20 riot police on the road leading to Suu Kyi's compound, witnesses said. A fire truck was parked nearby.
While authorities had not intervened in Sunday's march, plainclothes police trailed behind the marchers. Some, armed with shotguns, were posted at street corners along the route.
By linking their cause to Suu Kyi's pro-democracy struggle, which has seen her detained for about 12 of the last 18 years, the monks increased the pressure on the junta to decide whether to crack down or compromise with the demonstrators.
"This was a very important gesture," said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University in Washington.
"It's significant because the military allowed them to pass (Suu Kyi's house)," said Steinberg, who was monitoring events from Singapore. "That and other images indicate the military is not prepared, unless things get worse, to directly confront the monks in their uniforms."
Steinberg said this was in contrast to 1990, when the military crushed a protest by hundreds of monks in Mandalay, arresting and defrocking some and closing monasteries linked with the demonstration.
So far, the government has been handling the monks' disciplined but defiant protests gingerly, aware that forcibly breaking them up in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar would likely cause public outrage.
But Steinberg said the military's lack of force should not be seen as a sign of weakness, given that it remains the country's largest and most powerful institution.
"Any change (in the government) will have to be approved by elements of the military if there is to be change," he said. "They are far too powerful to be resisted if the military acts in unison."
A U.N. official agreed, saying that while Myanmar dissident groups he had met in Bangkok in the past week were optimistic about the outcome, they had failed to take into account the military's history of brutally suppressing uprisings in 1988, 1990 and 1996.
"They were very optimistic and expectant and seemed to believe that there was one outcome possible — which was a popular uprising that brings Suu Kyi to the forefront," said the official, who requested anonymity, citing protocol. "I'm not as confident that is the only outcome possible. I would think massive repression and violence on a significant scale is not to be discounted."
On Saturday the monks stopped briefly in front of Suu Kyi's house and said prayers before leaving at the other end of the street, said witnesses, who asked not to be named for fear of being harassed by the authorities.
"Today is extraordinary. We walked past lay disciple Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's house today. We are pleased and glad to see her looking fit and well," a 45-year old monk told about 200 people at Sule Pagoda.
"Daw" is an honorific used in referring to older women in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi, 62, is the leader of the National League for Democracy party, which won a 1990 general election but was not allowed to take power by the military. She has been under detention continuously since May 2003.
The latest protest movement began Aug. 19 after the government raised fuel prices, but has its basis in long pent-up dissatisfaction with the repressive military regime. Using arrests and intimidation, the government had managed to keep demonstrations limited in size and impact — but they gained new life when the monks joined.
In the central Myanmar city of Mandalay, a crowd of 10,000 people, including at least 4,000 Buddhist monks, marched Saturday in one of the largest demonstrations since the 1988 democracy uprising, witnesses said.