YANGON, Myanmar – A decision by Myanmar's military regime to allow Buddhist monks to march passed the home of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi should not be seen as a sign the junta is preparing to release its iron grip on power, analysts warned Sunday.
The military — struggling to deal with the most-sustained wave of anti-government protests in two decades — could still launch a bloody crackdown as it has in the past, an analyst and UN official warned.
On Sunday, the junta beefed up security on both ends of the road leading to Suu Kyi's house, witnesses said, in what appeared to be an effort to prevent a repeat of Saturday's march. About 20 pro-junta thugs and a dozen riot police were posted on the street, the witnesses said.
Monks have been marching for the past five days in Myanmar's biggest city and around the country as a month of protests against economic hardship under the junta have ballooned into the biggest grass-roots challenge to its rule since pro-democracy protests in 1988.
By linking their cause to Suu Kyi's activism, 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 to compromise with the demonstrators.
"This was a very important gesture," said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University in Washington who is monitoring events from Singapore. "It's significant because the military allowed them to pass (Suu Kyi's house). 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 put down 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 it remains the largest and most powerful institution in the country.
"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 dissident groups he had met in Bangkok this week were optimistic about the outcome, they 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 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."
The monks on Saturday 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 in downtown Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city. "Daw" is an honorific used in referring to older women.
Photos posted on the Web site of Mizzima News, run by Myanmar exile journalists in India, shows a crowd gathered outside the gate of Suu Kyi's home, with uniformed security men standing immediately in front of it.
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.
At the same time, about 1,000 monks— led by one holding his begging bowl upturned as a sign of protest — marched in Yangon starting from the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most revered shrine and a historic center for protest movements.
A monks' organization, the All Burma Monks Alliance, also urged the public to join in protesting "evil military despotism" in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Little is known of the group or its membership, but its communiques have spread widely by word of mouth and through opposition media in exile.