Buddhist Monks Lead 100,000 Protesters in Myanmar

Anti-government demonstrations in Myanmar swelled in numbers and fervor Monday, when as many as 100,000 people heeded militant monks' calls to march on a scale that rivaled mass pro-democracy protests bloodily suppressed by the army 19 years ago.

The military-led government let the protesters march unimpeded, but Monday night broadcast a harsh denunciation of the monks' participation, accusing them of being instigated by the regime's domestic and foreign enemies.

In Washington, the White House said President Bush would announce Tuesday additional sanctions against the military dictatorship in Myanmar to support the push for democracy.

Bush, in a speech at the U.N. General Assembly, will announce financial sanctions against key members of the regime and those who provide them financial aid, said Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser.

Taking up their traditional role as the conscience of society, the barefoot monks have invigorated a faltering movement that has now backed the military into a corner from which it may lash out again.

The country's religious affairs minister suggested that if senior monks were unable to restrain them, the government would act according to its own regulations, which he did not detail.

The veiled threat had overtones of 1988, when massive demonstrations demanding an end to military rule imposed since 1962 were ruthlessly suppressed by the army, who shot down thousands of civilians around the country. The bloodletting effectively terrorized most citizens into submission.

Religious Affairs Minister Brig. Gen. Thura Myint Maung delivered no apology for the mistreatment of monks at an earlier protest in northern Myanmar, leaving the impression that the government may be through with making conciliatory gestures.

The current protests began on Aug. 19 as a movement against economic hardship, after the government sharply raised fuel prices in what is one of Asia's poorest countries. But they are rooted in dissatisfaction with the repressive military government.

"I don't like the government," a 20-year-old monk who was among about 1,000 colleagues protesting Monday in the central city of Mandalay told The Associated Press. "The government is very cruel and our country is full of troubles."

Ordinary people have similar views, but a lesser sense of commitment.

"I don't like the government because it only thinks about itself. But there is nothing I can do. If I join the protest, I will lose everything," said a hotel worker also in Mandalay. Like most people, she asked not to be named for fear of attracting the attention of the authorities.

The protests over economic conditions had been faltering when monks last week took over the leadership of the struggle, assuming a role they played in previous battles against British colonialism and military dictators.

Initially, the maroon-robed clerics preferred to make their point indirectly through chants and prayers while marching in disciplined lines through Yangon and other cities.

But as the public began joining in large numbers, the demonstrators have taken up the longtime themes of the pro-democracy movement: national reconciliation -- meaning dialogue between the government and opposition parties -- and freedom for political prisoners, as well as pleas for adequate food, shelter and clothing.

A pivotal figure is Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, detained leader of the opposition National League for Democracy party, whose 1990 general election victory was rejected by the military, which refused to hand over power.

Under detention for 12 of the past 18 years, and continuously since May 2003, her fleeting appearance at the gate of the Yangon residence where she is under house arrest squarely identified the current protests with her party's longtime peaceful struggle for democracy.

In what appeared to be a miscalculation by the junta, a crowd of about 500 monks and sympathizers was let through police barricades Saturday to her home where she briefly greeted them in her first public appearance in four years. Further attempts to march to her house were then barred by police.

Monday's 100,000 anti-government demonstrators in Yangon, led by a phalanx of Buddhist monks was the largest crowd to stage a political protest in Myanmar since the failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

Marching for more than five hours and over at least 20 kilometers (12 miles), a last hard-core group of more than 1,000 monks and 400 sympathizers finished by walking up to an intersection where police blocked access to the street where Suu Kyi lives.

Making no effort to push past, the marchers chanted a Buddhist prayer with the words "May there be peace," and then dispersed. About 500 onlookers cheered their act of defiance, as 100 riot police with helmets and shields stared stonily ahead.

State television broadcast footage Monday night of Thura Myint Maung meeting with senior monks at Yangon's Kaba Aye Pagoda, during which the he said the protesting monks represented just two percent of the country's total.

The religious affairs minister said the opposition National League for Democracy party, the 88 Generation Students activist group, and agitators from the West, including foreign media had instigated the monks to cause trouble.

The government has been handling the monks gingerly, aware that if they were seen to mistreat or abuse them, it would raise the ire of ordinary citizens in this devout, predominantly Buddhist nation.

But the minister's statement links the protesting monks to groups the government had long treated as enemies, and subjected to arbitrary detention.

Monday's march was launched from the Shwedagon pagoda, the country's most sacred shrine, and gathered participants as 20,000 monks took the lead. Students joined the protest in significant numbers for the first time. Security forces were not in evidence for most of the march route.

Diplomats and analysts said Myanmar's military rulers were showing unexpected restraint this time because of pressure from the country's key trading partner and diplomatic ally, China.

"The Myanmar government is tolerating the protesters and not taking any action against the monks because of pressure from China," said a Southeast Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of protocol.

"Beijing is to host the next summer's Olympic Games. Everyone knows that China is the major supporter of the junta so if government takes any action it will affect the image of China."

China, which is counting on Myanmar's vast oil and gas reserves to help fuel its booming economy, earlier this year blocked a U.N. Security Council criticizing Myanmar's rights record, saying it was not the right forum.

Much of the West applies diplomatic and political sanctions against the junta, but Chinese aid -- along with the oil and gas revenues -- effectively undercuts any leverage they might have had.