YANGON, Myanmar – About 1,500 Buddhist monks marched through downtown Yangon on Friday, joined by an equal number of onlookers, as a monthlong protest against Myanmar's military government showed little sign of faltering.
Many of the monks gathered first at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's most revered shrine and a historic center for protest movements. Their number increased to about 1,500 as they marched downtown and stopped for prayers at another pagoda.
The number of monks increased from about 1,000 who staged a similar march Thursday, but the total crowd was smaller, with fewer onlookers joining as they walked in very heavy rain.
It was the fourth straight day the monks have marched in Yangon. Their activities have given new life to a protest movement that began after the government raised fuel prices, sparking demonstrations against policies that are causing economic hardship.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Special Envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari told the Security Council Thursday in New York that recent protests and the military regime's subsequent crackdowns raised "serious concerns" and underlined the urgency of resolving the political turmoil in Myanmar.
Gambari told the council in a closed door session he plans to visit Myanmar, also known as Burma, but has set no date.
"Undoubtedly, the developments over the last few weeks in Myanmar have raised serious concerns in the international community and once again underscore the urgency to step up our efforts to find solutions to the challenges facing the country," Gambari told the council, according to a U.N. account of the closed session.
On Thursday, almost 1,000 monks — joined by thousands of their countrymen — marched through Yangon and staged a demonstration at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's holiest shrine, which has served as gathering place for anti-government demonstrations for decades, including a failed 1988 democratic uprising.
Authorities, normally quick to crack down hard on dissent, left the marchers unmolested, apparently wary of sparking further problems. Bystanders linked arms to form a human chain to prevent a possible disruption.
Rumors were rife that the anti-government protests would spark a government crackdown, a charge denied by a government spokesman.
"The Myanmar government will not declare a state of emergency. You can see the government handles the situation peacefully," the Information Ministry's Ye Htut said, in an e-mail response to a query sent Thursday.
Monks launched the latest series of protests Tuesday, after the junta failed to apologize by a Monday deadline for allegedly roughing up monks during a protest in the northern Myanmar town of Pakokku on Sept. 5.
The government, meanwhile, has tried to distance itself from events in Pakokku and accused pro-democracy activists of trying to use the protests to provoke monks, students and others into launching an uprising similar to the one in 1988.
"The international community should see their hidden agenda and stop hailing them as a democracy activists," Ye Htut said.
The protests also reflect long pent-up opposition to the repressive military regime, and have become the most sustained challenge to the junta since a wave of student demonstrations that were forcibly suppressed in December 1996.
Authorities have so far detained dozens of activists. Local journalists covering the protests have also been harassed and had their equipment stolen, which the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders on Friday called a strategy aimed at preventing them from doing their jobs.
The press freedom group also said the protests have been accompanied by an increase in censorship and propaganda in the media.
"The censorship bureau has systematically rejected articles in which the protests against cost of living increases have been covered in an independent manner," it said in a statement.
The crackdown on activists has drawn widespread condemnation. On Thursday, the Hong-Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission urged the Buddhist community worldwide to join with monks in Myanmar to boycott anybody from or associated with its military regime.