YANGON, Myanmar – More than 1,000 Buddhist monks marched peacefully in two cities Tuesday, the latest in a wave of recent anti-government protests that have rocked the country, witnesses said.
At least 400 monks, chanting prayers and walking in rows of two and three, marched in the Southeast Asian country's biggest city, Yangon, said witnesses who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
After pro-junta toughs and plainclothes police barred them from entering Yangon's famous Shwedagon pagoda and then the Botataung pagoda, the monks sat in the street and chanted before ending the protest and returning to monasteries.
Thousands of onlookers cheered, clapped and offered water as the saffron-robed monks made the three-hour, 10-mile march.
"We are grateful to the monks for making good on their promise despite heavy security presence and obstacles," said a man who followed the monks throughout the march. He refused to give his name for fear of reprisals.
Unlike at earlier protests, junta supporters did not intervene. They did, however, snatch video cameras and cameras from some journalists and attempted to seize one journalist and force him into a truck, witnesses said.
Meanwhile, in the city of Bago about 50 miles away, about 1,000 monks peacefully marched to the Shwemawdaw pagoda, residents said.
No one was arrested in either march. Both ended peacefully.
The monks had given authorities a Monday deadline to apologize for beating hundreds of them two weeks ago as they marched peacefully in Pakokku, a center of Buddhist learning, to protest rising fuel and consumer prices. The apology never came.
As a result, monks threatened to launch nationwide marches Tuesday, to cut off contact with the military and their families, and to refuse alms from them — a humiliating gesture that would embarrass the junta.
The anti-government protests began Aug. 19 after the government raised fuel prices by as much as 500 percent, putting the squeeze on already impoverished citizens. The protests have continued despite the detention of more than 100 demonstrators and the rough treatment of others.
Monks have been at the forefront of political protests in Myanmar, also known as Burma, since British colonial times. Because they are so revered by the public, repressing them is politically risky. The junta is wary that demonstrations could gain momentum if monks keep protesting.
Tuesday's march also comes on the 19th anniversary of the coup 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.