As many as 10,000 Buddhist monks marched through Myanmar's central city of Mandalay on Saturday, witnesses said, in one of the largest demonstrations against the country's strict military regime since a 1988 democratic uprising.
At the same time, about 1,000 monks began marching toward downtown in the country's biggest city, Yangon, from the Shwedagon Pagoda _ Myanmar's most revered shrine and a historic center for protest movements.
It was the fifth straight day the monks have marched in Yangon, and the numbers indicated that the anti-government protest were growing in size.
The monk's activities have given new life to a protest movement that began a month ago after the government raised fuel prices, triggering demonstrations against policies that are causing economic hardship.
'Evil military despotism'
Meanwhile, a monks' organization for the first time urged the public to join in protesting "evil military despotism" in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
"In order to banish the common enemy evil regime for Burmese soil forever, united masses of people need to join hands with the united clergy forces," the All Burma Monks Alliance said in the statement, received Saturday by The Associated Press.
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.
"We pronounce the evil military despotism, which is impoverishing and pauperizing our people of all walks including the Clergy, as the common enemy of all our citizens," the statement said.
A day earlier, about 1,500 barefoot Buddhist monks marched more than 16 kilometers (10 miles) through Yangon's flooded streets, sometimes in knee-deep water, in a raging tropical downpour.
The monks drew more than 1,000 sympathizers to march with them.
"I feel so sorry to see the monks walking in heavy rain and taking such trouble on behalf of the people. I feel so grateful as well," said a 50-year-old woman with tears rolling down her face. Like most onlookers, she asked not to be named for fear of drawing the unwelcome attention from authorities.
At one point, a young man in white T-shirt and shorts flung himself to the ground, showing his devotion and gratitude by touching his forehead to one monk's feet, a Buddhist gesture of reverence.
There were several other protest Friday, including one by 500 monks and residents in Mogok, 670 kilometers (420 miles) north of Yangon. Mogok famous for its rubies, and most of the protesters were gem mine workers.
The 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.
The government has been handling the situation gingerly, aware that forcibly breaking up the monks' protest in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar would likely cause public outrage.
The monks also struck an emotive chord among the public by gathering at Shwedagon, which is not only a religious center but a historical focal point for social and political protests.
Student strikers against British colonial rule gathered there in the 1920s and 30s, and the country's independence hero, Gen. Aung San, took up the same cause there in a famous 1946 speech.
But to many people, the pagoda is best remembered as the site of a vast Aug. 26, 1988, rally where Aung San's daughter, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, took up leadership of a pro-democracy movement.
The 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed by the military, and Suu Kyi has spent nearly 12 of the past 18 years in detention.
Monks launched the latest series of protests Tuesday, after the junta failed to apologize by a Monday deadline for allegedly roughing them up during a protest in the northern town of Pakokku on Sept. 5.