As many as 100,000 protesters led by a phalanx of barefoot monks marched Monday in the most powerful show of strength yet from a movement that has grown in a week from faltering demonstrations to one rivaling the failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising.
Hours after the protest ended peacefully, Myanmar’s military government broadcast an ominous warning, telling senior Buddhist clerics that unless they restrained their juniors, the government would take action on its own against those it said were instigated by the regime’s domestic and foreign enemies.
Marching for more than five hours and over at least 12 miles, a last hard-core group of more than 1,000 maroon-robed Buddhist monks and 400 sympathizers finished by walking up to an intersection where police blocked access to the street where democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest.
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 the act of defiance, as 100 riot police with helmets and shield stared stonily ahead.
Some participants said there were several hundred thousand marchers in their ranks, but an international aid agency official with employees monitoring the crowd estimated said the size was well over 50,000 and approaching 100,000.
Protests started Aug. 19
It was the latest in a series of protests that began Aug. 19 as a movement against economic hardship in the Southeast Asian country after the government sharply raised fuel prices. But arrests and intimidation kept demonstrations small and scattered until the monks joined and managed to bring people into the streets in numbers not seen since 1988.
On Aug. 8, 1988, demonstrations against the military dictatorship spread across the country, then known as Burma, and propelled Suu Kyi into prominence. The uprising toppled dictator Ne Win, but a new crop of generals seized power in September 1988 after brutally crushing the nationwide demonstrations, gunning down crowds and arresting protesters. Thousands died.
The junta called elections in 1990 but refused to recognize the landslide victory of Suu Kyi’s party. Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel peace prize while under house arrest, was last detained in May 2003 after her motorcade was attacked in northern Myanmar by a pro-junta mob.
The usually iron-fisted junta has so far kept minimal security at the latest wave of protests, and diplomats and analysts said Myanmar’s military rulers were showing the unexpected restraint because of pressure from the country’s key trading partner and diplomatic ally, China. The government is also aware that any abuse of the monks could rouse widespread anger in this devout, predominantly Buddhist nation.
But a state television broadcast on Monday night showed of Brig. Gen. Thura Myint Maung, the religious affairs minister, meeting with senior monks at Yangon’s Kaba Aye Pagoda.
In the broadcast, he said the protesting monks represented just 2 percent of the country’s total, but were instigated to cause trouble by the opposition National League for Democracy party, the 88 Generation Students activist group, and agitators from the West, including foreign media.
But the statement explicitly linked the protesting monks to groups the government had long treated as enemies, subject to arbitrary detention.
Citizens 'deserve better,' U.S. says
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Monday that the people of Myanmar, also known as Burma, “deserve better than they’re getting.” He urged the regime to listen to the protesters’ complaints and allow political freedoms.
“We appreciate and respect the difficulties that people have in trying to express their views in a society as repressive as Burma is right now,” Casey said.
The monks initially took a vague stand of supporting the people in their time of trouble, with the clerics prefer to make their point indirectly through chants and prayers at key locations.
But the members of the public who have joined them have taken up chanting the slogans of the pro-democracy movement: national reconciliation — meaning dialogue between the government and opposition parties — freedom for political prisoners, and pleas for adequate food, shelter and clothing.
A Southeast Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of protocol, said the regime is under pressure from China to avoid a crackdown just as its larger neighbor has pressured it to speed up other democratic changes.
“Everyone knows that China is the major supporter of the junta so if government takes any action it will affect the image of China,” the diplomat told The Associated Press.
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.
But at the same time, it has employed quiet diplomacy and subtle public pressure on the regime, urging it to move toward inclusive democracy.
“China is very eager to have a peaceful Burma in order to complete roads and railroads, to develop mines and finish assimilating the country under its economic control,” said Josef Silverstein, a political scientist and author of several books on Myanmar.
The movement seemed to gain momentum Saturday, when more than 500 monks and sympathizers went past barricades to walk to the house where Suu Kyi is under house arrest. She greeted them from her gate in her first public appearance in more than four years. Access to her home was barred Sunday and Monday.