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Buddhist monks test Myanmar's junta

September 23, 2007|Michael Casey | Associated Press

BANGKOK — Armed only with downturned begging bowls, Buddhist monks in Myanmar have caught the country's military rulers off guard with their peaceful protests.

They have emboldened the public to take to the streets to support the most dramatic anti-government protests the isolated Southeast Asian nation, also known as Burma, has seen in a decade.

Braving monsoon rains, monks in traditional maroon robes demonstrated for a fourth straight day Friday in the country's largest city, Yangon. Followed by clapping onlookers, about 1,500 monks marched after praying at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the nation's holiest shrine and a gathering place for anti-government protests.

The monks, who are widely respected in the mostly Buddhist nation, bring moral authority to the movement with their nonviolence and sheer numbers: There are 500,000 in monasteries across the country.

Their assumption of leadership in protests poses perhaps the gravest threat to the junta since 1988, when the military fired on peaceful crowds, killing thousands.

It has put the regime in a quandary over whether to crack down or take a chance and allow the protests to run their course.

Josef Silverstein, a Myanmar expert and retired Rutgers University professor, said the junta may wait until it assesses how many monks support the protests and who is actually leading them. Yet waiting much longer could be risky.

"This could encourage people to be more resistant. The longer this stalemate goes on, the weaker the military looks to the country and outside," he said.

Images of the monks have increased support for the opposition's cause worldwide. Washington, the United Nations and Hollywood stars have called on the junta to enact democratic reforms and release the leader of the opposition, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and other political prisoners.

The current demonstrations are the most militant since December 1996, when students gathered in Yangon to demand improvements in education and the right to organize in a union.

The latest protests were triggered by government hikes in fuel prices by as much as 500%. Monks demand that the government reduce fuel prices, release all political prisoners and negotiate with Suu Kyi and other democratic leaders.

Monks carry upside-down alms bowl, a symbol of protest.

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