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Monks brave torrential rains to march against Burmese junta

Rangoon - Hundreds of Buddhist monks on Friday braved torrential rains and a possible crackdown to stage a protest march in Yangon against Burma's ruling regime for the fourth consecutive day.

About 500 monks marched barefoot from various townships to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the cultural and spiritual heart of Rangoon, where they congregated after noon in the pouring rain to chant prayers in a passive protest against the country's military junta.

 Monks have been marching against the regime in Rangoon since Tuesday and have thus far avoided reprisals. Friday's march attracted fewer laymen because of the heavy downpour, witnesses said.

 A small segment of Burma's much revered monkhood has joined the non-violent movement to protest the country's deteriorating economic conditions since mid-August when the government more than doubled fuel prices, exacerbating inflation which has been in the double-digit range for the past two years.

 Initially, the anti-inflation protests were led by political activists and members of the opposition party led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, but this month, monks in central Burma joined the fray.

 On September 5, Buddhist monks took to the streets in Pakokku, 530 kilometres north of Rangoon, to protest the fuel price hikes and the arrests of more than 100 protestors in Rangoon.

 After government thugs attacked the monks, protests by the saffron-robed holy men have spread to other cities and this week returned to Yangon.

The monks' movement has put Burma's regime in an awkward position. If the rulers don't crack down on the protests, the demonstrations are likely to spread, but if they attack the monks, they would enrage the people.

 Buddhist monks have a long history of political activism in Burma, a predominantly Buddhist country.

 The monkhood played a prominent role in Burma's struggle for independence from Great Britain, which came in 1948, and joined students in the anti-military demonstrations that rocked Burma in 1988 and ended in bloodshed.

 Like the recent protests, the 1988 mass demonstrations were sparked by rising discontent with the military's mismanagement of the economy and refusal to introduce some semblance of democracy.

 On September 8, 1988, the army cracked down on the pro-democracy movement, leaving an estimated 3,000 dead.

 The generals at the time vowed to never allow a repeat of 1988, a vow they have carried out through the suppression of any show of unrest in the country.

 Although the military allowed a general election in 1990, it ignored the outcome when 80 per cent of the votes went to the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi's party. Its reaction made the junta a pariah in the West.

 Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since May 2003. Her ongoing incarceration is harshly criticised by Western democracies and many of Burma's Asian neighbours.//dpa

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