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Burma's monk-led rebellion gains pace

Rangoon - Tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and their laymen supporters marched through the streets on Yangon Monday in the largest demonstration march against Myanmar's military regime in nearly two decades.

An estimated 30,000 monks and their followers marched peacefully from pagoda to pagoda in downtown Rangoon, in the seventh day of a barefoot rebellion that has thus far avoided a military crackdown, to the amazement of many observers.

It was impossible to tell how many people had joined the monks, or had simply shown up to watch the spectacle, but the crowds were definitely supportive.

Thousands of the monks passed by the headquarters of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), which is headed by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. 

NLD officers cheered the monks as they passed. On Monday afternoon the NLD executive committee issued a statement calling on the government to open a dialogue with them to resolve Burma's political crisis peacefully.

Hopes are high that the peaceful monk-led protests will encourage Burma's junta to open a political dialogue with the NLD, something it has studiously avoided doing for the past 17 years.

"We welcome the peaceful path the demonstrations have taken," said German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger.

The position of Germany and of the European Union was that genuine reform, based on "inclusive dialogue with all political forces" was necessary, he said in Berlin.

The NLD won Burma's 1990 general election by a landslide, but the party has been blocked from assuming power by the military, who have ruled the country since 1962.

The road to Suu Kyi's house, where she has been kept under arrest since May, 2003, was heavily barricaded to prevent the monks from visiting her as they did on Saturday, eyewitnesses said.

The monks dispersed late Monday afternoon, returning to their respective temples. More marches are expected on Tuesday. 

Monday's protest was bigger than Sunday's, when more than 10,000 laymen joined approximately 3,000 marching monks and 300 nuns, many of whom shouted political slogans for the first time, calling on the ruling regime to free opposition leader Suu Kyi.

It was the biggest demonstration of defiance against the junta since the pro-NLD rallies that preceded Suu Kyi's return to house arrest in 2003, and possibly since the bloody confrontations of 1988.

A clash between the military and monks seems inevitable, Western diplomats said.

"We expect some kind of a resolution in the next few days," said one Western diplomat. "Either the protests go up or go down, but it can't go on like this."

Burma's military has killed protesting monks before, most recently in the 1988 anti-government demonstrations.

But this is the first time Burma's 400,000-strong Buddhist monkhood has taken a lead in the protest movement, pitting rifles against their maroon-coloured robes in a looming confrontation that could easily spark an uprising if mishandled.

The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has a long track record of mismanagement. It was their decision on August 15 to more than double local fuel prices overnight, without a system of gradual hikes and no prior warnings to the public, that has led them to the current predicament.      

Peaceful demonstrations against the fuel hikes started in Rangoon on August 19, but were quickly suppressed by authorities who arrested more than 100 protest leaders.

The protest movement was then picked up by Burma's monkhood earlier this month, and has now spread nationwide.

Burma's junta has kept a tight lid on discontent for the past 19 years, cracking down on all shows of student-led protests and dissent from opposition politicians such as Suu Kyi's supporters.

The monks' movement has put Burma's regime in an awkward position. If the rulers do not 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 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.

In September 1988, the army cracked down on the pro-democracy movement, leaving an estimated 3,000 dead.//dpa

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