Nuns swell Burma protests

Buddhist nuns swelled the forces of anti-government protesters in Burma as up to 20,000 people took to the streets.

A march in Rangoon's streets, including about 10,000 monks and at least 100 white-robed nuns, was the country's largest anti-government protest since a failed democratic uprising in 1988.

It raised both expectations of possible political change and fear that the military might revert to form by trying to stamp out the demonstrations by force of arms, as it did in 1988, when it ended up killing thousands of people nationwide.

The protests began on August 19 as a movement against economic hardship, after the government sharply raised fuel prices, increasing the overall cost of living.

Arrests and intimidation saw the movement begin to falter until last week, when monks - who have long served as the country's conscience - became the protests' vanguard.

The movement seemed to gain momentum on Saturday, when more than 500 monks and sympathisers had been allowed past barricades to walk to the house where democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is being detained.

She greeted them from her gate in her first public appearance in more than four years.

The meeting symbolically linked the current protests to Nobel laureate's Suu Kyi's struggle for democracy, which has seen her detained for about 12 of the last 18 years.

But any optimism on the protesters' part was tempered yesterday when government security forces - who had kept a low profile for the past few days - deployed in force to block a new march to Suu Kyi's house.

The junta had clearly been trying to avoid provoking the well-disciplined, widely respected monks, aware that mistreating them would likely cause public outrage in staunchly Buddhist Burma.

Suu Kyi, 62, is the leader of the National League for Democracy party, which won a 1990 general election but was not allowed to take power by the military. She has been under detention continuously since May 2003.

The heavy security presence, including two lines of police - the rear line armed - and a police van and fire engine, raised tensions after several days of a hands-off approach by authorities.

A south-east Asian diplomat said today that the Burma junta is showing unexpected restraint in the face of the country's biggest protests in two decades because of pressure from its key trading partner China.

The diplomat, speaking on condition anonymity, said the regime is under pressure from China to avoid a crackdown just as its larger neighbour has pressured it to speed up other democratic changes.

"The Burma government is tolerating the protesters and not taking any action against the monks because of pressure from China," the diplomat said. "Beijing is to host the next summer's Olympic Games. Everyone knows that China is the major supporter of junta, so if the government takes any action, it will affect the image of China."

The march of 20,000 people in the city centre yesterday was led by 10,000 monks who gathered at the famous golden hilltop Shwedagon Pagoda before marching to Sule Pagoda and past the US Embassy and other places, witnesses said.

Some monks shouted support for Suu Kyi, while a crowd of about 10,000 sympathisers marched along, some holding hands to form a human chain to protect the maroon-robed clerics.

While authorities did not intervene, plain-clothes police trailed the marchers. Some, armed with shotguns, were posted at street corners along the route.

A monk gave a speech yesterday calling for Suu Kyi's release and national reconciliation, the witnesses said, again positioning their cause with her long-running struggle for democracy.

Other monks' demonstrations took place Sunday in the cities of Mandalay, Monywa, Kalay and the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina, said reports.

In the latest expression of international concern over the events, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the people of Burma "deserve a life to be able to live in freedom, just as everyone does".

Meanwhile, about 3,000 Buddhist monks began gathering today at the country's famous Shwedagon Pagoda, ahead of further demonstrations against the military regime, witnesses said.

The monks were joined by 4,000 civilian supporters at the pagoda, considered Burma's most revered shrine and a historic centre for protest movements.

They were expected to begin marching in the coming hours, witnesses added. It was the seventh straight day monks have come out against the government in Rangoon.

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