An estimated 100,000 people joined 20,000 Buddhist monks in a twelve-mile protest march through Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) on Monday. The protesters are opposed to the ruling military junta in Myanmar who have been in power since the 1960s.
Within hours of the end of the peaceful protest, Myanmar's military government issued a dire warning to senior Buddhist clerics telling them that if they did not restrain their juniors, the government would take action. The government says those involved were instigated by the regime's domestic and foreign enemies.
Tuesday was the 19th anniversary of the current junta’s violent crackdown that crushed vast pro-democracy demonstrations. This latest round of protests began August 19 when several hundred citizens marched to protest the government’s increased fuel prices that resulted in a significantly higher cost of living.
Monks began peacefully protesting August 30 in Sittwe. A second march took place on September 5 in the northern town of Pakokku. It was ended when troops fired warning shots, and Junta supporters manhandled some marchers.
The movement seemed to falter with arrests and intimidation, but the monks, regarded as the moral authority, took to the streets last week and were joined by 20,000 people and 100 white-robed nuns. Plainclothes police followed the protesters. Some of the police carried shotguns, while other police manned street corners ahead of the march.
Several other marches took place in Yangon, all lead by monks. Myanmar exile media reported demonstrations took place in Mandalay, Monywa, Kalay, and the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina.
A religious boycott has been started by some of the monks wherein they hold their black begging bowls upside down, a symbolic gesture refusing alms from authorities and those who support them.
The word for “boycott” in the Myanmar language originates with the words for holding the bowl upside down. To ostracize the junta in this way is of great significance for the country's very devout Buddhist population.
Supporters offered the monks water, milk, and soda. Numerous people taking part in the Yangon march created a human chain to protect the monks.
The military has not challenged the protester’s leaders. They know any malevolence toward the monks would provoke public outrage.
About 400 people took another route in Monday’s march, heading for the house of pro-democracy leader, reformist leader, and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. They were blocked by security forces already in place.
Suu Kyi greeted the protesters, her first public appearance in almost five years. Her appearance serves to symbolically connect the protests with her struggle for democracy.
Sixty-two year old Suu Kyi is the leader of the National League for Democracy party. An opposition movement, led by Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy party, won general elections in 1990.
Suu Kyi and the party were barred from assuming power by the military who refused to honor the results. Suu Kyi has been detained since May of 2003 and has been under house arrest, off and on, for nearly twenty years.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the people of Myanmar "deserve a life to be able to live in freedom, just as everyone does." She noted the Bush administration is watching the situation “very carefully.”
Tom Casey, U.S. State Department spokesman, said Monday the people of Myanmar "deserve better than they're getting," and urges 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.
President Bush is scheduled to discuss the “brutality” of the military’s regime. His is to rally support for pro-democracy protesters when he and other leaders meet at the U.N. General Assembly.