YANGON (AFP) — Myanmar's junta deployed hundreds of soldiers and riot police in its biggest city Tuesday, after Buddhist monks defied warnings of a crackdown and led 100,000 people in another day of mass protests.
Eleven military trucks, each with about 20 soldiers and riot police, were deployed around the Yangon city hall, where hours earlier some 30,000 monks and 70,000 supporters had massed in an extraordinary gesture of defiance.
The security forces stayed in the vehicles, while about 500 onlookers gathered warily on a nearby sidewalk, witnesses said.
The moves came as US President George W. Bush ordered new sanctions against Myanmar's military government and urged support for the protesters.
"Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear," he said in a speech to the UN General Assembly.
"The ruling junta remains unyielding, yet the people's desire for freedom is unmistakable."
The regime earlier Tuesday sternly warned the protesters not to continue their rallies, which have run for eight consecutive days in Yangon and drawn massive turnouts since the weekend.
But the monks, dressed in saffron and red robes, swarmed around city hall and the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon, praying and chanting and holding colourful religious banners and images of Buddha.
Thousands of people linked hands to form a human chain around them, while many more bystanders thronged the sidewalks to clap and cheer, offering water to the demonstrators under the blazing tropical sun.
"National reconciliation is very important for us. People and monks are gathering here, and the monks are standing up for the people," famed poet Aung Way said in a speech to the crowd delivered through a small microphone.
Some of the monks chanted "We want dialogue" or carried banners reading: "May people's desires be fulfilled."
Large contingents of students joined the march, carrying the red flags emblazoned with yellow peacocks that symbolise the National League for Democracy of detained Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The protest swept on through the city and paused outside the United Nations office, where the monks called for the democracy icon to be freed from house arrest.
"Release Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners," they chanted.
The NLD joined calls for a peaceful resolution to the demonstrations, which have swelled into a nationwide movement that poses the most potent challenge to the junta's rule in 20 years.
"We can definitely solve these matters because of our recent condition and the general crisis in our country. The only way is through peaceful dialogue," it said in a statement.
Clearly alarmed by two days of mass gatherings, including a crowd of 100,000 which took to the streets Monday, government officials drove through central Yangon using loudspeakers to warn against new protests.
State media bluntly ordered the monks to stay clear of politics, reinforcing government threats of a crackdown carried on state television.
"We have no fear at all," said one young protester. "This is the only thing we can do. We will continue to act according to Buddhist teachings in this protest."
In the late afternoon the demonstrators returned to the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's holiest shrine where their gathering had begun, and before dispersing told witnesses they would hold fresh protests on Wednesday.
Exiled groups reported that monks and their supporters had rallied right across the impoverished nation, as far as the western border with Bangladesh.
The demonstrations are the biggest public show of dissent since student-led rallies in 1988 were brutally repressed with the loss of hundreds if not thousands of lives.
The clergy's revered status has made them rallying figures for public anger, which first erupted more than one month ago after a crippling hike in fuel prices.
Analysts believe the junta, which has extended iron rule over Myanmar for more than four decades, has held back so far for fear that any violence against monks in this devoutly Buddhist nation would spark a huge outcry.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon opened the annual General Assembly summit in New York on Tuesday with a call to the Myanmar regime to "exercise restraint" in the face of the escalating pro-democracy protests.
In his speech to the assembly, Bush said the US would tighten economic sanctions on the leaders of the regime and their financial backers.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the situation would improve when Aung San Suu Kyi "takes her rightful place as the elected leader of a free and democratic Burma." London later voiced support for the US sanctions.
China, one of the regime's closest allies, called for stability but said it would stick to its policy of non-interference.
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