YANGON (AFP) — More than 100,000 people flooded the streets of Myanmar's biggest city Monday, joining Buddhist monks in the strongest show of dissent against the ruling generals in nearly two decades.
In swelling tides of humanity, two major marches snaked their way through the nation's commercial capital led by robed monks chanting prayers of peace and compassion, witnesses said.
Some of the people marched through the rain under a banner reading: "This is a peaceful mass movement." Others had tears in their eyes.
The protests lasted nearly five hours, ending with prayers at pagodas before the crowds returned to their homes.
About 800 of them stopped to pray near a roadblock guarded by 100 riot police blocking the street to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's home, but they did not try to press their way to the compound where she is under house arrest.
Political dissidents based in Thailand said major protests also took place in Myanmar's second city of Mandalay, the western oil town of Sittwe, and the religious centre of Pakokku, but the reports were difficult to confirm.
The generals have normally been tough on dissent, and their 1988 crackdown left hundreds if not thousands dead. But Monday's rally was the latest in more than a month of growing demonstrations against the junta since a massive fuel price hike triggered public anger.
The monks and supporters set off from holy Shwedagon Pagoda and walked past the offices of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which won elections in 1990 but was never allowed to govern.
NLD officials came out to join the marchers, many of whom fixed small strips of the coloured cloth of the monks' robes onto their own shirts, in a procession that quickly swelled to more than 30,000 people.
"We are marching for the people," one monk told the crowd, urging them not to chant political slogans and only to recite prayers of peace.
At one point they marched past the War Office, where soldiers watched from inside the compound but took no action.
A second march estimated by witnesses at up to 100,000 people headed north of the city, drawing in ever more as it marched past the now-shuttered campus of a university that was the scene of the 1988 uprising.
It appeared to stretch for as long as a kilometre (more than half a mile), blocking traffic on one of the city's major thoroughfares.
Two of Myanmar's most famous actors, comedian Zaganar and movie heart-throb Kyaw Thu, came to Shwedagon earlier to bring food and water to the monks, who have been protesting every day for nearly a week.
The British ambassador in Yangon, Mark Canning, said the country's leaders were now in uncharted territory and doubted that the protests would fizzle.
"You could see a sharp reaction from the government, which is more likely," he told AFP.
"The obvious way out of this is to sit down with the various elements that are involved in all this and try and reach some sort of common ground, because what we are seeing now is a symptom of the failure of the political process they have been engaged in."
Analysts believe the junta is holding back because any violence against the monks in this devoutly Buddhist nation would spark a huge outcry.
David Mathieson, Myanmar consultant with New York-based Human Rights Watch, told AFP that civilians joining the monks in such significant numbers marked a major escalation of the protest movement.
"I'm heartened by the fact that there hasn't been a violent crackdown by the authorities (but) this is still an incredibly tense time," he said.
In a surprise move on Saturday, armed police allowed about 2,000 monks and civilians to pray outside the home of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, long the face of resistance to the generals who have ruled here since 1962.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate stepped outside the lakeside home where she has been under house arrest for more than a decade and greeted the crowd, but riot police have blocked the road since Sunday.
Prominent democracy activists initially led the rallies but the generals arrested more than 200 people, according to human rights groups.
The United States and European nations are preparing to round on Myanmar at this week's annual general debate at the United Nations, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice branding the military leadership "brutal."
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