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.
The enormous show of strength drew a swift threat from the military government to "take action" against the monks, even as world leaders urged the junta to show restraint in dealing with the protests.
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.
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.
In the first official reaction to a week of escalating protests led by the monks, state media reported that the religion minister, Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung, had issued a warning to senior clergy.
"If the monks go against the rules and regulations in the authority of the Buddhist teachings, we will take action under the existing law," state television quoted the minister as saying.
The threat came as the international community urged restraint by the junta on the eve of the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York, where world leaders are expected to push the generals to adopt democratic reforms.
"We are consulting with allies and friends in the regions on ways to encourage dialogue between the regime and those seeking freedom," said US national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Germany and France added their voices to the chorus, with the foreign ministry in Paris warning that the junta would be held accountable if there were any harsh crackdowns on the streets of major cities.
Closer to home, Malaysian lawmakers urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to use its influence to push Myanmar, itself a member of the regional bloc, to reform.
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.
A second march estimated 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.
The British ambassador in Yangon, Mark Canning, said the country's leaders were now in uncharted territory and doubted that the protests would fizzle out.
"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."
Analysts believe the junta has thus far held back because any violence against the monks in this devoutly Buddhist nation would spark a huge outcry.
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.
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