YANGON (AFP) — At least 3,000 people led by Buddhist monks marched along flooded streets in Yangon on Friday, piling pressure on Myanmar's ruling junta in the most sustained challenge to its rule in nearly 20 years.
About 1,500 cinnamon-robed monks marched barefoot through the city, attracting an equal number of followers who left the sidewalks in driving rain to wade through sometimes knee-deep water and chant prayers calling for peace.
Hundreds more people clapped from the sidewalks and from open windows along the route as the procession passed by.
The protests that began on August 19 have turned into the most prolonged show of defiance in nearly 20 years against the military, which has ruled this impoverished nation once known as Burma since 1962.
The latest protest began with about 500 Buddhist monks walking to the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most important landmark, witnesses said.
As they continued their march into downtown, the number of monks swelled to 1,500 with another 1,500 supporters joining them. About 100 women formed a human chain to protect the monks, who carried multi-coloured religious flags.
They stopped outside the Yangon city hall, where they chanted prayers, reciting: "Peace and security will prevail. The people will not be harmed."
The monks kept marching even as night fell, chanting their prayers in Yangon's busiest market, before returning to the pagoda where they began their march nearly six hours earlier, witnesses said.
Earlier Friday, about 200 clergy held a separate prayer vigil in the northern part of the city, witnesses said.
Monks have protested against the regime all week, revitalising anti-junta rallies that erupted a month ago amid public anger over a massive hike in fuel prices, which has left many unable to afford bus fare to get to work.
"Monks are taking to the streets in order to make the government listen and understand people's suffering," said Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based Myanmar analyst.
Some monks have refused to accept donations from members of the military, a gesture seen as a severe rebuke tantamount to excommunication for Buddhists, who believe that giving alms daily is an important religious duty.
More than 150 people, including some of the nation's most prominent pro-democracy leaders, have been arrested since the protests began last month.
Myanmar's pro-democracy movement has long demanded reforms from the regime and freedom for Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the last 18 years under house arrest.
But the latest protests have centred on bread-and-butter issues such as the skyrocketing costs of food and transportation, concerns that cross the often deep social divisions in a country wracked by decades of ethnic conflicts.
"We've been waiting for this kind of day for 45 years," said an elderly Muslim man watching the protest.
"I was thrilled to be a Buddhist," said one woman who teared up as she recalled applauding the monks during Thursday's protest.
The mounting turmoil has drawn growing international pressure, with Britain and the United States saying they were "appalled" at the junta's handling of the peaceful protests.
Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Friday urged a "robust international response" and called for "positive change" in Myanmar, saying he would raise the issue at the UN General Assembly in New York next week.
The US and British ambassadors to the United Nations on Thursday urged Myanmar to allow a visit by UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari "as soon as possible."
Analysts say the protests have become the most prolonged show of dissent against the military regime since a 1988 uprising that ended with soldiers firing into crowds on the streets, killing hundreds if not thousands of people.
After that uprising, the military held elections in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won in a landslide, but the junta never recognised the result.
The Buddhist clergy were credited with drawing popular support to the 1988 uprising.
Any action against the monks would likely spark a public backlash, leaving the military with few good options for curbing the protests.
While the protests in Yangon have so far ended peacefully, the junta used tear gas and fired warning shots in the air to break up about 1,000 Buddhist monks rallying against the regime on Tuesday in the oil town of Sittwe.
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