YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- Buddhist monks spearheading the biggest anti-government marches in nearly two decades relaunched their protests in Myanmar's two major cities Tuesday, defying orders to stay out of politics.
About 4,000 monks, cheered on by several thousand supporters, gathered for an eighth day of peaceful protest at Yangon's soaring Shwedagon Pagoda while some 700 marched in the country's second largest city of Mandalay.
The demonstrations came despite orders to the Buddhist clergy to halt all political activity and return to their monasteries and as pro-junta supporters in pickup trucks cruised Yangon warning that large crowds were illegal.
The protests in Yangon reached 100,000 on Monday, becoming the biggest demonstrations since the suppressed democratic uprising in 1988, when the military fired on peaceful crowds and killed thousands, terrorizing the country.
The warning shows the increasing pressure the junta is under to either crack down on or compromise with a reinvigorated democracy movement. The monks have taken their traditional role as the conscience of society, backing the military into a corner from which it may lash out again.
The authorities did not stop the protests Monday, even as they built to a scale and fervor that rivaled the pro-democracy uprising of 1988. The government has been handling the monks gingerly, wary of raising the ire of ordinary citizens in this devout, predominantly Buddhist nation.
However, on Monday night the country's religious affairs minister appeared on state television to accuse the monks of being manipulated by the regime's domestic and foreign enemies. Meeting with senior monks at Yangon's Kaba Aye Pagoda, Brig. Gen. Thura Myint Maung said the protesting monks represented just 2 percent of the country's population. He suggested that if senior monks did not restrain them, the government would act according to its own regulations, which he did not detail.
Also on Monday, the White House weighed in with the threat of additional sanctions against the Myanmar regime and those who provide it with financial aid. President Bush is expected to announce the sanctions Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly. The United States restricts imports and exports and financial transactions with Myanmar, also known as Burma.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon urged authorities in Myanmar to exercise restraint in the face of the protests and expressed hope the military-led government would "seize this opportunity" to include all opposition groups in the political process.
The current protests began on August 19 after the government sharply raised fuel prices in what is one of Asia's poorest countries. But they are based in deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the repressive military government that has ruled the country in one form or another since 1962.
"I don't like the government," a 20-year-old monk participating in the protest in the central city of Mandalay told The Associated Press. "The government is very cruel and our country is full of troubles."
Ordinary people have similar views, even if they may not act on them.
"I don't like the government because it only thinks about itself. But there is nothing I can do. If I join the protest, I will lose everything," said a hotel worker, also in Mandalay. Both she and the monk asked not to be named for fear of the authorities.
The protests over economic conditions were faltering when the monks last week took over leadership and assumed a role they played in previous battles against British colonialism and military dictators. At first the maroon-robed monks simply chanted and prayed. But as the public joined the march, the demonstrators demanded national reconciliation -- meaning dialogue between the government and opposition parties -- and freedom for political prisoners, as well as adequate food, shelter and clothing.
The fleeting appearance of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at the gate of the Yangon residence where she is under house arrest squarely identified the protests with the longtime peaceful struggle of her party, the opposition National League Democracy. She has been under detention for 12 of the past 18 years.
In what appeared to be a miscalculation by the junta, a crowd of about 500 monks and sympathizers was let through police barricades Saturday to her home, where she briefly greeted them in her first public appearance in four years.
On Monday, after the crowds marched for more than five hours over 12 miles, a last hardcore group of more than 1,000 monks and 400 sympathizers finished by walking up to an intersection where police blocked access to the street where Suu Kyi lives.
Making no effort to push past, the marchers chanted a Buddhist prayer with the words "May there be peace," and then dispersed. About 500 onlookers cheered their act of defiance, as 100 riot police with helmets and shields stared stonily ahead.
Monday's march was launched from the Shwedagon pagoda, the country's most sacred shrine, and 20,000 monks took the lead. Students joined the protest in noticeable numbers for the first time. Security forces were not in evidence for most of the route.
Diplomats and analysts said Myanmar's military rulers were showing unexpected restraint this time because of pressure from the country's key trading partner and diplomatic ally, China.
"Beijing is to host the next summer's Olympic Games. Everyone knows that China is the major supporter of the junta, so if government takes any action it will affect the image of China," a Southeast Asian diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of protocol.
China, which is counting on Myanmar's vast oil and gas reserves to help fuel its booming economy, earlier this year blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Myanmar's rights record, saying it was not the right forum. Much of the West applies diplomatic and political sanctions against the junta, but Chinese aid -- along with the oil and gas revenues -- effectively undercuts any leverage they might have had.
However, Beijing has also employed quiet diplomacy and subtle public pressure on the regime, urging it to move toward inclusive democracy and speed up the process of dialogue and reform.
Josef Silverstein, a political scientist and author of several books on Myanmar, said it would not be in China's interest to have civil unrest in Myanmar.
"China is very eager to have a peaceful Burma in order to complete roads and railroads, to develop mines and finish assimilating the country under its economic control," Silverstein said.
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