Tear gas used against Myanmar protest, monks hit

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YANGON, Sep 18 (Reuters) Authorities in military-ruled Myanmar fired tear gas today to break up a protest of around 1,000 Buddhist monks and civilian demonstrators in the northwestern city of Sittwe, a witness said.

Three or four monks were arrested as the crowd scattered and were hit and slapped, the witness told Reuters.

The march, one of several in response to a call for a nationwide religious boycott of the former Burma's ruling military, started with 500 Buddhist monks but grew quickly as ordinary men and women -- some of them Muslims -- joined in.

No further details were immediately available.

In Yangon, authorities closed the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, the Southeast Asian nation's holiest shrine, minutes before hundreds of monks arrived for the launch of a campaign to refuse to accept alms from anyone connected to the regime.

''We could not hold the formal ceremony to impose the religious boycott because we could not enter the Shwedagon compound,'' a 25-year-old monk told Reuters.

The demonstrators then marched peacefully to the city centre, chanting prayers and holy scriptures but no political slogans.

Plainclothes police and members of the feared Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) shadowed their route. The USDA has played a prominent role in breaking up protests against soaring fuel prices that began four weeks ago.

They videotaped and photographed the monks, who were also watched by hundreds of people, some of whom paid obeisance to them, witnesses said. There were no arrests.

One middle-aged monk said the boycott would go ahead.

''For me, I have imposed it on them since 1990 and I'll keep it on,'' he said.

A similar protest was held in Bago, 50 miles (80 km) north of Yangon, where exiled groups reported 1,000 monks marching to the town's pagoda.

Hundreds of monks also rallied in Chauk, Kyaukpadaung, Aung Lan and Pakokku, witnesses said.

REFUSING ALMS The Myanmar-language services of foreign broadcasters have said an alliance of monks had demanded an apology for soldiers firing shots to disperse a demonstration by monks in Pakokku two weeks ago.

Such a boycott is taken extremely seriously in the devoutly Buddhist country. Without such rites, a Buddhist loses all chance of attaining nirvana, or release from the cycle of rebirth.

Although the army has run Myanmar since a 1962 coup, September 18 is the anniversary of the latest incarnation of the junta, which now goes by the name of State Peace and Development Council.

Monks launched a similar boycott in 1990 shortly after the generals refused to honour the results of a general election they had lost by a landslide.

Earlier the monasteries were key players in a nationwide uprising against military rule in 1988 and analysts say the generals have been at pains to treat the monks carefully this time around.

Official newspapers have given prominent coverage to men in uniform making donations in temples -- and having them accepted -- especially in Mandalay, the nation's second city and home to 300,000 monks.

REUTERS SR AS2029

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