YANGON, Sep 19 (Reuters) Nearly 1,000 Buddhist monks marched through the Myanmar city of Sittwe today, a day after soldiers fired tear gas and warning shots to scatter a similar protest against the ruling generals, a witness said.
Urging thousands of bystanders not to join in, they staged a sit-in outside the local government offices to demand the release of two men sentenced to two years in jail for giving water to monks protesting against soaring fuel prices last month.
After several hours of talks, officials agreed to release the pair -- identified by a legal source as Maung Saw Thein, 40, and Han Min Lwin, 36 -- in three days. They are believed to be held in Yangon's infamous Insein prison.
The monks then dispersed to cheers from the crowds. Three or four small monk protests in Yangon also ended without incident.
The outcome was very different in Sittwe yesterday when soldiers fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse a crowd of 1,000 monks and demonstrators. One witness told Reuters three or four monks were hit and slapped as they were arrested.
In the junta's version of events -- a rare report of unrest in the former Burma's official papers -- nine policemen and a civilian official were injured as a small number of protesters attacked local government offices.
''Some protesters, including six monks holding sticks and swords, hit the officials with their weapons,'' the New Light of Myanmar said.
''In order to control the situation, the officials threw a tear gas bomb into the group and opened fire in the air to threaten them.'' The increasing involvement of monks, key players in a 1988 mass uprising, is a sign of the dissent that broke out last month over shock fuel price rises intensifying.
MONKS ON THE MARCH The military has been at pains to keep itself in the background, although soldiers did fire warning shots at one monk protest in the central town of Pakokku two weeks ago.
That action by the army -- held responsible for the deaths of up to 3,000 people when it crushed the 1988 uprising -- caused hundreds of young monks to seize government officials the next day and torch four of their vehicles.
Instead of using troops to break up protests, the generals have favoured civilian gangs and members of its feared Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) social network.
Although yesterday's marches fell far short of a nationwide boycott, monks marched in seven towns and cities, including Yangon, the commercial centre and former capital.
Burma was one of Asia's brightest prospects when it won independence from Britain in 1948. After 45 years of unbroken military rule and economic mismanagement, it is now one of the region's poorest countries.
In Yangon, authorities closed the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, the nation's holiest shrine, minutes before hundreds of monks arrived for the formal launch of a campaign to refuse to accept alms from anyone connected to the regime.
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.
Monks launched a similar religious boycott in 1990 shortly after the generals refused to honour the results of a general election they had lost by a landslide.
Myanmar exile groups also used the September. 18 anniversary of the current's junta's inception to put pressure on China -- the closest the generals have to a friend.
Protesters at Chinese diplomatic missions across the United States urged Beijing to use its influence to get Myanmar to free political prisoners and end violence against minorities.
''This regime has survived to this day because of Chinese government support -- financial, diplomatic and military,'' said Aung Din of the US Campaign for Burma in Washington.
China has sold Myanmar arms worth millions of dollars and is a big importer of its timber, minerals and oil.
REUTERS SG PM1730