Monks hold protest prayers at main Myanmar shrine

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YANGON, Sep 20 (Reuters) About 500 Buddhist monks held prayers inside Myanmar's holiest shrine in Yangon today after being locked out for two days to prevent them launching a formal religious boycott of the ruling military junta.

Braving monsoon rains and the attention of dozens of plainclothes security police, the maroon-robed monks chanted mantras and then walked in procession round the guilded stupa of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the former Burma's religious heart.

Protest marches by monks are becoming a daily occurence, a sign of the civilian anger at last month's shock fuel price rises becoming a more deep-rooted religious movement against the generals and their 45 years of rule.

Several hundred ordinary people joined in before the monks marched through the streets of the main commercial city, past the embassies of Britain, Australia, India and the United States.

They met no opposition.

However, armed police threw up barbed wire barricades near Yangon university -- centre of a 1988 mass uprising crushed with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives. Police also tightened security at the home of detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Outside of Yangon, more and more monasteries are launching religious boycotts of the military junta and their families, a formal refusal to accept alms called ''patam nikkuijana kamma'' in Pali.

It is taken very seriously in the devoutly Buddhist country.

It amounts to excommunication since, without such rites, a Buddhist loses a key route to storing up merit and eventually escaping the cycle of rebirth and attaining nirvana.

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. Then, some soldiers had to welcome the birth of children or bury their dead without religious blessing.

Throughout four weeks of dissent, the generals, who have been in charge since a 1962 coup, have faced the dilemma of having to keep the monks in check without antagonising them too much.

However, soldiers have fired warning shots over monks's heads on two occasions -- in the central town of Pakokku two weeks ago, and in the coastal city of Sittwe on Tuesday -- and witnesses have reported monks being arrested and assaulted.

Analysts said letting the monks into Shwedagon suggested they were taking the softly softly approach, albeit a calculated risk as it could encourage the protests to spread.

The junta's official media have denied any acts of violence against monks in Pakkoku or Sittwe. Countering the religious boycott, they have also given prominent coverage to senior military officers giving alms to monks.

REUTERS SKB KP1714

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