YANGON, Sep 21 (Reuters) About 600 Buddhist monks marched through Yangon today, the fourth straight day of anti-government protests in the largest city of army-ruled Myanmar.
The maroon-robed monks chanted prayers as they walked from the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest shrine in the country formerly known as Burma, to Yangon city hall where ordinary people linked hands to form a protective ring around them.
They met no opposition from watching plainclothes police.
A smaller march earlier near the Mai Lamu Pagoda on the outskirts of Yangon was cut short by heavy rains which have lashed the city for days.
Protest marches by monks are becoming a daily occurrence, a sign that what began as civilian anger at last month's shock fuel price rises is becoming a more deep-rooted religious movement against the generals and their 45-year rule.
More than 150 people have been arrested since the protests began, including two men who were sentenced to two years in prison for giving water to protesting monks in Sittwe in northwest Myanmar last month.
Relatives said the two men -- Maung Saw Thein, 40, and 36-year-old Han Min Lwin -- were freed today after 1,000 monks had marched in Sittwe on Wednesday and threatened more protests unless they were released.
''They both are fine,'' one relative told Reuters.
The monks have discouraged ordinary people from joining their processions for fear of reprisals against civilians and to ensure the protests remain peaceful.
Memories of the nearly 3,000 people thought to have been killed in 1988 when soldiers crushed pro-democracy protests are still fresh on the streets of the former capital.
''We can't wait for a drastic and meaningful change to our livelihood,'' one construction worker said. ''But we are not sure if the protests will really bring us the change we need.'' In his neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city, the worker said, most people were too preoccupied with daily survival to join the protests.
''We earn just enough to survive if the whole family works the whole day,'' he said.
Nevertheless, several hundred people joined the 500 monks who prayed inside the Shwedagon yesterday after being locked out for two days to prevent them launching a formal religious boycott of the junta.
Outside Yangon, more and more monasteries have formally refused to accept alms from the junta and their families, which 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.
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.
''All that is needed is an incident which will trigger the people's anger,'' a retired professor said.
''A bloody incident or violence or a very unacceptable measure can suddenly push the people onto the streets and join the monks,'' he said.
REUTERS ARB AS1927