Monks hold march in Myanmar's second city Mandalay

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YANGON, Sep 22 (Reuters) Several hundred Buddhist monks marched through Myanmar's second largest city Mandalay today as activists urged people to join the protests against the ruling military junta.

More than 1,000 residents watched the procession, witnesses said, the fifth straight day of demonstrations by monks in the Southeast Asian nation.

''It's going on peacefully,'' a witness in Mandalay told Reuters.

Monks marched in seven cities across Myanmar yesterday, including the former capital Yangon, where at least three separate protests took place against the regime.

In the biggest demonstration, about 600 maroon-robed monks walked barefoot through the pouring rain for six hours, surrounded by ordinary people who joined hands to form a protective ring around them.

Some of the monks, who abstain from eating in the afternoon, were exhausted, weak and close to collapsing, a witness said.

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.

Relatives said the pair were freed yesterday after 1,000 monks had marched in Sittwe threatening more protests unless they were released.

Late yesterday, activists, both monks and dissidents, made appeals on Myanmar-language foreign radio services for the public to join the monks in protest.

Representatives of foreign-based Christian and Islamic groups also called on their followers to support to the monks.

The monks on the streets have so far 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.

Monasteries were key players in the 1988 uprising and analysts say the generals are making sure they treat the monks carefully this time around.

They say any violent incidents would trigger anger among the public and cause thousands to take to the streets.

REUTERS SBC KN1417

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