Thousands of monks march in Myanmar's second city

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YANGON, Sept 22 (Reuters) Nearly 10,000 Buddhist monks marched through Myanmar's second largest city, Mandalay, today, their biggest demonstration since launching a street campaign against the ruling military junta five days ago.

A group calling itself the All Burma Monks Alliance also, for the first time, urged ordinary people to join the monks ''to struggle peacefully against the evil military dictatorship till its complete downfall''.

Until now the monks have discouraged others from joining the marches, the most sustained protests since 1988 pro-democracy rallies were crushed by the regime, for fear of reprisals against civilians and to ensure the demonstrations remain peaceful.

''We pronounce the evil military despotism, which is impoverishing and pauperizing our people of all walks including the clergy, as the 'common enemy' of all our citizens,'' said the alliance in a statement published on the Myanmar-focused news Web site www.burmanet.org.

''Therefore, in order to banish the common enemy evil regime from Burmese soil forever, united masses of people need to join hands with the united clergy forces.'' Analysts said the escalating marches by monks were a sign that what began as civilian anger at shock fuel price rises last month was becoming a more deep-rooted religious movement against the military, which has ruled the former Burma in various guises since 1962.

But 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 Yangon, where 1,000 monks marched through the former capital today.

''We can't wait for a drastic and meaningful change to our livelihood,'' one Yangon construction worker said yesterday. ''But we are not sure if the protests will really bring us the change we need.'' MARCH PAST SUU KYI'S HOME Bystanders in Mandalay, home to a quarter of the country's 400,000 Buddhist monks, mostly watched as nearly 10,000 maroon-robed monks chanted prayers as they walked peacefully through the city, witnesses said.

In Yangon, a group of monks were allowed to walk through police barricades guarding University Avenue, where democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest.

A witness said the monks chanted prayers as they marched past the home of the National League for Democracy leader, whose latest detention began in May 2003.

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.

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 public anger and could prompt thousands to take to the streets.

REUTERS SBC KN1650

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