Nuns join Myanmar protests, US slams generals

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YANGON, Sep 23 (Reuters) Buddhist nuns joined monks in growing protests against Myanmar's ruling generals today while the United States denounced the military leadership as brutal.

A day after a dramatic appearance of support for the marchers by detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, about 100 nuns joined more than 2,000 monks in prayer at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, devoutly Buddhist Myanmar's holiest shrine.

They then marched to the centre of the former capital.

It was one of five protest marches by monks in the city -- with at least 5,000 involved, the most since the protests began on August. 19 -- and there were at least two in Mandalay, a major centre of the monkhood.

In New York, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in answer to a reporter's question, expressed sympathy for the protesters and denounced Myanmar's military.

''The Burmese people deserve better. They deserve (the) right to be able to live in freedom, just as everyone does. The brutality of this regime is well known and so we'll be speaking about that and I think the President (George W Bush) will be speaking about it as well,'' she said.

There were no signs of trouble at today's protests.

Plainclothes police kept watch, but there were no uniformed officers or soldiers in sight and people on the streets applauded as the marchers passed.

The mood was cheerful, with many people in Yangon seeing the emergence of Suu Kyi from her lakeside villa as a sign the military, which has ruled the former Burma for 45 years and put down a 1988 uprising ruthlessly, was being flexible.

It was the first time she had been seen in public since her latest detention began in May 2003. For many onlookers, already stunned by police allowing marching monks through the barricades sealing off her street, it was overwhelming.

''Some of us could not control our tears,'' one witness told Reuters after 1,000 monks held a 15-minute prayer vigil at the house to which Suu Kyi is confined with no telephone and needing official permission, granted rarely, to receive visitors.

Wearing an orange blouse and a traditional wraparound skirt, she emerged from a small door in the iron gate to the house, her hands held palm to palm in a gesture of Buddhist supplication.

RIOT SHIELDS Soldiers carrying metal riot shields stood between the Nobel Peace laureate and the prayer-chanting monks.

''Aunty Suu also prayed for the well-being of all,'' the witness said.

However, today, the barbed-wire barricade at the entrance to her street was reinforced by four fire engines, several police vans and dozens of police carrying riot shields who refused to allow a group of 200 monks through.

News of the incident spread rapidly on a day when the monks marched despite Yangon being lashed by 11.54 inches of rain, the highest recorded in 39 years.

''The monks showed their courage, strong determination and discipline while the regime showed flexibility,'' a retired government official said. ''I think this incident has shown us that we can sort out any problem among us amicably.'' The generals are due to hold a quarterly summit in their new capital of Naypyidaw, carved out of the jungle, perhaps as early as tomorrow. Dealing with the protests is sure to top the agenda.

The protests, which began after huge fuel price increases and prompted midnight raids to round up the democracy activists who organised them, appear far from over.

Today, a group of monks, one of them wielding a bullhorn, chanted a new slogan: ''Our uprising must succeed''.

A group calling itself the All Burma Monks Alliance urged ordinary people for the first time ''to struggle peacefully against the evil military dictatorship'' until its downfall.

Until now the monks, fearing reprisals against civilians and to ensure the protests in Yangon and other cities remained peaceful, have discouraged others from joining the marches.

''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,'' the alliance said in a statement published on the Myanmar-focused news Web site www.burmanet.org.

REUTERS SG RK2020

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