Myanmar generals face biggest protests in 20 yrs

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YANGON, Sep 24 (Reuters) Tens of thousands of people joined streams of Buddhist monks on marches through Yangon today in the biggest demonstration against Myanmar's ruling generals since they crushed student-led protests 20 years ago.

''The streets are packed,'' a witness said of massed opposition to the generals and 45 years of military rule that has turned the resource-rich country into one of Asia's poorest.

Five columns of maroon-robed monks, one stretching more than one kilometre (nearly a mile), marched from the Shwedagon Pagoda, the devoutly Buddhist country's holiest shrine, to the city centre to applause from thousands of onlookers who joined them.

''People locked arms around the monks. They were clapping and cheering,'' the witness said on the sixth day of marches by monks, some of them carrying placards calling for ''National Reconciliation'' and ''Release of Political Prisoners''.

Protests were also reported in Mandalay, where 10,000 monks marched on Saturday, in the northwestern city of Sittwe and in Bago, just north of Yangon.

In Yangon, after holding prayers at the Sule Pagoda in the main business district, the monks marched to another pagoda with tens of thousands of people trailing behind them.

For the first time, the marchers included members of parliament elected in 1990 from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) two days after a dramatic appearance of support for the monks by detained NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

''IT'S ABOUT REFORM'' What began as anger at last month's shock fuel price rises has become a wider movement against the generals, with one monk group calling for peaceful mass protests against the junta until its downfall.

''There's no prospect now of the monks just deciding to abandon this. They are getting braver every day and their demands are getting greater every day, and it's much more overtly political,'' a Yangon-based diplomat said.

''It's now about Aung San Suu Kyi, it's about reform.

''The monks have got numbers and, if not immunity, then certainly it's much more difficult for the government to crack down on them than ordinary civilians,'' the diplomat said.

The United States, the loudest Western critic of the regime, expressed sympathy for the protesters and denounced the military.

Myanmar's regional neighbours, long frustrated by the generals refusal to speed up reforms, looked on with worry.

''We hope that the ongoing protests will be resolved in a peaceful manner,'' said the Foreign Ministry in Singapore, one of Myanmar's biggest foreign investors.

There were no signs of trouble during Monday's protests, but rumours of an imminent crackdown -- one suggested hospitals were being emptied of non-critical patients -- swirled in Yangon.

The generals are due soon to hold a quarterly summit in their new capital of Naypyidaw, carved out of the jungle. Dealing with the protests is sure to top the agenda.

The protests, which began on August 19, prompted a midnight round-up of the democracy activists who organised them. They now face up to 20 years in jail and are drawing public declarations of support from the famous.

The country's biggest stars of the stage, screen and music, including Tun Eindra Bo -- Myanmar's equivalent of Angelina Jolie -- have formed a ''Sangkha Support Committee'' and pledged to provide the monks with whatever assistance they need.

''The fact these celebrities are joining in is very significant,'' said one Myanmar exile who listened to them giving interviews on Burmese-language foreign radio stations.

''The committee said they will move on with the struggle until the end,'' the exile said.

REUTERS JK RN1549

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