Yangon, Sep 25: Fears of a repeat of 1988's bloody crackdown by Myanmar's ruling generals grew today after the junta threatened action against monks at the centre of the biggest anti-government demonstrations in nearly 20 years.
The Burma Campaign UK said its sources in Yangon had reported soldiers being ordered to shave their heads in possible preparation for infiltrating the massed ranks of Buddhist monks marching for an end to 45 years of unbroken military rule.
The London-based activist group said the junta had also ordered 3,000 maroon monastic robes, again with the probable intention of having soldiers masquerade as monks to stir up trouble and create a pretext for a crackdown.
In 1988, the last time the Southeast Asian nation's people took to the streets in the tens of thousands, agents provocateurs were seen stirring up the crowds, thereby giving the military the excuse to come in and restore order.
As many as 3,000 people are thought to have been killed.
Although more than 150 people have been arrested since Aug. 19 in protests initially against shock fuel price rises, there was no sign of any soldiers or security forces during yesterday's massive monk-led demonstrations in central Yangon.
Estimates of the crowd ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 people.
However, in the evening, after the demonstrators had dispersed, state radio quoted Religious Affairs Minister Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung as saying action would be taken against senior monks if they did not control their charges.
He was also quoted as telling the State Monks Council the protests were incited by ''destructive elements who do not want to see peace, stability and progress in the country'' junta shorthand for the political opposition.
CALLS FOR RESTRAINT
World leaders urged the generals to exercise restraint and address the grievances of Myanmar's 53 million people who, in the last 50 years, have watched their country go from being one of Asia's brightest prospects to one of its most desperate.
A senior US official said President George W. Bush would announce new sanctions and call for support for political change in a speech at the United Nations today.
UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari said he was praying the generals opted for compromise and dialogue with the monks and opposition party of detained democracy Aung San Suu Kyi rather than sending in the troops.
''For the sake of the people of Myanmar, for the sake of neighbouring countries and for the sake of Myanmar's place in the world, we certainly hope that the same reaction that took place in 1988 will not be the case now,'' he told CNN.
The European Union urged Myanmar's military junta to show the ''utmost restraint'' in dealing with the demonstrations.
''We hope that the regime will use this opportunity to launch a process of real political reform,'' said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
On the streets of Yangon, the mood was one of jubilation on Monday as years of frustration were allowed into the open and trepidation at the possible consequence from generals caught on the horns of a major dilemma.
''I'm very excited and frankly I'm worried too,'' said one teacher who watched the columns of monks carrying placards calling for ''Better Living Conditions'' and the ''Release of Political Prisoners''.
So far, the generals have done nothing to prevent the monks marching, but they risk losing control as more people are emboldened to join in if they allow them to continue.
However, stopping the marches risks fomenting mass violence if the soldiers harm the deeply revered men in maroon.