YANGON, Sep 26 (Reuters) Troops today fired shots over the heads of a large crowd in central Yangon, sending people scurrying for cover as a crackdown intensified against the biggest anti-junta protests in 20 years, a witness said.
The civilian crowd near the Sule Pagoda, end point of monk-led protest marches this week, was awaiting the arrival of a procession of an estimated 10,000 Buddhist monks and civilians, the witness said.
Security forces also fired tear gas at columns of monks trying to push their way through barricades sealing off the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's holiest Buddhist shrine and the starting point of the mass marches against decades of military rule.
As many as 200 maroon-robed monks were arrested outside the gilded shrine at the heart of the former Burma's main city, monks said.
Despite the presence at key locations of police and soldiers armed with rifles, batons and shields, the procession of 10,000 monks and civilians marched towards the Sule Pagoda, witnesses said.
Their numbers swelled as they headed towards the temple, scene of some of the worst bloodshed when troops opened fire on protesters in 1988, killing an estimated 3,000 in the ruthless crushing of the last major uprising.
Many of the monks wore surgical masks to try to counteract the effects of tear gas, one witness said.
Witnesses and monks said some of the deeply revered Buddhist clergy were beaten and manhandled by riot police as they were taken away from the Shwedagon, action which could inflame public anger against the military, which has been in charge since 1962.
Despite the defiant column heading towards Sule, the number of monks was well below levels on Monday and yesterday when they stretched five city blocks chanting ''democracy, democracy'' with no visible security presence.
Then, they defied junta warnings that military force could be used against illegal protests and a senior general telling top monks to rein in their young charges or face the consequences.
The reduction in numbers today might be explained in part by the generals sending troops and riot police early in the morning to at least six big activist monasteries in Yangon.
The international community has urged the junta to use restraint amid fears of a repeat of the 1988 bloodshed, a watershed moment in the Southeast Asian nation's post-colonial history.
Analysts said today the scenes were a confrontation between Myanmar's two most powerful forces -- the moral authority of the monkhood and military might.
''This is a test of wills between the only two institutions in the country that have enough power to mobilise nationally,'' said Bradley Babson, a retired World Bank official who worked in the former Burma.
''Between those two institutions, one of them will crack,'' he said. ''If they take overt violence against the monks, they risk igniting the population against them.'' REUTERS SG SSC1345