Monks leading the biggest public protest staged in Burma for nearly 20 years were today warned of a government crackdown.
After a week of increasingly large demonstrations an estimated 100,000 people joined the Buddhists in marching across Rangoon.
It was the largest anti-government protest since a 1988 uprising that was crushed by the military.
It prompted the Burmese military government, which has been unusually muted in its response to the demonstrations, finally to speak out.
Religious affairs minister Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung warned that unless senior monks reined in their juniors who are leading the protests, the state would take action.
He accused the protestors of being instigated by the regime’s critics at home and abroad.
His warning came after the march, launched from the country’s most sacred shrine the Shwedagon Pagoda, was led by 20,000 monks.
It covered at least 8 kilometres (5 miles) in its first few hours, passing by the old campus of Rangoon University, a former hotbed of protest. Students were seen joining the column for the first time.
The government has been handling the monks carefully, aware that if they were seen to abuse them, it would anger ordinary citizens in the devout, predominantly Buddhist country.
The latest protests began on August 19 as a movement against economic hardship after the government raised fuel prices.
But they have their basis in long-standing disapproval of the repressive military government, and increasingly protesters are taking up the pro-democracy movement’s demands of national reconciliation and freeing of political prisoners.
The usually iron-fisted junta has so far kept minimal security at the protests, and diplomats and analysts said they were under pressure from key trading partner and diplomatic ally China.
The march began as usual at the Shwedagon, a historical centre for political movements as well as the country’s most sacred religious shrine.
In the central city of Mandalay, 500-600 monks set off shortly after noon on their own protest march.
The monks, who took over a faltering protest movement from political activists, have managed to bring people into the streets in huge numbers.
On Sunday, about 20,000 people including thousands of monks filled the streets in Rangoon, stepping up their confrontation with authorities by chanting support for detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The increasingly strident protests have raised hopes of possible political change but also fear that the military might violently stamp out the demonstrations.
One Southeast Asian diplomat said the regime was under pressure from China to avoid a crackdown.
“The Rangoon government is tolerating the protesters and not taking any action against the monks because of pressure from China,” the diplomat told The Associated Press. “Beijing is to host the next summer’s Olympic Games. Everyone knows that China is the major supporter of the junta so if government takes any action it will affect the image of China.”
China, which is counting on Rangoon’s vast oil and gas reserves to help fuel its booming economy, earlier this year blocked a UN Security Council criticising Rangoon’s rights record saying it was not the right forum.
But at the same time, it has employed quiet diplomacy and subtle public pressure on the regime, urging it to move toward inclusive democracy and speed up the process of dialogue and reform.
Larry Jagan, a Bangkok-based analyst said: “What happened in 1988 – the bloodshed on the streets – is not going to be acceptable to the regimes that support the Burmese military regime.”