A protest movement led by Buddhist monks chanting prayers is gathering momentum in Burma (Myanmar), leaving an embattled military regime stranded in a groundswell of popular frustration at economic and political stagnation.
Maroon-robed monks led a sixth successive day of peaceful marches Sunday through the streets of Rangoon, the commercial capital. The Alliance of Burmese Buddhist Monks, an underground organization, has called on Burmese citizens to join hands in national protests Monday, in what observers say would represent another major escalation of a movement that began last month after a steep hike in fuel prices.
Until now, thousands of onlookers have cheered the monks, but few have dared to join in. That could change, as could the attitude of security forces, who cracked down hard on student-led protests two weeks ago but appear reluctant to confront the clergy, who command widespread respect in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation. Activists say the escalating crisis echoes similar events in 1988, before the Army unleashed a bloody repression similar to that seen in Tiananmen Square in Beijing the following year.
"The highest moral authority is taking the leading role and that's very important. We may not have to wait much longer to see another people's uprising," says Soe Aung, a spokesman for the National Council for the Union of Burma, which is based in Thailand.
About 10,000 monks and lay people marched Saturday in Mandalay, among the biggest turnouts so far, the Associated Press reported. In Yangon, in a symbolic fusing of the fuel protests with a long-suppressed democracy movement, several hundred monks passed security checkpoints and chanted prayers outside the house of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The detained democracy leader briefly came out to greet the monks, making her first public appearance since 2003.
The daughter of a famous Burmese independence leader, Ms. Suu Kyi emerged as the public face of antiregime dissent in August 1988, after months of unrest. It was unclear how monks had breached the security cordon around her lakeside villa, where she has spent much of the past 18 years under various terms of house arrest. Monks were blocked Sunday from entering the road to her house, the BBC reported.
Little is known about the network of young monks behind the demonstrations, but they appear to be calibrating their responses, such as a boycott on accepting alms from military officers, to ratchet up pressure on the regime, say analysts.
Their demands in statements to foreign news organizations include a cut in fuel and commodity prices and the release of activists detained in recent protests, as well as broader calls for the release of all political prisoners and dialog with the opposition.
Senior Buddhist clergy have yet to take a position on the marches, and their voice could prove decisive in coming weeks, says David Mathieson, a researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch. Ordinary people may be waiting for a further signal before joining protests in larger numbers, given the risk of violence.
"I think it's still at the point where people are afraid to come out and show their hand. But people know that it's spreading around the country," he says.
Burma's ruling junta has pulled back security forces and kept silent on the latest wave of unrest. It denounced student leaders and opposition politicians for their role in an initial round of smaller protests that were quickly suppressed. But clergy angered by attacks by security forces on monks who marched in the northern town of Pakokku began to take to the streets last week, injecting fresh momentum into the protests. Security forces fired tear gas to disperse monks in western Burma.
While monks have played key roles in past antigovernment movements, including resisting British colonial rule, the bold steps by monk leaders put them squarely in the spotlight, if the military decides to send in troops. "The shift from 1988 is that in 1988, the students died first. Now, whatever happens, the monks would die first," warns Soe Aung, who took part in the previous student-led uprising.
Analysts say authorities, who recently finished drafting a long-delayed new constitution, may begin running out of options if the protests continue to swell. On Sunday, about 100 nuns joined the protests for the first time, praying with monks at Shwedagon Shrine before marching to the center of Rangoon.
But many are skeptical that the military leadership will seek a negotiated settlement, given its past intransigence.
"This government doesn't understand the language of compromise," says Aung Zaw, an exiled Burmese activist in Thailand and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. And, he adds, "I think the monks have the upper hand now."
Isolated by US and European sanctions, Burma has become increasingly dependent on its giant neighbor China for political and economic support. That gives Beijing, which fears instability on its borders, an incentive to push the regime to make changes, says Mr. Zaw. Recent Chinese statements on Burma indicate frustration with sluggish reforms there, he said.
Since 1989, China has supplied weapons and military equipment worth $2 billion to Burma's Army, which has increased in size to 450,000 personnel, according to the US Campaign on Burma, an anti-junta advocacy group. Economic ties have also deepened, along with China's interest in Burma's natural resources. Two-way trade doubled between 1999 and 2005 to $1.2 billion.
Critics say China has rewarded its ally by blocking US and British efforts to get the UN to act on Burma. In January, China vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have mandated an active UN role in promoting reconciliation in Burma.