Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters, led by columns of Buddhist monks and nuns, marched on the streets of the former Burmese capital Monday, chanting pleas for national reconciliation.
An international aid agency official with employees monitoring the crowd estimated the number of protesters as approaching 100,000, with witnesses describing a one-mile stretch of an eight-lane highway as filled with people.
Myanmar's military rulers have detained 218 people over anti-junta protests that erupted five weeks ago, sometimes subjecting them to beatings during interrogations, according to an overseas rights group.
"Activists have not only been beaten while in detention, but have also been under extreme physical and mental torture," said Bo Kyi, head of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).
Most of those arrested were members of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party or part of the 88 Generation student movement that kicked off the protests on August 19, he said.
The NLD won 1990 general elections by a wide margin, but the ruling junta has ignored those results for 17 years. The daughter of Burma’s independence hero, Gen. Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent 11 of the last 18 years under house arrest.
Critics of the regime had called a general strike for Monday, with artists, writers, and entertainers reported to be taking part.
“The Sangha [Monks’] Alliance has said the sanghas’ and people’s movements will begin [together] tomorrow, and the people can join this peaceful protest,” Aung Way, a poet and leader in the Burmese artistic community, said in an interview ahead of Monday's march.
They may, in the long run, have to go without food and could become ill...so we took it upon ourselves to provide food and other necessities to them. According to the plans we have seen, there are about 500 monks and there may be more. We have money ready if needed, and we have already started cooking.
“Starting from Shwedagon pagoda, we will begin our general strike. The monks have asked that only Sangha flags be carried and no slogans shouted. There will be a peaceful ‘people’s’ protest march, accompanied by monks,” he said.
Shwedagon pagoda is the holiest Buddhist shrine in Burma and has long been regarded as a symbol of dissent.
A well-known comedian based in Rangoon and known as Zagana said Burma’s artistic community planned to provide food and water to the monks on Monday.
“They may, in the long run, have to go without food and could become ill,” Zagana said, “so we took it upon ourselves to provide food and other necessities to them. According to the plans we have seen, there are about 500 monks and there may be more. We have money ready if needed and we have already started cooking.”
Smaller protests meanwhile continued in Mandalay, Myitkyina/Bhamo, Kalay Myo, and Monya.
A group of monks tried on Sunday to approach the University Avenue compound of detained opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Ky but were blocked by roughly 100 riot police. A day earlier, they had been permitted to pass, and Aung San Suu Kyi emerged to greet them in silence and in tears.
“Barbed wire was put up on both sides of the entrance of University Avenue, with signs saying ‘Prohibited area, no one may enter,” one witness said. The monks changed direction and retreated without incident, witnesses said.
The monks’ protests began last month after the junta that has ruled Burma since 1988 abruptly imposed a sharp rise in fuel prices. The protests have escalated and spread since the middle of August.
At the center of the protests is a new group calling itself the All Burma Monks’ Alliance. The group appears to be organizing the demonstrations by Buddhist monks and novices, who number close to a half-million in Burma and wield great civic clout.
They played a major role in demonstrations in 1988, which continued for more than a month until the junta stepped in with deadly force, killing hundreds and possibly thousands of unarmed civilians.
Part of their monks’ protest has included refusing to take alms from anyone connected to the military government.
The Philippines said Monday that southeast Asian countries would like to see improved democracy in Burma, while fellow ASEAN member Singapore said it was 'concerned' at recent developments there, and would like to see the situation resolved peacefully.
The junta has lashed out against the 'violence' employed by monks, who have taken hostages and ransacked private properties in the protests, which began five weeks ago, sparked by a rise in fuel prices. It has also accused overseas media and Burmese groups of inciting the protesters to take action against the government.
ASEAN, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, accepted the military-ruled state in 1997 and applied a "constructive policy" of engagement in a failed bid to introduce reforms.
Original reporting by RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Burmese service director Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han and Luisetta Mudie.