BANGKOK—Thousands of Buddhist monks protested in the Burmese city of Sittwe to demand the release of 23 people detained a day earlier, amid escalating demonstrations sparked by a massive rise in the price of fuel.
In Sittwe, 560 kms (350 miles) west of Rangoon, witnesses said up to 5,000 monks gathered Wednesday near Sittwe pagoda and then encircled the township office to demand the release of 20 citizens and three monks held since Tuesday.
The authorities agreed in writing to free the detained protesters within three days, while the monks vowed to resume protesting if the authorities renege.
I...urge students all over Burma to take care of the boycotting monks.
The state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar said one Sittwe official and nine policemen were injured when protesters-including ordinary citizens dressed in monks' robes-threw stones and beat them.
The protesters became "violent" and authorities "had to use tear-gas and fired three shots in the air to disperse the crowd," the newspaper said.
But witnesses told RFA's Burmese service that protesters threw stones only after police aimed guns at the crowd and fired tear-gas to disperse them.
In the commercial capital, Rangoon, witnesses said some 300 monks trailed by hundreds of people marched towards Sule Pagoda in the center of the city.
"The monks were marching two across, as they did yesterday, led by a monk holding a Sangha flag," said one witness.
"The streets were filled with people following behind. The people offered water and candies to the monks, and four monks gave speeches one after the other. Before they dispersed, they told the crowd they would meet again tomorrow at Shwedagon," the holiest pagoda in Rangoon.
"When the monks came down the steps, people in thousands were cheering and clapping," the witness said.
The All Burma Monks' Alliance meanwhile issued a strong statement, thanking the Burmese people for their support and encouraging them to continue opposing the regime.
The statement, read aloud to RFA's Burmese service, urged monks and the public to maintain peace and order during the protests and to "join hand in hand and continue [this] struggle until freedom and justice exist" in Burma.
"The people are directly hit by the hardship," a monk belonging to the alliance said. "If the people want to escape from this suffering as soon as possible, they must take it upon themselves. If you have fear, future generations will continue suffering under this horrible system."
"Monks may be able to endure the suffering, but as we can't and do not want to see the suffering of our devotees. We are now leading the protest. It will be good if the devotees demand their rights by standing by the monks. This chance won't come again."
Burma has been rocked over the last month by a string of rare protests against the junta following a massive hike in fuel costs in mid-August. Protests across the country this week drew hundreds of people in the largest show of opposition to the ruling junta in a decade.
Monks are widely respected and are important cultural standard-bearers in devoutly Buddhist Burma. They were credited with helping to rally popular support for a 1988 pro-democracy uprising crushed by the military when soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing hundreds if not thousands of people.
"If we just looked on while people are suffering in poverty, then there will be no development for our religious order," one monk said in an interview. "Our survival depends on people's donations-there were lots of people who offered water, candies, and betel leaves, and we felt very encouraged when we heard people applauding us."
"We just got back from the railway station, and there were some soldiers who were guarding the station who approached us and asked where we would like to go-they were very polite and I could feel their support and understanding," the monk said.
Earlier, a monk who played a key role in the demonstrations Tuesday said authorities had demanded monastic robes from monasteries around the former capital, Rangoon, and handed them out to junta-hired thugs charged with breaking up protests.
“All monks of Burma will continue the boycotting until authorities fulfill the Monks Alliance's demands,” the monk said.
The monks had set a deadline of Sept. 17 for the junta to apologize for its actions during an earlier rally in the city of Pakokku. Soldiers and junta-backed thugs beat up several monks at the time, and the Monday deadline passed without any apology. The monks also want the release of all political prisoners, including opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
A protest leader said the demonstrations had occurred in Rangoon, Pegu, Chauk, Kyaukpadaung, Pakokku, and Aung Lan.
“This is a remarkable day in Burmese history and Theravada Buddhism history,” Ko Htay Kywe, a protest leader who spoke to RFA’s Burmese service from hiding, said.
Ko Htay Kywe called on “senior monks, members of the central sanghas’ council— sanghas all over the Burma—to protect the boycotting monks by [any] means. I also urge students all over Burma to take care of the boycotting monks.”
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, who play a key role in the country and wield substantial civic clout.
The monks’ alliance has asked all its followers to boycott offerings from anyone with close ties to the junta.
Original reporting by RFA's Burmese service, in Washington and Bangkok. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Edited for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.