YANGON (AFP) - More than 1,300 Buddhist monks marched in Yangon on Thursday, their largest demonstration in Myanmar's main city against the junta since they launched a protest movement in force earlier this week.
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Witnesses said several thousand onlookers watched the monks marching in the rain and praying in three separate rallies, in what a Western diplomat said marked an escalation of pressure on the military regime.
Thursday marked the fourth consecutive day of protests by monks in Myanmar and, for the first time, onlookers outnumbered the clergy.
"Today definitely marks an escalation" of the pressure, the Yangon-based diplomat said.
Monks have risen to the forefront of peaceful demonstrations which began in Yangon on August 19 following a massive hike in fuel prices in this poverty-stricken nation, which has been ruled by the military since 1962.
The protests over the fuel price hikes -- which have left many workers unable to even afford bus fare to get to work -- have grown into the most sustained challenge to the junta in nearly two decades.
A Buddhist underground group claiming links to the protest movement vowed to continue demonstrations to end what it called the suffering of Myanmar's people.
"We will continue to protest until we get freedom and our human rights," said a purported spokesman for "The Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks".
"Everything is bad here. Our economic system and political system are bad. We don't need them anymore," he told AFP in Bangkok by telephone from Myanmar.
"We can't suffer anymore."
More than 600 monks prayed at Sule Pagoda in central Yangon, watched by up to 2,000 people clapping and smiling, witnesses said.
Dozens of plainclothes officials stood guard, they said, but there were no reports of violence.
Hundreds of people, most of them university students, braved the rain to briefly form a human chain at the pagoda. Police made no attempt to break up the crowd and had yet to arrest anyone.
Meanwhile, a separate group of more than 400 monks marched and prayed at Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most important landmark, but the crowd dispersed after prayers, witnesses said.
In southern Yangon, a third group of more than 350 monks marched toward a local pagoda before dispersing.
"Protests will likely continue. Monks are representing people's pent-up frustrations with the regime," an Asian diplomat in Yangon told AFP.
After hundreds protested on Monday, the monks launched their movement in earnest on Tuesday in Yangon and other cities like central Mandalay, with more than 2,000 marching on both Tuesday and Wednesday.
Most of Thursday's demonstrators were in their early 20s and some walked barefoot.
On their way to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the monks marched by the headquarters of the opposition National League for Democracy headed by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for most of the past 17 years.
Some NLD members watched the monks march past the building and made Buddhist greetings to the clergy, but the two groups made no other contact.
The monks were allowed to enter the Shwedagon Pagoda for the first time in three days after authorities earlier sealed it off over security fears.
But the temple was surrounded by dozens of plainclothes security officials. At least two riot police vehicles were on standby.
Police did not intervene in the peaceful march, but dozens of plainclothes officers followed the monks with video cameras.
The junta does not usually tolerate even the slightest dissent, but analysts say the generals are cautious about stirring a public backlash if they act against the highly-respected clergy.
Monks are important cultural standard-bearers in devoutly Buddhist Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and were credited with helping rally support for a 1988 pro-democracy uprising which was crushed by the junta with the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of people.
On September 5, about 300 monks took to the streets in the central city of Pakokku, but that rally was put down by soldiers and state-backed militia who beat the crowd, enraging members of the clergy.
The crackdown on protests since last month's fuel price hike led US President George W. Bush to label the junta "tyrannical", and the United Nations human rights chief called for the release of all peaceful protesters.
On Thursday, the US and British ambassadors to the UN expressed concern about the growing political turmoil in Myanmar and urged authorities there to allow a visit by the UN special envoy "as soon as possible."
US and European economic sanctions have been imposed over the junta's human rights abuses and the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi. But that impact has been weakened as energy-hungry neighbours like China, India and Thailand spend billions of dollars for a share of Myanmar's vast energy resources to solve their power problems.