Thousands of Buddhist monks marching in defiance of Burma's oppressive military regime have decided to excommunicate the government and its supporters by refusing alms or donations from anyone linked to the junta.
At one of several ceremonies held before saffron-robed clerics marched peacefully through the former colonial capital, Rangoon, and other cities this week, the monks vowed to refuse offerings from the "pitiless soldier kings" in charge of the country now known as Myanmar.
"Reverend clergy, may you listen to my words," a Buddhist abbot told one such gathering. "The violent, mean, cruel, ruthless, pitiless kings – the great thieves who live by stealing from the national treasury – have killed a monk at Pakokku and also arrested reverend clergymen by trussing them up with rope. They beat and tortured, verbally abused and threatened them.
"The clergy ... must boycott the violent, mean, cruel, ruthless, pitiless soldier kings. They must also refuse donations and preaching. This is to inform, advise and propose."
The behaviour of the monks could be crucial as the Burmese junta tackles its most serious challenge in more than a decade. Demonstrations led by civilians last month were easily broken up and their organisers were arrested. But, given their high status within Burmese society, the monks' actions could rally civilians against the regime.
Monks are highly respected in Burma and abusing them risks causing public outrage. Physical suppression of the protests would also be sacrilegious for Burmese soldiers who, like most of the population, are devout Buddhists.
The Asia Human Rights Commission, which obtained a transcript of Tuesday's pre-rally ceremony, said: "The monks' decision to formally boycott the regime not only reveals the profound moral stance taken but also throws a sharp light on to the scale of crisis of authority the military is now facing in Burma.
"Only under the most compelling moral circumstances will a monk refuse the alms that have been offered, as to do so is to Refuse to acknowledge the alms-giver as a part of the religious community. It amounts to an act of excommunication. However, the view of monks in Burma today is that such an extraordinary moment has arrived."
As further rallies were held yesterday, about 500 monks gathered outside the locked gates of Burma's most revered temple, the golden Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon. Finding themselves unable to get in, they marched for three hours to the Sule pagoda in the city centre, followed by hundreds of onlookers and plain-clothed security police. A further 1,000 clergy marched in Mandalay and another 100 in the Rangoon suburb of Ahlone.
The demonstrations came as the junta admitted that its troops used tear gas and fired warning shots to disperse monks in the western town of Sittwe on Tuesday. State media reports said two officials and nine police were injured but that no monks or other marchers were hurt. Other protests have taken place in the cities of Pegu, Kale, Pakokku, Kyaukpadaung, Tharrawaddy, Aunglan and Chauk.
The state-run newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, claimed bogus monk "instigators" and foreign radio station reports had helped to swell the crowds. Some journalists covering the march had their cameras confiscated.
The demonstrations are against hardships caused by the government's economic policies, including a big increase in fuel prices last month. At first, the protests were principally by pro-democracy activists but the monks have taken over. They are angry because the regime has not apologised for beatings several monks at a rally two weeks ago.