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Burmese monks take to streets again

By Peter Popham

Burma's monks are back on the streets. Just weeks after their protest movement was brutally crushed by the army, Buddhist clerics again marched through the northern town of Pakokku yesterday, chanting the sutra of loving kindness, the Metta Sutta.

Pakokku, a centre of Buddhist learning 390 miles north-west of Rangoon, was where the monks first marched in early September. Within weeks of that small beginning, 100,000 ordinary Burmese were protesting in Rangoon with barefoot, shaven-headed monks in the lead.

Yesterday, between 100 and 200 monks marched through the town for an hour. Their protest began shortly after civic officials staged a pro-government demonstration. The monks told the authorities that they planned to demonstrate too, arguing that they should be permitted to march as well.

"We did not have much time to organise the protest, as we did not plan for it, so there weren't a lot of monks," one participant told the Democratic Voice of Burma, an expatriate radio station in Norway. "But there will be bigger and more organised protests soon."

The monks continued their earlier demonstrations because their demands had still not been met, he added, saying: "Our demands are for lower commodity prices, national reconciliation and the immediate release of [the democracy leader] Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners."

The clerics, from two local monasteries, marched three abreast, holding aloft their sasana flags, the sacred symbols of Burmese Buddhism. There was no reaction from the authorities but the monks said they did not fear retribution. "We are not afraid of getting arrested or being tortured," the spokesman added. "We are doing this for sasana."

Ten people were killed in September's crackdown, according to Burmese authorities, but foreign diplomats in the country believe the true total was far higher. Opposition groups say 200 or more people were killed and more than 3,000 people were arrested, although most have been released. They have released photographs of monks who were beaten to death.

There are numerous reports of monks being held in inhuman conditions without food, water or medical attention, being stripped of their robes, beaten and worse. In the aftermath of the protests, many monasteries are eerily empty. In one of the main teaching monasteries in Burma's second city, Mandalay, only 200 out of 2,800 monks remain after the rest were told they could go back to their villages. The monastery is now occupied by soldiers.

This week, the Burmese junta, the so-called State Peace and Development Council, has come under pressure from all sides as never before. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, on a visit to India, said that both Germany and India urged the SPDC to release political prisoners and begin talks with the United Nations. India, which has been wooing the regime for years, has until now been wary of criticising the junta.

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