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Suu Kyi greets protesters as Burma's junta faces biggest test in 20 years

By Andrew Buncombe

In a remarkable show of defiance Burmese monks and nuns yesterday led 20,000 demonstrators through Rangoon in the largest protest against the country's military regime for almost two decades.

A day after hundreds of monks had walked to the house of the imprisoned democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, thousands more returned to the streets in a show of numbers not seen since the pro-democracy marches of 1988. Back then the regime responded with a brutal crackdown, killing thousands of civilians and monks. While yesterday's march ended peacefully, it was clear that the authorities had increased security in the city and the monks and the other marchers were refused access to Ms Suu Kyi's house when they tried to repeat Saturday's extraordinary meeting.

"Aung San Suu Kyi has not been seen in public since 30 May 2003, when her convoy was attacked by [government-sponsored] thugs," said Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK. He was speaking after Ms Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), appeared at the gates of her home on Saturday, where she is under house arrest.

"By visiting her the monks are putting their spiritual authority behind the democracy movement. It is a strong message of unity," Mr Farmaner added.

Yesterday's march followed a week of demonstrations by monks in Rangoon and in a number of other cities which have re-energised the country's pro-democracy movement. Burma experts say that with many of the democracy activists having been seized and arbitrarily detained by the authorities earlier this summer, the monks could be the catalyst for persuading more ordinary citizens to take to the streets and confront the military.

The crucial issue now is how the authorities will respond to this threat to their rule, a threat underlined by the statements of several of the Buddhist monks who said they would not end the marches and demonstrations until the regime had been ousted. One group of monks chanted the slogan: "Our uprising must succeed."

Until now, the authorities appear to have been remarkably restrained, allowing the monks to march and allowing them to visit Ms Suu Kyi's house in University Avenue, close to the site of the recently completed US embassy complex. But while the authorities are aware that any action taken against the monks would incite widespread public anger, they also appeared to make clear yesterday that they would not allow the demonstrators too much latitude.

Police set up barbed wire barricades at the end of the road leading to her house and there were two lines of police with a truck and fire engine standing by when the marchers arrived. About 400 people, led by monks, tried to pass but the authorities blocked their passage. Witnesses said two monks stepped forward to try to negotiate with the police but were turned away. The monks briefly prayed before walking in another direction, after which the crowd began to disperse. They were carrying a large yellow banner which read: "Love and kindness must win over everything."

Ms Suu Kyi, 62, a Nobel laureate, has spent much of the past 17 years either in jail or under house arrest. Her latest term of incarceration dates from May 2003 when her convoy was attacked and about 100 of her supporters killed.

She lives at the house in univeersity Drive with two other women – a senior member of the NLD and her daughter – and their only regular visitors are a doctor who visits them for a morning every two weeks and the person who takes them their food. Their provisions are taken in every day by a young member of the NLD who is thoroughly searched and who hands over the food while being supervised by the police.

With the world finally taking notice of what is happening in Burma, activists inside the country believe the international community must act if change is to come about. They have long called for the UN Security Council to take up the cause of the country's pro-democracy movement, calls that have been blocked by Russia and China.

But the next couple of weeks is poised to see a flurry of diplomatic and political activity. The UN's special envoy Ibrahim Gambari is expected to visit Burma in the first two weeks of October when he will request permission to meet Ms Suu Kyi, having been granted permission on his two previous visits. He will report back to the Security Council.

There is also speculation that Britain could announce an increased aid package for Burma as early as this week, possibly by Gordon Brown in his speech to the Labour Party conference today.

In the US, the only country with comprehensive sanctions against Burma, Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, reiterated Washington's opposition to the regime, saying the Bush government was "watching very carefully" the democracy demonstrations.

"The Burmese people deserve better. They deserve the right to be able to live in freedom, just as everyone does," she added.

The wave of demonstrations that began this summer were held specifically to protest against a sharp rise in prices that has left ordinary people ever more desperate. Bus fares doubled overnight after an unexplained increase in fuel prices.

The protests against soaring inflation tapped into a deep well of unhappiness. While the majority of Burmese may be too terrified to speak out in public, in private they voice widespread dissatisfaction with the government yet wonder what they can do to change this. A Rangoon taxi driver summed things up by saying: "The government controls everything. We can do nothing, we cannot do anything. People are afraid of jail."

In 1990 Ms Suu Kyi secured an overwhelming victory in an election organised by the military regime. However, on seeing the results, the junta refused to recognise the result and launched a new crackdown against the democracy movement.

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