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Protests by Monks, Nuns and Civilians Escalate in Rangoon

Thousands of Buddhist monks have been joined by an equal number of civilians, marching in Burma's commercial capital, Rangoon, for a sixth consecutive day. Ron Corben reports from VOA's Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok analysts are concerned the military may soon use violence to end the protests - as it has in the past.

Marching in pouring rain, 20,000 people, including 10,000 monks and nuns, showed their protests against Burma's military government are gaining momentum.

The rallies began six days ago and have steadily increased in size.

Recent scenes filmed secretly by the Democratic Voice of Burma and distributed on the Internet, show hundreds of monks in dark crimson robes chanting and walking through the streets of Rangoon. Passersby can be heard applauding the marchers.

Protests in August that followed a large increase in fuel prices faded as pro-government gangs attacked protesters. But the demonstrations were rekindled last week by growing numbers of monks, highly respected in devoutly Buddhist Burma.

On Sunday, the All Burma Monks Alliance, an underground Buddhist group, called for nationwide prayer vigils. A day earlier, it had urged Burmese civilians to join the clergy's protests.

Police said marches to the residence of Burma's democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, are now banned. On Saturday, the monks had paraded past police barricades to the gate of her compound. Aung San Suu Kyi came out of her house briefly to acknowledge the monks.

In May 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won in general elections, but the military prevented the party from taking power.

A defense analyst at Australia's University of New South Wales, Carl Thayer, says Burma's military has in the past appeared determined to control the pace of political reform.

Thayer says the current protests could bring a violent response.

"I am heavily fearful it could lead to as massive crackdown as we saw in 1988. If it begins to attract mass support, that will be ended," Thayer said. "The junta has always been very clear that it is their timetable for political reform that will be followed, not outside."

The 1988 military crackdown killed hundreds of people, injured thousands and forced many others to flee to jungle border areas near Thailand.

Thayer's main fear is that moderates within the military government have been purged in recent years.

This had included the former intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt, who was briefly appointed prime minister before being found guilty of corruption. He is now under house arrest.

"What concerns me is that there is no middle ground in the military junta that existed in the past," Thayer said. "It strikes me that the junta is unclear what they want to do, but their inclination will be repression."

How to rein in the growing protests by the country's revered Buddhist clergy is putting the military government in a tough position. Violence against Burmese society's most respected citizens could do more to hurt the regime than the protests themselves.