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Myanmar: Monks urged not to protest

The Peninsula, Sept 15, 2007

Yangon, Myanmar -- A state-controlled Myanmar newspaper urged Buddhist monks yesterday not to join anti-government protests sweeping the country.

A column in the Kyemon daily, purportedly by a monk writing under a pseudonym, said monks — some of whom have recently taken part in militant protests against economic conditions — should refrain because the ruling junta firmly supports their religion.

It was the latest salvo in a government campaign to crush Myanmar's most sustained protests in a decade.

The protests began on August 19 after the government sharply raised fuel prices, putting the squeeze on already impoverished citizens. The protests have continued despite the detention of more than 100 demonstrators and rough treatment of others.

The newspaper column said unspecified anti-government elements have encouraged monks to demonstrate. It emphasized the government strongly supports and helps Buddhism with activities like building monasteries and donating robes to monks.

This week, top officials have been making high-profile donations to Buddhist monasteries, according to the state-controlled media.

In northern Myanmar last week, young monks — angry at being beaten up for protesting economic conditions — briefly took officials hostage, torched their vehicles and later smashed a shop and a house belonging to junta supporters.

Monks have been at the forefront of political protests in Myanmar since British colonial times. Because they are so revered by the public, repressing them carries political risk. The junta is wary that demonstrations could gain momentum if monks keep joining.

Unconfirmed reports by Myanmar's exiled opposition say monks have threatened to refuse alms from the military and ignore junta officials and supporters at official functions if the government fails to apologise by next week for last the recent mistreatment in the northern town of Pakokku.

The monks — said to have united in a new group called the National Front of Monks — are also demanding that authorities cut fuel prices, release all political prisoners and begin negotiations with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratic leaders.

On Thursday, China urged the Myanmar government to "appropriately handle the concerned problems (and) actively advance ethnic reconciliation."

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