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As many as 100,000 anti-government protesters led by a phalanx of Buddhist monks marched Monday through Yangon, the largest crowd to demonstrate in Myanmar's biggest city since a 1988 pro-democracy uprising that was brutally crushed by the military.
Some participants claimed there were several hundred thousand marchers in their ranks, but an international aid agency official with employees monitoring the crowd estimated the size was well over 50,000 and approaching 100,000. From the front of the march, witnesses could see a one-mile stretch of eight-lane road filled with people.
After a week of marching by the monks, the protests have become explicitly political, though the clerics prefer to make their point indirectly through chants and prayers at key locations.
Members of the public who have joined them have taken up chanting the slogans of the pro-democracy movement: national reconciliation - meaning dialogue between the government and opposition parties - freedom for political prisoners, and pleas for adequate food, shelter and clothing.
The monks' protest raised the political ante Saturday when a crowd of more than 500 people was allowed to pass by detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house, where she greeted them in her first public appearance in more than four years.
Monday's march, launched from the Shwedagon pagoda, the country's most sacred shrine, gathered participants as it wended its way through Yangon's streets under cloudy skies. Some 20,000 monks took the lead, with onlookers joining in on what had been billed as a day of general protest.
The march covered at least 15 kilometers (9 miles), passing by the old campus of Rangoon University, a hotbed of protest in past times. Students were seen joining Monday's march. Marchers also passed the offices of the Defense Ministry, where they said prayers for peace.
Security forces were not in evidence along the march route, though riot police and their vehicles were stationed at intersections leading to Suu Kyi's house.
In the central city of Mandalay, 500-600 monks set off shortly after noon on their own protest march, also undisturbed by the authorities.
The current protests began on Aug. 19 as a movement against economic hardship, after the government sharply raised fuel prices. But they have their basis in long-standing dissatisfaction with the repressive military government.
The monks, who took over a faltering protest movement from political activists, already had managed to bring people into the streets in numbers not seen since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising snuffed out by the army at a cost of thousands of lives.
Diplomats and analysts said Myanmar's military rulers were showing the unexpected restraint because of pressure from the country's key trading partner and diplomatic ally, China.
A Southeast Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of protocol, said the regime is under pressure from China to avoid a crackdown just as its larger neighbor has pressured it to speed up other democratic changes.
"The Myanmar government is tolerating the protesters and not taking any action against the monks because of pressure from China," the diplomat told The Associated Press. "Beijing is to host the next summer's Olympic Games. Everyone knows that China is the major supporter of the junta so if government takes any action it will affect the image of China."
China, which is counting on Myanmar's vast oil and gas reserves to help fuel its booming economy, earlier this year blocked a U.N. Security Council criticizing Myanmar's rights record saying it was not the right forum.
But at the same time, it has employed quiet diplomacy and subtle public pressure on the regime, urging it to move toward inclusive democracy and speed up the process of dialogue and reform.
Josef Silverstein, a political scientist and author of several books on Myanmar, said it would not be in China's interest to have civil unrest in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
"China is very eager to have a peaceful Burma in order to complete roads and railroads, to develop mines and finish assimilating the country under its economic control," Silverstein said.
The movement seemed to gain momentum Saturday, when more than 500 monks and sympathizers went past barricades to walk to the house where Suu Kyi is under house arrest. She greeted them from her gate in her first public appearance in more than four years. But access to her home was barred Sunday.
The meeting symbolically linked the current protests to Nobel laureate's Suu Kyi's struggle for democracy, which has seen her detained for about 12 of the last 18 years.
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