By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON, Sept 25 (Reuters) - Chanting "democracy, democracy", 10,000 monks marched through the heart of Myanmar’s main city on Tuesday in defiance of a threat by the ruling generals to send in troops to end the biggest anti-junta protests in 20 years.
"The streets are lined with people clapping and cheering them on," a witness said. There were no signs of soldiers around the Sule pagoda in downtown Yangon, the destination of a week of marches by the deeply revered maroon-robed monks.
"The people are not afraid," another witness said. "They are helping the monks and offering them drinking water."
As on Monday, when up to 100,000 people came out to support them, the column of monks stretched several city blocks as they marched from the Shwedagon Pagoda, the former Burma’s holiest shrine and the symbolic heart of a growing campaign against 45 years of military rule.
In a gesture of defiance, some waved the bright red "fighting peacock" flag, emblem of the student unions that spearheaded a mass uprising in 1988. That rebellion was eventually crushed by the army with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives.
In an ominous reminder of what was a watershed moment in Myanmar’s history, vehicles mounted with loudspeakers toured the city earlier in the day blaring out warnings of action under a law allowing the use of military force to break up illegal protests.
"People are not to follow, encourage or take part in these marches. Action will be taken against those who violate this order," the broadcasts said.
The international community has pleaded with the generals to avoid another bloodbath, but the chilling message behind the legal language of the warnings was lost on nobody in the city of 5 million people.
"I’m really worried about the possible outbreak of violence," one street vendor said. "We know from experience that these people never hesitate to do what they want."
SENIOR MONKS THREATENED
After the massive crowds dispersed on Monday, state radio quoted Religious Affairs Minister Brigadier-General Thura Myint Maung as saying action would be taken against senior monks if they did not control their charges.
He was also quoted as telling the State Monks Council the protests were incited by "destructive elements who do not want to see peace, stability and progress in the country" — the junta code for the political opposition.
For the first time since protests against soaring fuel prices began a month ago, a small number of soldiers were deployed outside the gilded Shwedagon on Tuesday.
China, the closest the junta has to a friend, called for "stability", although it is not clear what kind of diplomatic pressure Beijing is exerting on the generals behind the scenes.
However, the junta, one of the world’s most isolated regimes, has seldom listened to the opinions of others.
"The regime has a long history of violent reactions to peaceful demonstrations," Gareth Evans, head of the International Crisis Group think-tank, said in a statement.
"If serious loss of life is to be averted, those U.N. members with influence over the government are going to have to come together fast," he said in a reference to China, Russia and India.
BUSH TO ANNOUNCE SANCTIONS
Others urged the generals to address the grievances of Myanmar’s 53 million people who, in the past 50 years, have watched their country go from being one of Asia’s brightest prospects to one of its most desperate.
U.S. President George W. Bush was due to announce new sanctions and call for support for political change in a speech at the United Nations on Tuesday.
U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari said he was praying the generals opted for compromise and dialogue with the monks and opposition party of detained democracy icon and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi rather than sending in the troops.
"For the sake of the people of Myanmar, for the sake of neighbouring countries and for the sake of Myanmar’s place in the world, we certainly hope that the same reaction that took place in 1988 will not be the case now," he told CNN.
On the streets of Yangon, the mood was one of jubilation as years of pent-up frustration were allowed into the open — and trepidation at the possible consequence from generals caught on the horns of a major dilemma.
The Burma Campaign UK said its sources had reported the junta ordering 3,000 maroon monastic robes and telling soldiers to shave their heads, possibly to infiltrate the monks.
In 1988, agents provocateurs were seen stirring up the crowds, giving the military the pretext to restore order.
Although more than 150 people have been arrested since the protests started on Aug. 19, the junta has so far remained reluctant to put soldiers on the streets, perhaps mindful of the 1988 bloodshed.