YANGON (Reuters) - Seething crowds of Buddhist monks and civilians filled the streets of Myanmar’s main city on Wednesday, defying warning shots, tear gas and baton charges meant to quell the biggest anti-junta protests in 20 years.
Two Buddhist monks and a civilian were killed, hospital and monastery sources said, as decades of pent-up frustration at 45 years of unbroken military rule in the former Burma produced the largest crowds yet during a month of protests.
The United States and the European Union condemned the violence against demonstrators and asked the U.N. Security Council to consider sanctions against Myanmar when it met on the crisis on Wednesday.
Monks have been central to the protests that erupted from sporadic marches against a hike in fuel prices, as the Buddhist priesthood, the country’s highest moral authority, goes head-to-head with the might of the military.
Some witnesses estimated 100,000 people took to the streets of Yangon on Wednesday despite fears of a repeat of the ruthless suppression of Myanmar’s last major uprising in 1988, when soldiers opened fire, killing an estimated 3,000 people.
“They are marching down the streets, with the monks in the middle and ordinary people either side. They are shielding them, forming a human chain,” one witness said over almost deafening roars of anger at security forces.
But as darkness fell in Yangon, people dispersed ahead of a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The streets were almost deserted.
In the second city of Mandalay, also under curfew, the Asian Human Rights Commission said there was no opposition to 10,000 people protesting against grinding poverty.
Five decades ago, the country was regarded as one of Asia’s brightest prospects. Now it is one of its most desperate.
In the northwest coastal town of Sittwe, which has seen some of the biggest protests outside Yangon, residents said 10,000 people took to the streets on Wednesday, the Buddhist holy day.
Western leaders appealed to the junta to exercise restraint over the protests.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the events in Myanmar a “tragedy” and urged its government to allow a U.N. envoy to visit the country and meet with detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The regime has reacted brutally to people who were simply protesting peacefully,” Rice said on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, warning that the “age of impunity” in abusing human rights was over, said the European Union would look at “a whole range of sanctions”.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged all French companies to hold back from making new investments in Myanmar.
In a statement, the United States and the 27-nation European Union called on the military rulers to stop violence and start a dialogue with pro-democracy leaders, including Suu Kyi, and ethnic minority groups.
China and Russia, which have friendlier relations with the Myanmar authorities, have so far blocked any U.N. sanctions.
In a sign of divisions over how to deal with Myanmar, foreign ministers of the Group of Eight industrial nations agreed on a similar formula but without a call for sanctions, in deference to Russia.
Participants said Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov clashed over the sanctions issue.
The United States and France called on China to use its influence to convince the junta to stop the crackdown.
Diplomats say China has privately been speaking with the Myanmar generals to convey international concern, but Beijing has so far refrained from any public criticism.
In the afternoon, riot police fired tear gas at columns of monks trying to push their way past barricades sealing off the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s holiest shrine and the starting point of more than a week of marches.
“We cannot know if many people were injured but we can be sure that blood was spilled,” French diplomat Emmanuel Mouriez, who is stationed in Myanmar, told French radio RTL.
“We have several witnesses who speak of people on the floor. There were some monks who were beaten up.”
As many as 200 maroon-robed monks were arrested at the gilded shrine.
“This is a test of wills between the only two institutions in the country that have enough power to mobilize nationally,” said Bradley Babson, a retired World Bank official who worked in Myanmar.
“Between those two institutions, one of them will crack,” he said. “If they take overt violence against the monks, they risk igniting the population against them.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour warned Myanmar’s rulers they could face an international court for violence against the protesters.
The junta, whose leaders remain hunkered down in a new capital 250 miles north of Yangon, had tried to keep the monks off the streets, sending trucks of soldiers and police to block six activist monasteries early in the morning.
The generals also rounded up more prominent dissidents, including comedian Za Ga Na, who had urged people to take to the streets.
Ranks of riot police remained outside the lakeside home of Suu Kyi to ensure no attempt was made to pluck the 62-year-old Nobel laureate from house arrest.
An opposition leader said he feared more people will die.
“It is not a good sign. The confrontation has already started,” Sein Win, who heads a self-proclaimed Myanmar government-in-exile, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. from Paris.
Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler in Bangkok