Five Buddhist monks staged a rare protest in army-dominated Myanmar Tuesday, witnesses said, drawing a crowd of about 500 people with calls for peace and the immediate release of political prisoners.
A day after an expected amnesty for political prisoners failed to materialise the monks locked themselves in a building on a religious compound in the central town of Mandalay and were using loudspeakers to spell out their demands.
The protesting monks unfurled banners in English and Burmese reading: “We want freedom”, “Free all political prisoners” and “Stop civil war now” -- a reference to the decades-long conflict between the army and ethnic minorities.
Demonstrations by monks are extremely rare in Myanmar, and Tuesday’s was thought to be the first since mass protests led by clergy in 2007 were brutally quashed, with the deaths of at least 31 people and the arrests of many monks.
A Myanmar government official confirmed the protest was taking place, telling AFP that the five monks were from Yangon, not Mandalay.
“Local monks are trying to negotiate with them to solve the problem,” he said.
No police had arrived at the scene yet, a witness said, adding that a large group of people, including many monks, was sitting on the ground outside the compound and “listening peacefully” to the protest.
The five demonstrators claimed they had enough food and water to stay inside the building for three days.
The release of all of the country’s political prisoners, whose exact numbers remain unclear, is one of the major demands of Western nations which have imposed sanctions on Myanmar.
Authorities had been expected to release some political detainees on Monday before President Thein Sein attends a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc later this week in Indonesia.
But officials said the move was put off at short notice by the powerful National Defence and Security Council.
Myanmar appears keen to end its international isolation and is seeking to take the ASEAN chair in 2014.
The nominally civilian government that came to power in March has surprised critics with tentative signs of reform, such as passing a law giving workers the right to strike.
At a press conference on Monday marking the first anniversary of her release after years of detention, democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi said she was “encouraged” by developments in Myanmar in the last 12 months.
But she said more action was needed on the issue of political prisoners behind bars, believed by her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party to number 591.
Rights groups have long said there are about 2,000 political prisoners, but the government’s human rights panel said on Sunday that about 300 prisoners of conscience remained locked up after some 200 were freed in an amnesty in mid-October.