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 central Yangon, the destination of a week of marches by the deeply revered maroon-robed monks.
However, one Yangon-based diplomat said five army trucks, each capable of carrying up to 50 soldiers, lurked less than a kilometre away from the pagoda and City Hall next door.
That area was the scene of the worst bloodshed during a crackdown on nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1988 in which up to 3,000 people are thought to have been killed.
"The people are not afraid," another witness said. "They are helping the monks and offering them drinking water."
In Taunggok, a coastal city 250 miles northwest of Yangon, people said up to 40,000 monks and civilians took to the streets as the campaign against 45 years of military rule swelled in size and scope.
As on Monday, when up to 100,000 people came out in support in Yangon, the column of monks stretched several blocks as they marched from the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Southeast Asian nation's holiest shrine and symbolic heart of the campaign.
In a gesture of defiance, some waved the bright red "fighting peacock" flag, emblem of the student unions that spearheaded a the 1988 uprising, one the darkest episodes in the former Burma's modern history.
In an ominous reminder, vehicles mounted with loudspeakers toured the city in the morning blaring out threats 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."
Far away in their new jungle capital, the generals hunkered down for an emergency "War Office" meeting, a diplomat said, and ethnic Karen rebels on the Thai border told Reuters troops of the 22nd Division had been redeployed to Yangon.
The 22nd Division played a major role in the 1988 carnage.
After huge crowds broke up in Yangon and several other cities 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" code for the political opposition.
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.
One of the world's most isolated regimes, the junta 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 UN members with influence over the government are going to have to come together fast," he said in reference to China, Russia and India.
Bush to announce sanctions
Others urged the generals to address the grievances of Myanmar's 56 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.
US President George W Bush was to announce new sanctions and call for support for political change in a speech at the United Nations on Tuesday.
UN 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 consequences 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. More than 150 people have been arrested since the protests started on Aug. 19 in response to shock increases of fuel prices.