Buddhist monks took to the streets in their thousands on Saturday in Myanmar in an escalating trial of strength that has left the military junta facing its most prolonged challenge in nearly two decades.
Nearly 2,000 marched and prayed in the rain in the main city of Yangon, and a similar rally in the nation's second city Mandalay drew more than half that figure, witnesses said.
The monks -- who are deeply respected in devoutly Buddhist Myanmar -- have become the effective standard-bearers for a protest movement that broke out a month ago after a huge hike in fuel prices and has since gone nationwide.
Earlier Saturday a Buddhist group claiming to be helping drive the protests called for nationwide prayer vigils.
"We ask every citizen to join our vigils," said a purported spokesman from The Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks, an underground Buddhist group.
He was speaking by telephone from Myanmar and declined to give his name.
The vigils would start from Sunday for three days, and the group urged the public to stand outside their homes for 15 minutes of prayers at 8:00pm each night, the spokesman said.
"We want peace in Burma," he said, using Myanmar's former name.
Few details are known about the underground group, but analysts say it is mainly made up of young monks.
Win Min, a Thai-based Myanmar analyst, said monks were stepping up pressure on the junta to highlight people's economic sufferings in this impoverished nation.
"Monks are representing people's sufferings. They want the junta to address economic issues," Win Min said.
"The anti-junta movement is certainly gaining momentum because the sheer number of monks has risen sharply over the past week," the analyst said.
The mounting turmoil has raised concern in the international community and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has pledged to bring up the issue at the UN General Assembly in New York next week.
The march in Mandalay, which is an important centre for Buddhist learning, lasted throughout the morning and ended peacefully.
In Yangon, more than 1,000 cinnamon-robed clergy prayed in the rain at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's most important landmark, before heading to a second pagoda downtown trailed by 1,500 clapping, smiling onlookers, witnesses said.
At least one monk held an upturned begging bowl in protest. Some monks have refused to accept donations from military members, a gesture seen as a severe rebuke tantamount to excommunication for Buddhists.
Buddhists believe giving alms daily is an important religious duty.
A total of 700 monks in two other groups also marched in Yangon. Dozens of plainclothes security officials walked with the crowds with video cameras, but there were no reports of violence.
The protests follow a series of rallies over the past week that have drawn several thousand people.
On Friday, in the biggest public display yet, at least 3,000 marched along flooded streets here, defying driving rain to chant prayers calling for peace and security.
The junta normally does not tolerate the slightest show of public dissent, and authorities during the past month have arrested over 150 people, including leading pro-democracy activists.
They include Min Ko Naing, considered Myanmar's most prominent opposition leader after detained democracy icon and Nobel peace winner Aung San Suu Kyi, 62.
Police so far have made no effort to stop the monks in Yangon over the past week, as the junta is worried that a violent crackdown on monks could trigger public outrage, analysts say.
But the junta said in a rare admission Wednesday that it used tear gas and fired warning shots to disperse 1,000 monks Tuesday in the oil town of Sittwe, west of Yangon.
Monks were credited with helping to rally support for a 1988 pro-democracy uprising which was crushed by the junta with the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people.