|Monday's march in Yangon was the largest since protests began in August [AFP]|
Myanmar's military government has threatened legal action against the thousands of Buddhist monks staging protests across the country.
The warning came on Monday as Yangon, the country's former capital, saw the largest protest since demonstrations began after a dramatic hikes in the price of fuel in August.
"Actions will be taken against the monks' protest marches according to the law if they cannot be stopped by religious teachings," Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung was quoted on state-owned radio as saying.
Speaking to senior members of the State Monks Council, he said the protests were incited by "destructive elements who do not want to see peace, stability and progress in the country."
"I think all the people of Myanmar must act to get democracy for a better life"
aprat_1992, Denpasar, Indonesia
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Five columns of maroon-robed monks, one stretching for more than 1km, marched from Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda on Monday, the devoutly Buddhist country's holiest shrine, to the city centre where tens of thousands of people filled the streets.
"People locked arms around the monks. They were clapping and cheering," one witness said.
After holding prayers at the Sule Pagoda in the main business district, the crowd marched to another pagoda and dispersed peacefully.
Protests were also reported elsewhere and residents in the northwest coastal town of Sittwe said it seemed that the entire population of more than 100,000 people was marching with the monks.
"I've never seen such a big crowd in my life. The whole town came out," one resident told Reuters news agency.
In Mandalay, 10,000 monks and other people took to the streets, while a demonstration also took place in Bago, just north of Yangon.
After beginning with a call for the price rises to be reversed, the protests have developed into a wider movement against the military generals.
During the latest protest, some people carried placards calling for "Better Living Conditions" and the "Release of Political Prisoners". Another banner said: "May The Peoples' Desire Be Fulfilled".
Two days after pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi greeted marchers outside the home were she has been detained by the generals, members of parliament from her National League for Democracy joined the monks on the streets.
The marches were again peaceful and security forces were not in evidence on much of the march route. However, the road to Aung San Suu Kyi's house was blocked by about 100 riot police with helmets and shields.
Aung San Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory in elections in 1990 but the military refused to recognise the result.
"It's now about Aung San Suu Kyi, it's about reform," a Yangon-based diplomat told Reuters.
"The monks have got numbers and, if not immunity, then certainly it's much more difficult for the government to crack down on them than ordinary civilians."
However, a state television report claimed that despite the size of the protests, most monks were not joining the marches.
"Although the marching monks on the streets seem to be a very big number, their forces represent just two per cent of all monks," it said.
"Ninety-eight per cent of the monks, most of the monks in the country, are busy learning and teaching Buddhism."
The government has so far been wary of confronting the monks in the devoutly Buddhist nation.
About 90 per cent of Myanmar's population is Buddhist.
At some point in their lives, every Buddhist male is expected to join the monk hood or 'Sangha'.
Every village or neighbourhood has its own pagoda and monastery, which traditionally serves as the focus for community life and the main centre for education.
In recent years rising levels of poverty have raised demand for the free education provided by the monasteries.
"For many - even the most senior generals – to act against the monks is the highest crime in Buddhist teachings, so they are reluctant," Zinn Linn, an exiled journalist who spent several years in jail in Myanmar, told Al Jazeera.
But the political temperature appears to have been raised by the religious minister's remarks.
As well as the threat of action, Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung also blamed the National League for Democracy party, the 88 Generation Students activist group, and agitators from the West, including foreign media, for the show of dissent.
One group of monks has called for the peaceful protests to continue until the government falls.
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, has given his backing to the monks' protests.
"I extend my support and solidarity with the recent peaceful movement for democracy in Burma," he said.
"I fully support their call for freedom and democracy and take this opportunity to appeal to freedom-loving people all over the world to support such non-violent movements," he said.
Meanwhile, the international pressure on Myanmar's government has been mounting.
Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary general, on Monday commended "the peaceful approach the demonstrators are using to press their interests" and he called upon the Myanmar authorities "to continue to exercise restraint".
In a statement issued by his spokeswoman, Ban expressed hope that Myanmar rulers would "seize this opportunity to engage without delay in dialogue with all the relevant parties to the national reconciliation process on the issues of concern to the people of Myanmar".
The United States will announce new sanctions against the Myanmar government on Tuesday, the White House said.
| The government has so far been wary |
of cracking down on the monks [AFP]
In a speech at the UN General Assembly, George Bush, US president, will outline financial sanctions against members of the military government and those who provide them with financial aid, Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser, said.
"It's very interesting what is happening in the country with the Buddhist monks who have joined this effort," Hadley said.
"Our hope is to marry that internal pressure with the external pressure coming from the United States and the United Nations and really all countries that are committed to freedom to try to force the regime into a change."
But the nation with the most power to hold back Myanmar's rulers is China.
A Southeast Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press: "The Myanmar government is tolerating the protesters and not taking any action against the monks because of pressure from China."
While, Nyo Myint, foreign affairs spokesman for the National League for Democracy, told Al Jazeera: "China-Burma relations could reflect badly on Beijing ahead of next year’s Olympic games."
China, which is eager to tap Myanmar's vast oil and gas reserves to fuel its booming economy, blocked a UN Security Council resolution earlier this year criticising Myanmar's rights record saying it was not the right forum.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies