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Monks demand freedom in rare Myanmar protest

YANGON, November 15, 2011 (AFP) - Five 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.

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 a day after an expected amnesty for political prisoners failed to materialise.

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.

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.

Demonstrations by monks are extremely rare in the repressive state, and mass protests led by clergy in 2007 were brutally quashed, with the deaths of at least 31 people and the arrests of many monks.

The release of all of the country's prisoners of conscience, 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.


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