YANGON - Stepping out of her home in tears, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi greeted Buddhist monks Saturday in a landmark moment for a swelling protest movement against the military junta.
Armed guards usually block the road leading to the rambling lakeside house, but in an unprecedented move, they allowed about 1,000 monks to walk past the place where she has been detained for most of the past 18 years.
As the rain poured down, Aung San Suu Kyi walked out with two other women and cried as she paid her respects to the monks, the witnesses said.
They stopped outside her home for about 15 minutes and chanted a Buddhist prayer: "May we be completely free from all danger, may we be completely free from all grief, may we be completely free from poverty, may we have peace in heart and mind."
There was no interruption from about 20 uniformed security police, who had opened the roadblock. After the monks left the road was again closed.
The witnesses said Aung San Suu Kyi did not appear to speak to the monks, who have been leading an escalating show of strength that has left the junta facing its most prolonged challenge in nearly two decades.
The 62-year-old has become an internationally recognised figurehead of the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar since her National League for Democracy won 1990 elections by a landslide.
The military has never recognised the result, however, and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate now has virtually no contact with the outside world, apart from a live-in maid and periodic visits from her doctor.
Earlier, thousands of monks had taken to the streets in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, and its second city, Mandalay, in their sixth straight day of marches.
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.
Nearly 2,000 marched and prayed in Yangon, and a similar rally in Mandalay -- an important centre of Buddhist learning -- drew at least half that figure, witnesses said.
Win Min, a Thai-based Myanmar analyst, said they were stepping up pressure on the junta to highlight economic suffering in the 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.
Some monks are refusing to accept donations from the military in a gesture seen as a severe rebuke tantamount to excommunication for Buddhists.
Buddhists believe giving alms daily is an important religious duty.
The junta normally does not tolerate the slightest show of public dissent, and authorities during the past month have arrested more than 150 people.
They include Min Ko Naing, considered Myanmar's most prominent opposition leader after Aung San Suu Kyi.
Police so far have made no effort to stop the monks in Yangon over the past week, as the junta is worried a violent crackdown could spark public outrage, analysts say.
Monks were credited with helping to rally support for a 1988 pro-democracy uprising that was crushed with the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people.
Meanwhile a Buddhist group 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 group, speaking by telephone from Myanmar and declining 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 8:00 pm each night.
© 2007 Agence France Press