Five Buddhist monks launched a rare protest inside a famous temple in Myanmar's second-largest city on Tuesday, calling on the military-aligned government to immediately release political prisoners, residents said.
The monks locked themselves inside a museum at Maha Myatmuni pagoda in central Mandalay city for several hours before heading out in a car to a nearby monastery to continue the protest, said Ni Ni Tun, a 35-year-old resident who was contacted by telephone.
She said the monks hung banners with slogans in both Burmese and English on the wall of the pagoda that read "Free all political prisoners" and "We want freedom." Some 300 Mandalay residents including monks gathered outside the compound to watch the protest and some brought food for the protesters, she said.
Protests are rare in Myanmar, where dissent has been suppressed by a military junta that was in power from 1962 until earlier this year. It transferred control to a nominally civilian government led by a former general which has promised to liberalize politics, but continues to hold about 2,000 political prisoners.
As part of its pledge to loosen the junta's hard-line policies, the government has taken some fledgling steps such as easing censorship, legalizing labor unions, suspending an unpopular China-backed dam project and beginning talks with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy movement.
Han Win Aung, an activist contacted by phone, said he and the others gathered at the pagoda "to show support for the actions of the monks who are calling for peace and release of political prisoners."
He said the monks had sufficient water and food for three days.
Nyi Nyi Kyaw, another resident, said the five monks left the pagoda in a car followed by supporters in motorcycles after negotiations with senior monks. He said they would continue their protest at the Ma Soeyein monastery.
Police watched the protest but did not intervene.
Monks have generally stayed out of politics since demonstrations led by the Buddhist clergy in 2007 brought as many as 100,000 people onto the streets of Yangon. The protests were brutally suppressed and many monks, nuns and lay people were thrown into prison with harsh sentences.
A prisoner release is anticipated in the next few days ahead of a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations beginning Thursday in Bali, Indonesia. Myanmar is seeking to chair ASEAN in 2014, and a release of political prisoners would be seen as a positive development favoring its bid, which is likely to be decided at this week's summit.
(This version CORRECTS that Ni Ni Tun is female)