YANGON - Myanmar security forces sealed off Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda on Wednesday, fired tear gas and arrested up to 80 monks trying to get into the shrine, cracking down on the biggest anti-junta protests in nearly 20 years.
Witnesses said some of the deeply revered Buddhist clergy were beaten and manhandled by riot police taking them away from the shrine, the starting point for the past week's monk-led protests against 45 years of military rule.
The atmosphere at the gilded shrine was "very tense", one witness said, with onlookers angry at the use of violence against the maroon-clad monks.
Troops and riot police also took up positions outside at least six big activist monasteries, a clear sign the generals were trying to prevent any attempt at a repeat of mass marches through Yangon and Mandalay, the second city.
Hundreds of soldiers waited in a park behind Yangon's Sule Pagoda, the city-centre end point of the marches and scene of some of the worst bloodshed when troops opened fire on protesters in 1988, the former Burma's last major uprising.
Then, as many as 3000 people are thought to have been killed.
There was no immediate word from the monks on whether they would risk a major showdown with the military on Wednesday, the Buddhist holy day.
But compared to the same time on Monday and Tuesday, the number of monks in and around the Shwedagon was small.
Witnesses said some monks were inside the pagoda, the country's holiest shrine, whose gates were locked or blocked with wooden barricades.
"This is a test of wills between the only two institutions in the country that have enough power to mobilise nationally," said Bradley Babson, a retired World Bank official who worked in the former Burma.
"Between those two institutions, one of them will crack," he said. "If they take overt violence against the monks, they risk igniting the population against them."