Burma’s Monks versus the Military


Stopping traffic and streaming into the center of Burma’s largest city, red-robed monks, the religious heart of one of the world’s most repressive countries, are continuing to defy a brutal military junta, their numbers swelling daily.

On Monday, witnesses told Asia Sentinel that tens of thousands of monks could be seen in strategic areas of the city being joined by civilian supporters as the military junta’s armed forces stayed off the streets, apparently unsure how to handle the largest outburst of protest seen in the country in nearly twenty years.

“Some were carrying yellow peacock banners,” an eyewitness said, noting the presence of the flag that symbolizes the National League for Democracy, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party.

Throughout the day, a witness said, the atmosphere was lighthearted, “almost like a party,” as Rangoon’s residents seem suddenly emboldened by the bravery of the revered clergy in this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation. Earlier, the monks had withdrawn religious services from the military, refusing to accept alms from anyone connected to the junta in a virtually unprecedented boycott. Marching with empty alms bowls, the religious boycott has become a symbol of the new uprising.

In one scene near the upscale neighborhoods in the Inya Lake district, the monks marched in a phalanx 10 to 15 abreast, surrounded by middle class residents who flocked to the streets to guard them. “It took 45 minutes for the crowd to go by my vantage point,” said a woman reached by phone.

There were no authorities visible during the protest, another witness said. “People are cheering, clapping, standing outside their houses,” said the witness, who added that it was unlike anything she had seen in several years in Rangoon.

Marchers were also joined by members of the National League for Democracy, including members of the parliament elected in 1990 in polls that were voided by the junta. Two days ago NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared at the gate outside of her residence, where she is under house arrest, to greet protesting monks.

“Today we saw the most widespread demonstrations since 1988,” said Bangkok-based Burmese analyst Win Min. “Things are moving very quickly.”

Win Min characterized the current situation as a spiritual rebellion, an economic protest and a reaction to longstanding suffering. “I’m worried that they will crack down,” he said, “but for now they are taking a wait-and-see approach and won’t announce martial law due to China’s influence. The Chinese won’t say it explicitly, but they don’t want to see bloodshed as it would damage China’s interests.”

"There's no prospect now of the monks just deciding to abandon this. They are getting braver every day and their demands are getting greater every day, and it's much more overtly political," a Rangoon-based diplomat told Reuters.

In another sign that even people with something to lose are willing to join the protests, movie stars and celebrities are joining the movement. Tun Eindra Bo – the country’s biggest female star – has reportedly begun a "Sangkha Support Committee" to help the monks. The country’s most famous comedian, Zargana, has also joined the movement, according to Win Min – “Everyone in Burma knows him, just like Aung San Suu Kyi. This has a big impact.”

On Monday, rallies were held in several parts of the city, with a witness saying that one large group of monks appeared headed to the airport north of the former capital. Other reports described monks and supporters gathering in the center of the city.

Many of the monks, who were also joined by Buddhist nuns, began their protests, as they have each day for six days, with prayers at Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s holiest shrine, near the center of the city. Bystanders gave the monks water as the boldness of onlookers is growing with each passing day.

Rallies were also reported in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, and in the northwestern city of Sittwe and in Bago, just north of Rangoon, according to Reuters. The Burmese exile magazine Irrawaddy, which is based in Thailand, noted the presence of protesters nationwide, claiming that 100,000 people had joined the Rangoon protests.

The magazine said monks led protests along the border with Thailand, and in townships scattered throughout the country. A monk involved in the protests told Irrawaddy that in Pakokku Township in central Burma, where the first monk-led protests began earlier this month, hundreds of monks left a group of monasteries to chant the “Metta Sutta” (the Buddha’s words on loving kindness). The same chant was heard in other protests.

With witnesses telling Asian Sentinel that a political tinge has been added to the protests, the stakes are rising along with the numbers in the streets. Under military rule since 1962, the country’s leaders have impoverished the country while keeping themselves in power. Burma has watched as Thailand and its other neighbors have prospered, while it has moved steadily backwards from the days in the 1950s when it was considered one of the region’s wealthiest and most sophisticated countries.

The State Peace and Development Council, as the junta calls itself, appears even more isolated than ever. Having moved the government in 2006 to the new capital of Naypyidaw, which means literally "abode of kings," 220 kilometers north of Rangoon, the generals seem almost to have anticipated the need to hide from their own people.

As with the protests in 1988, the current unrest began with an economic grievance. In 1988 it was the demonetization in September 1987 of about 80 percent of the currency then in circulation. That step, reportedly taken to accommodate the belief in numerology of then-dictator Ne Win, eventually spawned a student-led movement that became one of the largest mass protests in modern Asian history.

By September 1988, virtually the entire country was shut down by hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding change. When the military reasserted itself and proclaimed the birth of the current junta on September 18, 1988, thousands of people were gunned down in the streets of Rangoon by combat-hardened soldiers from rural areas who had been informed that Rangoon was taken over by communists.

The current unrest began on August 19 as a result of fuel price increases. But with student organizations banned and campus life fragmented after 1988, this time the monks have come to the fore. As the only non-military organization with a nationwide network, the monks could prove to be formidable foes. Even in 1988, when thousands of monks were also involved, the military was careful not to kill members of the clergy, perhaps uncertain how even their own soldiers would react to orders to commit such an act against the respected clerics.

In 1988 also there were often few signs of the military on the streets – until the killing began. The night before the junta seized power that year, Rangoon was completely in the hands of protesters who were dancing in the streets, forming neighborhood defense committees and organizing the looting of abandoned government buildings, often with the help of civil servants.

But when the military decided to act, it was over in a matter of hours.

With reporting by Daniel Ten Kate