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POLITICS-BURMA: Buddhist Clergy on Collision Course With Junta

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 21 2007 (IPS) - Burma’s Buddhist monks are threatening to turn an on-going protest against steep hikes in fuel prices into a religious and moral showdown with the country’s oppressive military regime.

Friday marked the fifth consecutive day that hundreds of monks, clad in their distinct dark orange robes, marched through the streets of Rangoon in an act of defiance that has gripped this largely Buddhist country. They did so through a heavy monsoon downpour and flooded streets, according to Burmese media reports. The march, which echoed the spirit of India’s icon of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, ended at a famous pagoda mid-afternoon.

And like the scenes witnessed on Thursday, where the protesting monks conducted a short prayer at the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, hundreds of people formed a human chain on either side of the men in robes in a symbolic effort to protect them against the military dictatorship. ‘’The monks at the front of the march carried three Buddhist flags and the monks on the final row carried three flags too,’’ reports ‘The Irrawaddy,’ a current affairs magazine and web site run by Burmese journalists exiled in northern Thailand.

Such distinct Buddhist features on display by the largely young monks have taken on a moral force in other acts, too. This week, monks were reported to have refused to accept food from members of the military and pro-military sections of Burmese society during the rounds the monks make every morning with an empty bowl for alms. In Central Burma, only 50 monks showed up for a religious ceremony organised by the military out of 350 who had been invited.

A statement issued on Sep. 18 by the monks captures the moral tone shaping the anger directed at the junta, which was responsible for attacking some 300 monks who took to the streets in early September in the central town of Pakokku to protest against the spike in oil prices. ‘’The violent, mean, cruel, ruthless, pitiless kings – the great thieves who live by stealing from the national treasury – have killed a monk at Pakokku, and also arrested reverend clergymen by trussing them up with rope. They beat and tortured, verbally abused and threatened them,’’ read the statement, which was circulated to the media by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

‘’The clergy boycotts the violent, mean, cruel, ruthless, pitiless kings …The clergy hereby also refuses donations and preaching,’’ it added. ‘’If the reverends consent and are pleased at the boycott and refusal of donations and preaching, please stay silent; if not in consent and displeased, please voice objections.’’


‘’The junta has been forced on the defensive by these acts since the monks are presenting their protests as a religious boycott,’’ says Win Min, a Burmese academic attached to a university in northern Thailand. ‘’The monks are challenging the junta in areas where they have the moral authority. They have now become the leaders of the anti-junta movement on the streets.’’

The Burmese public is welcoming the young monks as the new heroes of the hour, he explained to IPS, since they have created a space that would have been immediately crushed had the demonstrators been lay people. ‘’The monks are seen as risking their lives on behalf of the people. They are standing up to the junta to save people from being arrested and tortured for protesting.’’

The junta’s reaction to the initial protests after oil prices were raised by 500 percent overnight in mid-August bears this out. Former university student leaders and civilians who took to the streets to oppose the new economic burden have been arrested and have been subject to ‘’extreme mental and physical torture,’’ according to a Burmese group monitoring the cases of political prisoners in the South-east Asian country. Currently, over 200 activists have been arrested by the military regime.

Burma’s monks have a rich legacy of protesting against abusive regimes, even going back to the period of British colonisation. The monks also joined the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, which was brutally crushed by the then military regime, resulting in hundreds being shot to death, including some monks. In 1990, too, monks mounted a religious boycott against the military dictatorship – including a refusal to accept alms from members of the junta – after Rangoon refused to recognise the recently held general elections.

But what is different this time is that protesting monks are in the vanguard and on their own, due to the oppressive measures unleashed by the junta and thugs linked to the military to crush any discontent by civilians. ‘’There clearly is a method and strategy in what they are doing to make this a moral issue. And they have placed it ahead of any political issue,’’ Khin Myo Htwe, news editor of ‘New Era,’ a monthly journal on Burmese affairs, told IPS. ‘’This was not the case in 1988, when the monks joined the pro-democracy movement led by the university students.’’

Little wonder why Burmese political activists like Khin Ohmar warn of the worst if the junta falls back on its familiar strategy of guns and bullets to silence a religious constituency that ‘’holds the highest moral authority’’ in the country. ‘’If the junta shoots the monks or attacks them with force, the entire country will rise up,’’ she told IPS from a town along the Thai-Burmese border.

The junta is reported to have put in place a strategy to undermine the credibility of the monks, she said. Part of this scheme includes policemen in sections of Rangoon and in central Burma ordered to infiltrate the monkhood by posing as monks, complete with shaven heads and the special robes. ‘’The regime wants to create chaos to set the monks against each other to justify a crackdown,’’ she added.

 
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