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POLITICS-BURMA: Buddhist Monks Take on Military Regime

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 6 2007 (IPS) - Political tension in military-ruled Burma has taken an ominous turn with soldiers clashing, this week, with sections of the country’s respected Buddhist clergy. The confrontation was the latest in an unfolding drama that has featured rare public protests at massive hikes in fuel prices in August.

On Thursday, monks in the central town of Pakokku openly defied the regime by burning four cars belonging to local authorities. ‘’The monks, who are students at a large monastery in Pakokku, are very angry with the military regime,’’ Than Win Htut, a senior producer for Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a radio and TV station run by Burmese exiles in northern Thailand, told IPS.

Anger directed at a military regime, known for its oppressive grip on power, first erupted as a clash on Wednesday between soldiers and monks in Pakokku town some 500 km north of Rangoon. On the morning of that day, soldiers fired warning shots, for the first time since the protest against the fuel hike began, to break up a crowd of over 300 monks.

‘’The monks started a protest march from their monastery and were cheered on by thousands of people as they headed into the town,’’ says Than Win Htut. ‘’The soldiers dragged about 10 monks away, tied them to electricity poles and beat them with bamboo sticks.’’

One of the monks who was involved in the protest told DVB that the outpouring of anger was linked to the fuel hike, which had hit the clergy in the stomach the same way it had the rest of the people in this beleaguered South-east Asian nation. ‘’We can’t sit back and watch the people who sponsor us sink into poverty. Their poverty is our poverty as well,’’ the monk was quoted as having said.

In Burma, where over 85 percent of the country’s 47.3 million people are Buddhists, the monks, monasteries and temples depend heavily on public help and donations for survival. This includes the food that the people give the monks when they visit communities every morning with empty bowls to collect their day’s meal.

Burmese Buddhists follow the Theravada line of Buddhism, as in Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. The other major school is the Mahayana that is followed in Tibet and much of the Far East.

The clash in Pakokku is being viewed with a greater degree of interest than the fuel hike-related protest involving some 150 Buddhist monks during the last week of August in the Arakan state, in north-western Burma. This town is home to the second largest community of Buddhist monks in the country, estimated by some to be close to 10,000 monks. The largest Buddhist clerical community is in the nearby city of Mandalay. Both places are highly regarded as centres of Buddhist learning.

‘’This could trigger a reaction among monks elsewhere, forcing them to come out and protest,’’ says Win Min, an academic on Burmese affairs at Chiang Mai University, in northern Thailand. ‘’It has the capacity of spreading, since the monks have a close network, particularly in the area around Pakokku.’’

The Buddhists clergy is ‘’the most organised institution after the military in Burma,’’ he explained during an interview. ‘’They have always been a very influential part of Burmese society and could assert that role again, now.’’

Burmese history is replete with such interventions. During the days prior to British colonisation, the Buddhist clergy played a central role as advisors and shapers of national affairs in the royal courts. When Burma became a British colony, the monks were in the vanguard of the movement directed against Western imperialism.

Such political activism continued even after independence, when the country came under the grip of successive military regimes following a 1962 coup. Among the more recent was the leading role played by the monks during the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, which was brutally crushed by the military. ‘’Many young monks took part and were shot to death during the pro-democracy demonstrations,’’ says Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner in Burma who was part of that peaceful uprising against the military rulers.

Some monks were beaten and disrobed, he told IPS. ‘’There are still 90 Buddhist monks in prison for their political activity during that period. They are part of Burma’s (over 1,100) political prisoners.’’

Buddhist monks were also victims of a brutal crackdown in August 1990, when they came out in protest after the junta refused to recognise the results of the parliamentary elections held a few months before. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, routed the pro-junta party in the first poll held in nearly 30 years.

The protests against the fuel hike, which saw prices rise by 500 percent overnight, show little sign of stopping, despite the harsh methods used by the junta. Till the clash in Pakokku, the military regime had kept soldiers on a leash, but let loose thugs linked to the regime on the demonstrators. Part of that strategy, say analysts, was to avoid rekindling memories of the brutal manner in which soldiers crushed the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

The showdown in the Pakokku points to a change in strategy, with the junta falling back on to a familiar weapon, the armed soldiers. Two military platoons were used on Wednesday to break up the monks chanting a prayer and demonstrating peacefully.

‘’Events may now take a turn for the worse,’’ says Debbie Stothard, of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), a regional rights lobby. ‘’We may be entering a period of brinkmanship.’’

‘’The monks have taken a stand in a very provocative way. They are asserting their role of having a moral obligation to help improve the people’s welfare,’’ she told IPS, adding that if more monks protest, it will expose the ways in which ‘’the military is gradually losing control of the situation.’’

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