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RIGHTS-BURMA: Protesting Monks Set Upon by Riot Police

Moe Yu May and Marwaan Macan-Markar

RANGOON, Sep 26 2007 (IPS) - In a desperate bid to cling on to power, Burma’s military junta stomped on the country’s rich Buddhist traditions on, of all days, a religious holiday, when people usually spend their time in prayer at the hundreds of pagodas that dot this country.

Nuns join the ongoing mass protests against Burma&#39s repressive military junta. Credit: MYM/IPS

Nuns join the ongoing mass protests against Burma's repressive military junta. Credit: MYM/IPS

Wednesday’s crackdown showed up the ruling generals have for the majority faith of this country. The junta showed little mercy in going after unarmed, barefoot Buddhist monks, who for days had been chanting the ‘metta sutta’, a prayer for loving kindness, and raised the cry for democracy, during streets protests opposing regime’s grip on power.

Monks were set upon all day by squads of armed riot police in this commercial capital of the country. Unmindful of the fact that it was a full moon day, and therefore sacred to Buddhists, many were beaten. Reports said at least four monks died due to injuries sustained during the clashes. Over 100 were arrested.

A scene that unfolded near the most sacred Buddhist temple – the Shwedagon pagoda – before the violence began conveyed the junta’s mindset towards dissent, even if it was expressed by monks who are held in high regard in this country. As a group of monks began marching down the street, they were stopped by armed riot police. The men in robes responded in a peaceful gesture, kneeling before their adversaries and asking permission to enter the pagoda. The retort the monks got was a blunt one from a member of the armed riot squad: ‘’We have got orders to shoot.’’

Such a tough response that was echoed across Rangoon turned the mood of this city to one of rage. People who had come to support the monks in another day of protest soon began chanting angry slogans. ‘’The military training you got was not to kill people,’’ chanted a chorus of enraged women as they faced armed troops.

The monks were no different in their mood. Gone was the image of quiet resistance that thousands of them had displayed as they led civilians in street demonstrations that reached over 100,000 this week, a number not seen in nearly two decades. ‘’We don’t care about the security forces. We will go on with our march,’’ a young monk told IPS in a defiant voice.

Burma’s troubles worsened. By sunset, the junta appeared readying for tougher measures as a curfew imposed on the previous night was widened to keep people indoors from dusk to dawn. &#39&#39I don’t think this government cares about the international pressure from western governments,’’ a Rangoon-based senior Burmese journalist said in an interview. ‘’They know they have the support of non-western countries.’’

Little wonder that senior members of Burma’s democratically-elected government in exile feel that the violence will only escalate, given the regime’s attack on such sacred symbols as Buddhist monks. ‘’This has already angered the people. There will be more animosity by the monks towards the soldiers and their commanders,’’ Sann Aung, a minister in the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, told IPS correspondent Marwaan Macan-Markar in Bangkok.

‘’Attacks against the monks, this bloodshed, is a serious thing,’’ he added. ‘’The military will not be forgiven for crossing this sacred line. They have clearly chosen force over their faith.’’

The predicament that the monks who were arrested will face will inflame the public in similar measure, says a group of former Burmese political prisoners monitoring human rights violations in their country from a northern Thai town of Mae Sot. ‘’They will be taken into custody and could face torture before being sent to the Insein prison (in Rangoon),’’ Bo Kyi, a leading member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, told IPS. ‘’Many may also be disrobed by the regime.’’

The clear division that has emerged between the junta and the clergy comes in the wake of an earlier decision by the monks to ‘’excommunicate’’ the military and their supporters from Buddhism. It was in response to an attack by government forces on a small group of protesting monks in a central town in early September. The monks declared that they would not accept food from the military or partake in prayers with the regime and its backers till the junta apologised.

One senior monk in Rangoon went a step further in revealing his thoughts in a letter he wrote to Burma’s strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, which was made public by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission. ‘’The original owners of power, the people, have been made innocent victims: more and more repressed and poor and impoverished,’’ stated U Thangara Linkara, a senior abbot at the Dhamma Yeiktha Monastery.

‘’Senior General, if you really wish to resolve the current difficulties, decide quickly to restore the people’s power to its

original owner, the people,’’ he added

Such a view echoed the positions the protesting monks have taken in leading the public in marches that have ballooned into a popular uprising. The clergy declared that it identified itself with the people, most of whom have been impoverished by a ruined economy and ruthless measures enforced by the regime. The spark that triggered the current protests was the junta’s decision to suddenly raise the price of fuel by 500 percent in mid-August.

The protests seen on Burmese streets are the largest since a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, which was brutally crushed by the military regime of that day. Some 3,000 pro-democracy advocates were killed. The military, which has been in power for 45 years, showed little remorse over those deaths.

How the regime views the current crisis is evident in an article published this week in the ‘New Light of Myanmar,’’ a government mouthpiece. ‘’The root cause of the (current) problems is the perpetration of internal and external destructionists, who are jealous of national development and stability, to harm all the government’s endeavours through various measures,’’ said minister for religious affairs, Brig. Gen. Tura Myint Maung, in the article. ‘’The protest walk occurring in Myanmar (or Burma) is one of the plots (being) systematically manipulated from abroad.’’

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