Monks Silent and Simmering Two Years after Revolt

By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK, Sep 28 (IPS) – Burma’s monks are silent but seething with anger two years after the brutal state crackdown on their revolution.
Although Rangoon, the South-east Asian state’s former capital, is relatively quiet at the moment, there is widespread simmering discontent that could erupt again at any time into anti-government protests. “While we cannot say anything in public, in the privacy of our own homes, we remember how the army treated the monks two years ago,” said Aye Win, a retired school teacher in Rangoon.

“We were shocked. The monks are the most trusted and revered people in our society, so we can never forget how the military treated them with such utter disdain,” he added.

The memory of the monks marching and the bloody crackdown is still fresh in many peoples’ minds. “We really feared for them when they took to the streets, but we never believed the generals would attack them so viciously,” said Min Thu, a taxi driver in Rangoon.

The events of September 2007 were a traumatic experience for most ordinary Burmese.

The anti-government protests started as small demonstrations in mid-August against rising food and fuel prices organised by the leaders of the ‘88 Generation Students Group’, who had been prominent during the mass pro-democracy demonstrations in August 1988. But these exploded into a major mass protest when the saffron-clad monks took the lead in what became known as the ‘Saffron Revolt’, a moniker coined from the color of their robes. In late September 2007, the military junta began a massive crackdown on the protesters. “Almost all the monks marching on the streets – it had never happened before,” said Bertil Lintner, a Burma expert and author of the recent report, ‘The Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Protests in Burma’, issued by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“It was quite a pivotal moment in modern Burmese history when the monks started marching on the streets,” David Mathieson, the Thailand-based Burma researcher for HRW, told IPS. “They may be silent now, underground or in exile abroad, but they are still angry and unbowed by the brutal assault against them by the army.”

For the monks who have disrobed, and either forced underground or into exile, they remain monks at heart, said Lintner.

Just as in 1988, the military knew no other way to counter mass anti-government peaceful protests, and launched a violent crackdown on them, killing many and arresting thousands throughout the country. At least 120 people were killed in Rangoon alone, the former human rights rapporteur for Burma, Prof Paulo Pinheiro, told IPS shortly after his mission to Burma a few weeks after the crackdown.

More than a thousand monks were detained within weeks of the crackdown in Rangoon, according to HRW. “Hundreds of them were tortured in custody,” said Mathieson.

At least 237 monks remain in prison, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPPB), a group of former political prisoners based in Thailand.

The monasteries were closed and the novice monks forced to return to their homes. Many have been unable to subsequently go back to their monkhood because the authorities actively prevented them from returning. As a result, many monasteries are empty.

“The Yangon (Rangoon) monasteries have yet to recover from the order given in late September 2007 to disperse their monks to their hometowns,” Bejamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Thailand-based Burma researcher told IPS. “Many of those monks were arrested along the way, while others were detained once they arrived. Very few have gone back.”

In the lead-up to the second anniversary of the Saffron Revolt, there has been increased harassment and intimidation of monks. Sermons of abbots and senior monks are being more closely scrutinised.

Monks returning from abroad have been detained and interrogated, according to Bo Kyi, who heads AAPPB. “This month there has also been a sweep of monasteries, and more than 20 monks were arrested,” he said.

The monks remain a potent force in Burma, and the junta fears they may again become an important focal point for future protests.

“The junta doesn’t treat the detained monks with respect. They tortured and abused them when they raided the monasteries, and have continued to mistreat them in the prisons,” said Bo Kyi. “Their only thought is that anyone who challenges them is their enemy.”

“After I was arrested, they constantly humiliated me,” one of the leaders of the monks’ movement, who declined to be identified, told IPS. “First they disrobed me and then they deliberately tried to break me by not allowing me to respect the rules of our monastic order.” After being released, he escaped to Thailand.

The monks in my monastery are still angry with the government, he said. Some abbots in Rangoon believe armed struggle may be the only answer to this authoritarian regime.

“I’m being watched all the time. I am considered an organiser. Between noon and 2 p.m., I am allowed to go out of the monastery. But then I’m followed,” the Buddhist monk U Manita told HRW recently. “We don’t want this junta. And that’s what everyone at my monastery thinks as well.”

Many analysts and diplomats in Rangoon believe the monk-led protests were an aberration and unlikely to be repeated. Some observers believe they have had an impact on the regime and the international community.

“Regardless of their eventual outcome, many changes within Myanmar (official name of Burma) itself during the past two years can be largely attributed to the Saffron Revolution: the sudden completion of the constitution and announcement of elections, the renewed engagement and confrontation with ceasefire groups, the doubling of political prisoners, and even the trial and the continued detention of (opposition leader) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Zawacki.

The revolt also served to radicalise a new generation of young people, who had not experienced the pro-democracy demonstration 21 years ago. “Young people had given up, and were consciously staying away from politics,” Lintner said. But the events of September 2007 changed that.

According to some Rangoon residents, while they showed no interest in politics before, they suddenly were galvanised. “I fear that my children now have been radicalised, and instead of staying out of politics, have been encouraged by the example of the monks, and may do something dangerous,” said one resident.

Certainly many young people have begun to realise that political change is necessary for Burma. Several well-educated young Burmese are now planning to form a political party to contest the elections in 2010, according to one of their former teachers.

So while the monks remain a focus for future protests, they still maintain that they are non-political. “They may not be the leaders of an anti-government protest, but they are definitely a catalyst for change,” said Mathieson.

“The monks have been a force for change in the past, and because they are viewed by the people as a legitimate source of authority in Myanmar, as opposed to one that has only guns to thank for its power, they remain a potent force,” said Zawacki. “This gives hope that the latest Saffron Revolution (in 2007) won’t be the last.”

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