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In Rangoon and other cities of Burma, Buddhist monks have confronted the military dictatorship with an unusual technique: they refused to accept alms. In Buddhist tradition, this boycott is the ultimate insult monks can deploy. On September 26, the government finally responded to the monks’ boycott by cracking down on the protests, which attracted as many as 100,000 people at their height. Police reportedly killed one protestor, and arrested as many as 200 monks. The future of the democracy movement in Burma remains unclear.
Throughout the protests, the monks have used the symbols and practices of Buddhism to express their discontent and rally public support. At first only a few monks demonstrated in towns such as Pakokku, where the authorities used hired thugs, now called Swan Arr Shin (Possessors of Strength) to lasso and catch the fleeing monks with lariats. Then the thugs threw the monks in prison where they forced them to disrobe and tortured them. In Pakokku, the monks kept some army officers captive for a few hours, but since then, they have walked through cities and towns silently, observing the Theravada monks’ traditional discipline of silence and downcast eyes. They have also been chanting the Metta Thoke or Loving Kindness Sutra, which sends and shares merit to all living beings.
According to eyewitness reports, the monks maintained their silence even when they met with Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate, who has been under house arrest since May 2003. When a group of about 500 monks was inexplicably allowed to walk past her house on Saturday, she came out of a side gate dressed in yellow (the color of the religious order or thathana) to pay her respects.
With the implicit blessing of a woman increasingly considered the matriarch of Burma, the number of monks marching in the streets increased together with the numbers of lay people forming human chains to support them. The monks are a generation younger than the dissidents and activists who led the last major challenge to the military junta in 1988. Foreign journalists estimate the number of protesting monks countrywide to be 500,000, which equals the number of conscripted and other soldiers in the junta’s standing army. Now that the government has decimated Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, the monks are the only organized force strong enough to challenge the junta.
In smuggled-out videos and photographs taken by citizen journalists inside Burma, masses of shaven-headed monks in rust-red and maroon-red robes hold out their hands in the gesture of shikoe or paying respect. Some of the monks appear to be hiding their faces from the camera, but the majority does not hide. During the protests, the monks often marched behind a banner with the colors of the Buddhist thathana. Or they were led by a monk holding his black lacquered begging bowl upside down. In Burmese, the word for “strike” or “to strike” – thabeik hmauk -- literally means “to turn the thabeik or begging bowl upside down.”
It is the custom in Burma for monks to make their rounds of the neighborhoods every morning with their begging bowls. They stand silently outside each house for a few moments. Usually the lady of the house will donate a few scoops of cooked rice, or whatever curry she can afford. The monk is not supposed to be choosy and cannot refuse whatever is offered. Once back at the monastery, the monk may not eat at leisure, savoring each flavor, but must instead mix all the offerings up in his bowl and then eat this mush.
In Theravada Buddhist belief, a monk, as the Buddha Gautama himself did, does a layperson a favor by allowing him or her to obtain merit by accepting alms from them. It is not the other way around. So when a monk or monks refuse alms from the junta, it is an act of severe moral censure.
Theravada means the the creed of the theras. It is the oldest form of Buddhism, that Burma shares with other South and Southeast Asian countries such as Sri Lanka (in fact Burma got its Buddhism from Sri Lanka in the 10th century), Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The Vinaya, or rules of the order, have come down from the time of the historic Buddha, the Gautama Buddha (Prince Siddartha before he obtained Enlightenment) and number a total of 227 rules. These begin with the Ten Commandments (do not destroy life, do not become intoxicated, and so on) and extend to rules regarding personal possessions, modes of dress, and rules regarding meals (monks may not eat any solid food after 12 noon until dawn of the next morning).
These rules have long shaped Burmese culture and society, for it is a devoutly Buddhist country. In the 1950s, the democratically elected Prime Minister U Nu banned the eating of beef, went on Buddhist retreats, and sponsored the Seventh Great Buddhist Synod, during which monks from all over the world discussed the sacred texts. Despite this official promotion of Buddhism, Rangoon and other cities were more secular and westernized. Under the system established by General Ne Win, who took over in a military coup in 1962, the Burmese have sought solace in religion. The isolation of the country has also led to renewed superstition and animist beliefs, which have always co-existed with Buddhism in Burma since ancient times. The military rulers, with their low level of education, are notoriously superstitious.
Adhering officially to Buddhism, the military regime has repressed and harassed other religions, for instance destroying churches and hilltop crucifixes in the Chin state in the northeast and forcibly deporting the Muslim Rohingya to Bangladesh. In the late 1990s, the junta set up a rival Karen force led by pseudo monks to attack the Karen National Union forces, which is predominantly Baptist and has been in armed struggle against the central government for more than half a century.
The ruling generals wish to be known as major patrons of Buddhism. At the same time, at least since 1975, the military junta has been using Buddhist institutions to consolidate its power. The founder of the current military government, General Ne Win, barely tolerated the monks and tried to control them through a system of ID cards in 1975. More recently, it has excommunicated monks who do not follow the Vinaya, those who do not observe vows of celibacy, and other rules. The junta calls this process Thathana Thant Shin Yay or the Cleansing of the Sangha (the community of monks). The junta has used the senior monks – the Nakaya Sayadaw, which it appoints – to control, judge, and police the Burmese Sangha. For this reason, the current presiding Nayaka have been ineffective as liaison between the demonstrating monks and the government. When the monks’ protests started, an open letter from the underground organization behind the protests, warned the Nayaka to see that the protestors’ grievances were heard.
There is a long tradition of Buddhist monks challenging the political status quo. Under the Burmese kings, until the British annexation of Burma in 1886, the Buddhist monks, especially the Thathana Paing or the Buddhist Patriarch, in many instances tried to prevent the worst excesses of the authoritarian kings. They also sometimes took on diplomatic functions, going to neighboring countries such as China, most famously in the 13th century. In the British period, the monks were at the forefront of the independence movement, some sacrificing their lives for the freedom for the country.
The monks of Mandalay, known as the Yahan Pyo (Young Monks) have been active in politics since the 1950s. In 1992, Burmese monks went on strike against the military regime, refusing alms from army families. In the late 1990s, there were incidents in Mandalay where the most sacred Maha Myat Muni image was desecrated. This sacrilege, widely considered a junta provocation, angered the monks and set off riots.
The military government has repeatedly used massive force to suppress peaceful demonstrations of unarmed civilians. This cycle of protests and government counterforce is memorialized in recent Burmese history by a series of dates. On July 7, 1962, shortly after seizing power, the junta shot university student demonstrators and dynamited the Rangoon University Student Union building. During the troubles of 1967, the junta tried to blame high rice prices on the native Sino-Burmese community, and its provocateurs instigated rioting against Chinese-owned businesses. In 1975 came riots after the family of former U.N. Secretary General U Thant brought his remains home. On September 18, 1988, the government began to clamp down on the mass pro-democracy movement, which was born that year. And on May 30, 2003, in what is known as the Depayin massacre, hired thugs attacked Suu Kyi’s entourage.
This present round of demonstrations began on August 18, when the government raised the price of diesel oil by 500% in order to cover a budget deficit that resulted from a salary hike for civil servants. The junta’s move of the Burmese capital to Pyinmana, now called Naypyidaw (King’s Royal City), must have also contributed to the budget deficit. The military government covers these deficits by its old methods of printing new money or by declaring some denominations void. Its privatizations since 1988 have enriched a new class of well-connected business people or oligarchs at the expense of the impoverished majority.
The August 2007 demonstrations were led by well-known dissidents such as Min Ko Naing (with the nom de guerre Conqueror of Kings), Su Su Nway (now in hiding), and others. The military quickly cracked down and still has not allowed the International Red Cross to visit Min Ko Naing and others who are reportedly in Insein Prison after being severely tortured.
It was at this point that the monks of Burma, coordinated by an underground organization, stepped into the foreground and added new life to the movement. Under Suu Kyi’s leadership, passive resistance, with Suu herself worshiping with leading monks, has been the norm since 1988.
The scale of the demonstrations has caught the attention of the international media. Experienced and highly successful international dissident groups such as the U.S. Campaign for Burma have started a vigorous media and fundraising drive and are pressuring Chinese embassies overseas as well as the UN Security Council. The Chinese government has the most extensive ties with the Burmese junta, and India too is on good terms with the government. Even as the monks were marching, an Indian company bought some more tracts of land from the junta for natural gas exploration in Burma.
The UN has taken up the Burmese issue again, and both President George W. and Laura Bush have spoken up for Burma. The Bush administration has announced heightened sanctions against the Burmese junta, a widened visa ban for junta officials, and greater scrutiny of their financial transactions. Since 2004 when the first round of sanctions was put in place, Burmese officials have allegedly been keeping euro accounts or accounts in Singapore. The administration is looking into ways of cutting off the flow of funds into and out of the coffers of the ruling elite.
In Burma itself, the military needs to realize that a government can benefit by having an active opposition party as an early warning indicator. Such a party can help the government democratically structure meaningful policies that are developmental and not detrimental. The military would be wise to form a transitional government with Suu Kyi at least as a minister (of labor affairs or education) or as an ombudsman. So far, it seems, the military is afraid of such an option.
The monks and the people of Burma have legitimate grievances. They have the right to their own lives, to improve their lives, to speak up and be left alone. Moethee Zun, a former student leader of 1988, now based overseas, in a privately produced video has called for the military government to “approach us. We are not your enemies. You have a responsibility to the people and so do we.”
Kyi May Kaung, "Monks Versus the Military" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, September 26, 2007)