What provoked Burmese people's fearless stand

Since the fuel price hikes in Burma on 15 August there have been increasing unrest. Daily demonstrations are loud and spreading across the country, the most public display of discontent in almost 20 years.

But the military have brought both their guns and goons out on the streets to crush rising opposition to their rule in what some Burmese activists are calling their ‘Last Stand'.

In a country where 2 out of 5 children are severely malnourished and the majority of people live in a poverty so dire many are unable to provide basic food, clothing and shelter for their families, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) instructed all Ministry of Energy distribution outlets to raise the prices of petrol, diesel and natural gas by between 400-600 per cent.

They did this with no prior warning and without consulting economists, business leaders or not surprisingly, ordinary people. The next day, relatively small scale but by no means insignificant protest actions broke out in Rangoon, led by former 1988 student uprising leaders, Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Kyi to name a few. Not just a man's domain, women's activists such as Ma Nilar Thein and Ma Mie Mie were also on the streets leading calls for the reduction of fuel prices and calling attention to the need for immediate political and economic change in Burma. As they walked, albeit in relatively small numbers, countless bystanders and small business owners clapped them on, but few of the general public at that time considered joining these protests.

However that situation soon changed. On the 5th September in Pakokku, members of the state-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and a civilian militia group known as the Swann Arr Shin, also established and supported by the military regime, fired warning shots at a group of 600 monks who had added their voice to spreading protests over the unaffordability of rice and cooking oil. At this peaceful rally, junta thugs beat bystanders and made several arrests. Two monks were tied to wooden posts and in clear view of bystanders, taunted and beaten with rifle butts.

In military run Burma, this event was a turning point in the protests which until that time had been relatively small and involved people already openly active in the pro-democracy movement. For the estimated 80% of the population who are Buddhist, this act of violence by the military against respected monks was deeply shocking.

The next day, monks from Pakokku's central Mahavithutarama monastery set fire to four government vehicles after locking up a group of officials who had approached the monks to apologise for the bashing, arrest and disrobing of three monks the day before. While the officials were later released, monks invoked a 2,500 year old tradition of patam nikkujjana kamma, a campaign of refusal to accept alms (donations) from military leaders, their families and their supporters.

Buddhist law and custom outlines eight circumstances in which patam nikkujjana kamma rites are to be applied, including incidents where monks have been vilified, where dissent has been incited between monks and in cases where the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha have been defamed. It was the strongest action taken in 17 years by the monkhood, and has been tacitly supported by senior monks on the military-appointed Thangha Maha Nayaga or Sangha Council.

As staggering images of tens of thousands of barefoot and crimson-robed monks were filmed by undercover journalists inside Burma, after two decades, Burma finally grabbed the attention of the world. Armed with nothing but upturned bowls and monastic cloth, these monks have created the most significant threat to military rule in Burma for two decades.

The monks' profound moral influence was clear felt when they marched peacefully, chanting Buddhist suttas, to the blockade on the road to the house of Burma's detained opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. After making the crowd of monks and people promise to show discipline and follow the instructions of the head monk, they took up position outside the gate to her home. A few minutes later, in her first public appearance in many years, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi held her hands in a gesture of respect and prayer, spoke to a monk for a few minutes, and was seen to shed a few tears. This simple and single event testified to the influence that monks have over police and foot soldiers. This event gave millions of Burmese through out the country and abroad a renewed sense of hope and pride in the movement.

Monks play important role in Burma's history

Burmese Buddhist monks have, historically, played an important role in Burma's social and political movements. From the anti-colonial period and the subsequent period under parliamentary government, through until the military-socialist regime in 1962 that prohibited religious activism. And then, again, in 1988, the activism of young Buddhist monks resurfaced and brought a direct confrontation with the military regime. At the height of the democratic opposition's victory in the May elections of 1990, the activist monks declared a boycott against the military and their families, refusing to accept alms from them and limiting their ability to earn donor merit in fulfilling future lives, or to participate fully in wedding and funeral ceremonies.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the military crushed the protest with force and detained and disrobed several young monks associated with the incident. The raid on the Mahagandayone Monastery in Mandalay, the religious capital of Burma, left several casualties and resulted in the imprisonment of young activist monks. It inflicted a deep wound on the relationship between the military and the Buddhist order.

Following the incident, the miliary junta implemented a campaign of 'purification' for the Sangha order, a move against activist monks, while promoting traditional pacifiers who endorsed strict non-engagement in politics to the higher echelon of the State Sangha Council. In reinforcing state patronage of Buddhism, the military leaders often paraded senior monks at public activities staged at national monuments and local pagodas, as well as on key religious celebrations during akha gyi yet gyi and on other important religious dates.

Buddhist Monasteries: Backbone of Community Life

In Burma today, Buddhist monasteries remain the backbone of community life. In a country that allocates a pitiful amount of official funds to health and education spending, monasteries and their abbots play crucial roles in providing food for the hungry, traditional medicine for the sick and dying, and in educating young boys who otherwise would miss out on their chance to learn to read and write.

In the last few days as violence has escalated in Burma, we have seen monks shot and killed. Other monks have been brutally beaten during nightly monastery raids. Eyewitnesses said three trucks filled with soldiers arrived at the Ngway Kyar Ka monastery in Rangoon at midnight on the 27th of September. When the monks refused the soldiers' demand to open the gate, a fight broke out in which both sides hurled bricks at each other for about 20 minutes. After enduring beatings in which considerable blood was shed, many of the monks were loaded into the back of trucks and taken to a temporary detention centre.

Later that same day, reporters from Democratic Voice of Burma interviewed eyewitnesses to the violent raids on these monasteries. A young novice monk from one such monastery, with no parents or monks nearby to care for him, asked reporters, with tears in his eyes, when the Sayadaw would be coming back as he was scared and alone. Many young children are sent to Burma's monasteries to be cared for and schooled because their parents live in such dire poverty that they cannot feed and educate their children themselves.

Reporters also interviewed sick and dying AIDS patients with nowhere else to go, living in the compound of Maggin monastery, their voices breaking as they recounted their terror at what happened the previous night.

These eyewitness accounts are too numerous for the small team of 6 reporters in the Thailand office of the Democratic Voice of Burma to immediately get out into the public demain, in English. But as the news slowly gets out, and is then broadcast back into Burma via satellite TV and shortwave radio, people's outrage grows.

Some journalists reported army troops attempting to raid monasteries in Mandalay and Rangoon on the 28th of September. These troops were forced to withdraw by local residents. Residents had heard rumours of impending raids and made preparations to thwart the security forces' approach.

'We setup an alert system of banging pots and pans when anyone saw soldiers approaching the monastery, and we prepared ourselves with any available weapons to stop these unholy people from harassing the monks,' one resident is reported to have said. Other residents have witnesses some soldiers defying orders to shoot and lowering their guns. The result was new troop deployments to both Rangoon and Mandalay.

Monks are still effectively imprisoned in the five main monasteries in Rangoon, with countless others held at temporary detention sites. Residents are committed to protecting them from further harm. Statements being received from protest groups inside revealed a commitment to continue and even step up the protests with a more resolved and united front. 'This is our last chance to get the generals out', said one activist. 'If we can't do it now, we may never reach our goal'.

Brave and committed monks continued their protest over the weekend despite the arrest and detention of around 6,000 people in 4 temporary detention centres throughout Rangoon. Young monks aged between 16 and 18, and novices as young as 5 to 10 years old are believed to be among the detainees. An estimated 200 monks and demonstrators have been reportedly killed, their bodies taken for swift cremation at the Yae Wah Crematorium in Rangoon, according to staff working there. It has been impossible to verify the names, exact whereabouts and condition of detainees or to obtain an exact number of the dead.

Despite the climate of terror, the street protests have continued, although not currently in Rangoon, and the monks alms boycott holds firm. In Mandalay a crowd of 3,000 and in Sittwe a crowd of 5,000 came out on the streets over the weekend as UN Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari met with top generals and detained leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in an attempt to broker talks.

The monks refuse to take donations of food from the military, who in turn block laypeople making offerings to them. The monks are effectively starving. And of course, the many street children, homeless and AIDS patients that they care for are also suffering. But still they sit, chanting their sutta's on loving kindness and protection from evil and harm.

The violence and intimidation also continues. Democratic Voice of Burma released gruesome footage of a man, believed to be a monk, badly beaten and bruised, floating face down in a small body of water in Sanchaung. Other reports coming out of Burma indicate a campaign of intimidation against arrested monks, authorities pressuring or in some cases forcing monks and nuns to de-robe, and denying medical treatment to sick and injured monks and nuns who refuse to do so.

In a move that shows the 500,000 strong network of monks resolve, the Thangha Maha Nayaga or Sangha Council Chairman and Vice-Chairman this week refused to sign documents presented to them by the military authorising the de-robing on monks who had been arrested over the previous week. Senior General Than Shwe promptly ordered the dissolution of this council, and the religious university in Rangoon, however it remains unclear whether this order has yet been implemented.

Meanwhile, as Special Envoy Gambari flies back from Burma to meet with the United Nations Security Council who have recently found themselves at an impasse over what to do about Burma, we hope his visit and the increased attention of the international community will help stop the growing violence, and that the resolve of the international community grows stronger. The violence, repression and hardships of ordinary people in Burma must cease. The people have waited far too long and suffered far too much.

With thanks to the Irrawaddy.

Carol Ransley is a human rights advocate who has monitored the situation in Burma for 15 years.

Toe Zaw Latt, a former 1988 student activist, is the Thailand Bureau Chief of Democratic Voice of Burma www.dvb.no

Solidarity Action: Express yourself to the people of Burma!

Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) welcomes videos and pictures bearing messages for the people of Burma, to be shown in Burma via satellite broadcasts of DVB TV. Please include your name and country in the footage.

Please send your contributions to dvb@dvb.no.



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Free Burma!
International Bloggers' Day for Burma on the 4th of October

International bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. These Bloggers are planning to refrain from posting to their blogs on October 4 and just put up one Banner then, underlined with the words „Free Burma!“.


Free Burma! | 04 October 2007  

I fear nothing will change in Burma unless middle ranking officers- Majors & Cols. stage a coup. The army has for decades been told they are the elite so what they do, they can do with impunity.
In Darwin we held a Prayer Service for Burma yesterday with Christian & Buddhist readings and prayers- little enough but it was done with sincerity and ful hearts.

Fr Paul Webb | 04 October 2007  

A profoundly disturbing scenario and a violation of rights of the innocent and oppressed. The world community needs to express its vehement disapproval.

Terry Casey | 04 October 2007  

good article on Burma and the monks resistance

rich | 04 October 2007  

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