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Those Monks of Burma (Myanmar)

What began as a protest against the Burmese military junta over a “massive increase in fuel prices” by a couple of hundred or so of common Burmese folks has, to say the least, escalated into full outright demonstrations that have become daily occurrences. The photo below is from Sunday’s protest (Reuters/Stringer), 9/23/2007.

In Sittwe, a crowd of about 1000 monks and residents demonstrated a few weeks ago and were fired upon with tear gas and ‘warning shots’ so to “help” in dispersing the crowd. According to one witness who “told Reuters three or four monks were hit and slapped as they were arrested.”

“They restrained me and hit me in the face and also on my head which started to bleed. They also kicked me with their boots. I had cuts on my head and my ears and several of my teeth were knocked out of place,” U Warathami said.

He said he was later taken to the office of the chief of Sittwe police with two other monks where he was tied up with a belt and beaten repeatedly until he became unconscious.

Apparently the gauntlet was thrown down when the monks demanded an apology from the military junta for the beatings during their protest in Sittwe on September 18th, and the junta/gov’t refused to issue an apology.

While in college working on that degree in Religious Studies, Burma was a place investigated at one point for a particular class, relating to Buddhism, for two reasons: 1) the manner in which Buddhism had been incorporated into the daily lives of the people; 2) and, the respect and adulation for the Buddhist monks and nuns was extraordinary. It was reminiscent for me of how Catholicism WAS integral to people’s lives prior to the Reformation.

As it is with Buddhism. Buddhism is the center of one’s life, the monastery is the center of one’s community. Wisdom resides at the monastery and for at least some (males) refuge can be sought out there. Since the monks, as are Buddhist nuns, are forbidden to work, they are ‘required’ to traverse daily through town or village on morning rounds with their bowls for begging. Those who donate towards the monks physical nourishment for each day earn merit.

So to further complicate matters these monks have the freakin’ audacity to refuse alms from those in the military, as well as their family members, which apparently is “deeply embarrassing to the junta” as this is considered a religious boycott and strikes at the heart and essence of Burmese culture. “In the Myanmar language, the term for boycott comes from the words for holding an alms bowl upside down.” How right on is that?!

Yesterday (Sunday, the 23rd) brought out quite a crowd with estimates as high as 100,000, although the AP placed it around 20, 000. Buddhist nuns joined the protest, onlookers clapped or joined the ‘parade.’

The protest march led to the home of Suu Kyi, who is the “head of Myanmar’s most popular political party, the National League for Democracy” and who the Burmese generals of the junta ignored even though the NLD won what was considered a ‘landslide victory’ in the elections of 1990. The junta is insistent that they are in the process of “guiding the country back to orderly democratic rule.” (Now, where have we heard that shit before – ‘democracy takes a bit to catch on.’?) Oh yeah, did I mention Suu Kyi is under house arrest? Another tidbit of information: Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, was a leader in the struggle against the British empire following WWII. Reuters had this video posted of Sunday’s protest.

Charismatic, steely-willed and outspoken, it is Suu Kyi’s popularity that has made her freedom an unappealing prospect for Myanmar’s rulers. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and is currently the only laureate under house arrest.

The fact that monks have gone to see Aung San Suu Kyi is really symbolically very important,” Myanmar analyst Larry Jagan told The Associated Press in Bangkok.

“The key is the monks and Aung San Suu Kyi have one thing in common; peaceful protest. They want to see change through peaceful means. What we’re seeing is a coming together of the main political force in the country, and the main religious leaders,” he said.

Now – the junta’s government sources have been silent thus far – until today.

Hours after the protest ended peacefully, Myanmar’s military government broadcast an ominous warning, telling senior Buddhist clerics that unless they restrained their juniors, the government would take action on its own against those it said were instigated by the regime’s domestic and foreign enemies.

It’s really started to heat up. The junta is threatening military action against further protests. This is reported as one of the most isolated of the world’s military regimes, who doesn’t listen much to anyone, and as reported here, may only have be a close friend because they share a border.

“China, the closest the generals have to a friend, has remained silent apart from calling for national reconciliation and a “democracy process that is appropriate for the country”. However, it is not clear what has been happening behind the scenes.

So loudspeakers atop trucks drove throughout the streets of Yangon – “blaring warnings of military action — an ominous reminder of the junta’s crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1988 with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives.”

“People are not to follow, encourage or take part in these marches. Action will be taken against those who violate this order,” the broadcasts said, invoking a law allowing the use of military force to break up illegal protests.

Those monks, highly respected and integral to every aspect of people’s day-to-day lives, are the ones who have stood at the forefront of against the colonialism of the British empire, and later with the current military junta/dictatorship. These same monks were conspicuous and played a pivotal role in that 1988 anti-military junta, pro-democracy uprising.

So as of September 25, 2007 at 4:56pm, the Australian paper ‘Herald-Sun’ has their correspondents in Yangon reporting another day has passed…..hopefully.


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