Monks vs military hike Myanmar
tensions By Marwaan
BANGKOK - Political tension
in military-ruled Myanmar has taken an ominous
turn, with soldiers clashing this week with
sections of the country's respected Buddhist
clergy. The confrontation was the latest in an
unfolding drama that has featured rare public
protests against the hardline regime for
implementing massive hikes in fuel prices in
Monks in the central town of
Pakokku on Thursday openly defied
regime by burning four cars belonging to local
"The monks, who are students
at a large monastery in Pakokku, are very angry
with the military regime," said Than Win Htut, a
senior producer for Democratic Voice of Burma
(DVB), a radio and TV station run by exiles from
Myanmar and based in Oslo, Norway.
first erupted on Wednesday between soldiers and
monks in Pakokku town, some 500 kilometers north
of the old capital Yangon. That morning, soldiers
fired warning shots to break up a crowd of more
than 300 monks, representing apparently the first
time security forces have used their firearms
since the protests against the fuel hike began
"The monks started a protest
march from their monastery and were cheered on by
thousands of people as they headed into the town,"
said Than Win Htut. "The soldiers dragged about 10
monks away, tied them to electricity poles and
beat them with bamboo sticks."
One of the
monks involved in the protest told DVB that the
outpouring of anger was linked to the fuel hike,
which has hit the clergy in the stomach the same
way it has the rest of the impoverished
"We can't sit back and watch
the people who sponsor us sink into poverty. Their
poverty is our poverty as well," the monk was
quoted as saying.
In Myanmar, where more
than 85% of the country's 47.3 million people are
Buddhists, the monks, monasteries and temples
depend heavily on public donations for their
survival. This includes the food and alms that
laypeople give monks when they visit communities
every morning with empty bowls to collect their
day's meal. Myanmar's Buddhists follow the
Theravada school of Buddhism, as in Thailand,
Cambodia and Sri Lanka.
The clash between
clergy and security forces in Pakokku is being
viewed with a greater degree of interest than the
fuel-hike-related protest involving some 150
Buddhist monks during the last week of August in
the country's northwestern Arakan state. That's
because Pakokku is home to the second-largest
community of Buddhist monks in the country,
estimated by some to be close to 10,000 ascetics.
The largest Buddhist clerical community is in the
nearby city of Mandalay. Both places are highly
regarded as centers of Buddhist learning.
"This could trigger a reaction among monks
elsewhere, forcing them to come out and protest,"
said Win Min, an academic on Myanmar affairs at
Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand. "It
has the capacity of spreading, since the monks
have a close network, particularly in the area
The Buddhist clergy is
"the most organized institution after the
military" in Myanmar, he explained during an
interview. "They have always been a very
influential part of Burmese society and could
assert that role again now."
history is replete with such interventions. During
the days prior to British colonization, the
Buddhist clergy played a central role as advisers
and shapers of national affairs in the royal
courts. When Myanmar, then called Burma, became a
British colony, the monks were in the vanguard of
the movement against Western imperialism.
Such political activism continued even
after independence was achieved in 1948, and when
the country came under the grip of successive
military regimes after a 1962 coup. Among the more
recent episodes was the leading role monks played
during the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, which
was brutally crushed by the military.
"Many young monks took part and were shot
to death during the pro-democracy demonstrations,"
said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner in
Myanmar, now based in Thailand, who was part of
that peaceful uprising against the military
rulers. Some monks were beaten and disrobed, he
said. "There are still 90 Buddhist monks in prison
for their political activity during that period.
They are part of [Myanmar's more than 1,100]
Buddhist monks were
also victims of a brutal military crackdown in
August 1990, when they came out in protest after
the junta refused to recognize the results of
parliamentary elections held a few months before.
The opposition National League for Democracy, led
by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, routed
the pro-junta party at those polls, the first held
in the country in nearly 30 years.
current protests against the fuel hike, which saw
prices rise by 500% overnight, show little sign of
easing, despite the harsh methods deployed by the
junta. Before the clash in Pakokku, the military
regime appeared to keep its soldiers on a leash,
but instead let loose thugs linked to the regime
to beat back demonstrators and journalists who
attempted to cover the conflict. That
strategy, say analysts, was employed to avoid
rekindling memories of the brutal manner in which
soldiers crushed the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.
The showdown in the Pakokku potentially points to
a tactical shift, with the junta falling back on
armed soldiers to control the crowds. Two military
platoons were used on Wednesday to break up the
monks chanting a prayer and demonstrating
"Events may now take a turn
for the worse," speculated Debbie Stothard, of the
Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a regional
rights lobby. "We may be entering a period of
"The monks have taken a
stand in a very provocative way. They are
asserting their role of having a moral obligation
to help improve the people's welfare," she said,
adding that if more monks protest, it could mean
"the military is gradually losing control of the