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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 28, 2007
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Monks in the vanguard for regime change
By Brian McCartan

THREE PAGODAS PASS, Thailand-Myanmar border - Images of tens of thousands of red-robed monks have been broadcast across the world as Myanmar's Buddhist clergy ups the ante in what has become the largest demonstrations against military rule since the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1988.

Monk-led marches on Monday numbered more than 100,000 in the old capital Yangon, while demonstrations with clergy in the

vanguard in other major cities tallied in the tens of thousands. Exile-run media reports claim that as many as eight monks have been killed in the violence, which started on Wednesday when soldiers for the first time opened fire on the protests in Yangon.

Early Thursday, soldiers raided Yangon's Ngwe Kyar Yan and Moe Guang monasteries, where they allegedly opened fire, physically assaulted and arrested an estimated 70 monks. Soldiers are now positioned at the front of temples to enforce the government's recent ban on gatherings of more than five people, and the number of protesters has reportedly dropped from Wednesday's figure.

That the leadership of what has evolved into a nationwide popular protest is in the hands of a religious institution that is generally perceived as above worldly concerns may seem odd to outsiders, but this is not the first time Buddhist monks have taken to the streets in Myanmar calling for political change. Indeed, there is a long tradition of political militancy in the monasteries of Myanmar.
Dating to the days of British overlordship in what was then known as Burma, monks have played a pivotal role in politics. Several of Burma's anti-colonial revolts were, at least partially, organized and led by the clergy. Prominent Buddhist anti-colonial leaders included the Venerable U Ottama and the Venerable U Wisara.

U Ottama organized the first anti-colonial activities under the General Council of Buddhist Associations in 1918, started the use of boycott campaigns and became the first Burmese citizen to be imprisoned by the British colonial authorities for a political speech he made in 1921. U Wisara died during the course of a 166-day hunger strike against the colonial regime.

The Saya San rebellion of 1930-31, which became the largest armed revolt against the colonial system in Burma, had a strong Buddhist element to it as well. Monks were actively involved in organizing the rebels of an insurrection that lasted more than two years, required almost 10,000 British troops to subdue and resulted in the deaths of about 10,000 Burmese, including the movement's leader, Saya San.

Monks were again actively involved in the pro-democracy uprising that swept the country in 1988. While most of the demonstrations were organized and led by university and high-school students, monks were crucial in maintaining discipline and giving their movement an important sense of moral legitimacy - though there were also reports of monks participating in retaliatory violence. When the killing began on August 8, 1988, many monks were among those gunned down by soldiers.

In October 1990, as a protest against the killings, disrobing and arrest of monks during the 1988 crackdown and continued harassment thereafter, monks in Mandalay declared an alms boycott against the generals and their families. The then-State Law and Order Restoration Council launched a crackdown and monasteries were raided and as many as 300 monks were forcibly disrobed and imprisoned.

Several of the ethnic insurgencies that have long fought against the government have also enlisted prominent monks as leaders. One, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), is still, at least officially, run by a Karen monk named U Thuzana. Although it is inclusive of Christians, U Thuzana has seen that the DKBA maintains a strong Buddhist slant to its policies. Meanwhile, the Pa-O resistance movement based in Shan state was also initially led by a Pa-O Buddhist monk, U Nay Mee.

Karmic arbiters
In recognition of the centrality of the Buddhist clergy, or Sangha, in Myanmar society, the ruling generals have tried to be frequently seen making contributions to building monasteries and pagodas and donating money and gifts to prominent monks. State-run media almost daily contain images and stories of military officers visiting monasteries and handing over gifts of cash and religious materials or conferring religious titles. The donations and conferring of titles is a rather materialistic attempt at co-opting the Sangha while attempting to portray to the public an image of moral legitimacy.

Tellingly, however, the Ministry of Religious Affairs is currently run by a military officer, Brigadier-General Thura Myint Maung. Scores of monks who have run afoul of the regime for expressing their 

Continued 1 2 

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