When the military junta ruling Burma cut the country’s Internet connection to the rest of the world September 28, it acted to return Burma’s prodemocracy activists and politically minded monks to an information environment similar to that of 1988. Internet cafes throughout Rangoon were shut down, and the marchers found themselves in roughly the same position as those antigovernment protesters of twenty years ago–removed from the public eye. In 1988 the military government’s crackdown on student protests left 3,000 people dead. When protest marches started in August 2007, everyone feared the worst. As one Rangoon resident explained, “In ’88, Sule Paya [a sacred Buddhist shrine in the center of the city] was covered in blood. This time will be the same.” There was one crucial difference this time. Monks, rather than democracy activists or students, were the ones taking to the streets on behalf of the Burmese people. They did not march for the political process or for a particular ideology. They marched because the people were hungry.
Throughout September the junta attempted to stop the marching, which was limited to the sangha–the community of Buddhist monks, who make up about 1 percent of Burma’s 47 million people–through quiet coercion. The military pressured senior monks to rein in the young agitators in their ranks. In Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city, officials outlawed the use of loudspeakers by religious groups, angering Muslims, who were in their holy month of Ramadan and relied on the call to prayer from the mosques throughout the day. But though the mosques were silent, the monks continued their peaceful marches throughout the city. They protested on behalf of a beleaguered population, suffering under the crunch of economic hardship and an oppressive junta with no regard for human rights. Civilians dared not join in. Most were hesitant to express support for the marching monks, as one in ten people in Burma is rumored to be an informant. Sympathy with antigovernment sentiments can land a person in prison or blacklist a person’s family from jobs and universities. Conversations about politics occur in whispers and on empty streets late at night. But the marching continued. The fear could not hold back the tide of frustration forever.
On September 23 the tide broke, and from that moment on the junta’s violent response was inevitable. The march began from Sule Paya, as it had each day of the previous week. About 500 monks emerged in rows four monks across. They carried flags and alms bowls. The bowls were turned upside down to indicate they would not accept government donations, a powerful gesture in the Buddhist faith, where giving alms to a monk helps accumulate merit. The action symbolized the monks’ abandonment of the souls of the generals in charge, many of whom are paranoid and superstitious. On this Saturday, however, something else happened.
A large crowd had come together to watch the march, and as each row of monks emerged, the crowd clapped. It was timid at first, but as more rows of monks emerged to begin their protest, the clapping grew louder until the whole crowd seemed overcome by it. A military jeep at City Hall across the street started its engines but made no move. The monks continued on their walk in the rain. A large crowd followed. Emboldened, the crowd marched through the city and marched past the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate who has been under house arrest for most of the past twenty years. They stopped in front of her home and prayed for her safety and for freedom. She emerged from her house to show her gratitude. That night, the military police merely looked on from their barricades. But the tide had turned. The quiet marching would no longer be tolerated.
The government’s next step involved bringing in military units to Rangoon; when the marching began on September 26, the government soldiers opened fire. For the next three days, a violent crackdown left anywhere from nine to more than 200 people dead, depending on which unsubstantiated report one believes. The Internet was awash in images of everything from panicked crowds drenched in tear gas to the execution of a Japanese photojournalist. The information blackout achieved its goal: hard facts became hard to come by. But even without numbers, it is certain that military forces attacked peaceful protesters under the guise of law and order, and that they have attempted to hide their brutality from the international community. The junta’s own paper, The New Light of Myanmar, reported that 3,000 people had been arrested in relation to the protests.