Myanmar: Monks and the Military

Myanmar: Monks and the Military

If the Buddhist sangha and the military are the two dominant forces in the suffering society of Burma, could monks and dissident soldiers join forces to rise up against an oppressive regime?


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.

All eyes outside Burma seem focused on China as the great hope to ameliorate this situation.

In the stonecutting district of Burma’s second-largest city, Mandalay, the streets are lined with Buddha images for sale. The Southeast Asian Buddha tends to be a somber-faced ascetic. But along the street, hundreds of potbellied Buddhas smile out from the mason’s workshops: the Chinese Buddha.

“We ship the most statues to China,” one mason said. “Though we are trying to expand into Europe as well.”

In the zeigyo, Mandalay’s central market, everything from textiles and plastic buckets to DVDs are for sale, and, as a vendor explained, most of it comes from China. In the first half of 2007, exports from China to Burma were worth nearly $1 billion. China also provides between $1.6 billion and $2 billion in military aid to the Burmese junta. The protesters on the streets of Rangoon are most likely being shot with Chinese-made weapons. The trade goes both ways. China is Burma’s largest customer for its oil and natural gas resources, providing hundreds of millions of dollars a year to Burma.

There is no doubt that the Burmese economy is deeply tied to Chinese markets, and the hope is that China can leverage that relationship to stabilize Burma.

“China is the only possible pressure point for the generals,” notes Betsy Apple, director of the Crimes Against Humanity Program for Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy organization. “If China chose to take a hard line, the generals would be forced to listen.”

China asked for calm and expressed hopes that the government will end its violent crackdown on the marches, so reminiscent of Tiananmen Square. But there is no indication that this will be effective and no indication that China will do anything more than express its concern. China did not block a UN Security Council Resolution condemning the junta, passed on October 11, 2007, but the resolution has done little to stop the arrests of prodemocracy activists and citizens caught up in the dragnet.

“China has all along been an advocate of noninterference in domestic affairs of other countries,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu at a press conference on September 25.

“China has provided a lot of political cover for the junta in the past,” Apple observes. “Blocking the UN Security Council Resolution on Myanmar in January, for example.”

Even if China were to take more substantive steps against the junta, there is no historical evidence it would be effective. The generals in charge of Burma have their own wealth, secured after years of corruption, and have never shied away from the threat of economic collapse or from violent reprisals. They seem to be more influenced by xenophobia and paranoia than by the practical considerations of statesmanship. Consider their overnight move in late 2005 of the capital from Rangoon to the remote town of Nyapyitaw, 200 miles away. Rumor spread that, aside from fearing a restive public in Rangoon, astrological considerations affected their decision.

China, much to the international community’s chagrin, will not be the magic bullet. Neither will the United States. Sanctions did not topple Saddam Hussein or Fidel Castro, and sanctions will not topple the junta. Despite President Bush’s State of the Union claim that “When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you,” the citizens of Burma are not expecting the US Marine Corps to liberate them anytime soon.

There is, however, hope, even though the country is under a tight lockdown. On domestic flights throughout Burma, in better times, one could witness soldiers helping monks board planes, assisting them with their baggage and pointing them on their way. Within the rank and file, monks are held in high regard and generally treated with great respect. During the current crackdown, monks have been arrested, abused and in some cases shot dead. Rumors spread of a hunger strike among the thousands of imprisoned monks around the country. Even those who are not imprisoned are suffering harsh conditions. During the early days of the marches, one abbot mentioned that the villagers on whom he relied for food could barely feed themselves, let alone provide for an aging monk, though they tried to bring him rice every morning. Now he, like most monks around the country, is under confinement in his monastery. Many monks have fled the country to Thailand, hiding in towns like Mae Sot, near the Thai-Burma border.

Burma is a devoutly Buddhist country, and the sangha is the most respected sector of society. The abuse the monks are suffering is deeply offensive to many members of the Burmese public. In early October, Ye Min Tun, a Burmese diplomat with ten years’ experience, resigned from the embassy in London. “I have never seen such a scenario in the whole of my life. The government is arresting and beating the peaceful Buddhist monks,” he told the BBC. His resignation presents another possibility for the future of Burma.

If the Burmese army is a microcosm of Burmese society, as the US Army is a microcosm of American society, insurrection within the army might not be an impossibility. It will take great courage for members of the military to stand up to the regime, as Ye Min Tun did, but for every indignity suffered by a monk there is certainly anguish in the heart of some soldiers.

The hope for Burma, then, is much like the hope for any society in turmoil: not external sanctions and policy statements but the will, courage and good faith of individuals who refuse to watch idly as their fellow men are wronged. The Burmese army is estimated at around 500,000 soldiers. There are about 500,000 monks in Burma. They are the two most powerful sectors of Burmese society. Set against each other, they reap the destruction and bloodshed we are witnessing. Together they could topple the junta, something sanctions, diplomatic overtures, democracy activists and political opposition leaders have been unable to do for the past forty years. It all begins with an upturned beggar’s bowl and a soldier acting on faith rather than following orders.

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