RANGOON, BURMA — In Mayangon township in the Burmese capital of Rangoon, workers are putting the final touches on the Tooth Relic Pagoda, whose golden spire will join countless others that dot the landscape in this fervently Buddhist country.
The presence of several dozen soldiers, however, attests to the special nature of this project: Burma's military government, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), has backed the construction of the pagoda as a public display of its piety. SLORC chief Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt chairs the construction committee and visits the site to supervise work.
The contributions of military officials to this pagoda - which will hold a tooth said to have belonged to the Buddha - and other pagoda projects are recounted almost daily in Burma's state-controlled press.
Since its bloody crackdown against prodemocracy demonstrations in 1988 and the annulment of elections in 1990 in which the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide, the military has sought to secure the consent of Burma's estimated 200,000 monks for its rule. The monks, who played a key role in supporting the prodemocracy movement, have been cajoled with a combination of SLORC's public display of devotion to Buddhism as well as the traditional iron fist of repression.
Few believe that the government's dedication to pagoda-building is altruistic. In Burma, religion and politics have long been intertwined. Under the Buddhist practice of Patta Nikujjana Kan, monks in the past would show their disgust with oppressive kings by refusing to accept offerings of food and clothing from the monarchs or performing services on their behalf. Burmese today still recount the story of King Tho Han Bwa, who killed more than 300 monks in 888 AD after they urged him to change his ways and was subsequently overthrown by his angry subjects.
History nearly repeated itself in the auspicious month of August 1988, when Burmese monks joined in massive antigovernment demonstrations. As with the kings of the past, the monks showed their displeasure by refusing to accept offerings from from soldiers. The military's response was as cruel as the king's, with several thousand killed and many more arrested. More than 3,000 monks have been arrested since 1990 with some 300 currently in detention in Burmese jails, says U Khay Marsara, chairman of the All Burma Young Monk's Union, an exile group in Thailand.
SLORC appears to have learned the lessons of history. In Mandalay, the hotbed of opposition in 1988, the town's most politically active monasteries are nearly silent but for the chanting of prayers.
IN addition to its frenzy of pagoda construction, SLORC has attempted to co-opt the country's governing council of elder monks by showering them with donations and special favors. The effort appears somewhat successful. "A number of senior monks have played along with it," says a Rangoon-based diplomat. "SLORC sees the monkhood as a pillar of stability and a key to keeping its hold on power. There would be serious trouble if the senior monks stood up and said the government was not following the Buddhist tradition."
In an attempt to keep an eye on the monks, the government is also believed to have placed undercover intelligence officers in monasteries. Such an effort is not difficult given the porous nature of the monkhood: Almost every Burmese Buddhist male becomes a monk for some period in his life.
"The monasteries are open to everybody," notes Aung Naing Oo of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), a Bangkok-based student exile group "I think they are probably the easiest places ... to infiltrate."
In addition, monks who fail to stay out of politics face lengthy prison terms. Last June, a monk named U Khetsara stood near the Sule Pagoda in Rangoon with a placard calling for dialogue between SLORC and the NLD. For his five-minute demonstration the monk was whisked off to prison and, when he refused to renounce his act, sentenced to seven years in jail.
ABSDF's Mr. Oo says that around 200 monks are still being held in Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison for their involvement in the prodemocracy movement. Labeled as "fakes," the monks are not allowed to wear their robes in jail and are not referred to by their monk names, practices which are considered highly insulting to devout Buddhists.
While SLORC seems to have put a tight lid on the unrest among the monasteries, trouble may yet be brewing.
According to U Khay Marsara, anonymous pamphlets were distributed in several Rangoon townships last August by monks vowing their support for Ms. Suu Kyi should another uprising against the government take place.
Many believe that the monks will hit the streets again if economic conditions in Burma deteriorate.
"Monks rely 100 percent on the generosity of the people," explains Oo. "When ordinary people are having a hard time the monks are also having a hard time. The question then is not if, but when, they will be obliged to do something about it."