Burma's Buddhist monks take to the streets
After facing violence from the ruling junta, Buddhist holy men said they would refuse alms from the military – a move that is likely to embarrass Burma's dictatorship.
Saffron-robed Buddhist monks have begun participating in a series of antijunta protests, pumping new life into the month-long agitation that, until now, had not seemed strong enough to threaten Burma's military dictatorship.Skip to next paragraph
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Hundreds of protesting Buddhist monks on Wednesday occupied one of Burma's most revered temples, challenging the country's military rulers in the most defiant wave of demonstrations in nearly two decades.
Fear of reprisals have cowed the Burmese public from continuing to participate in the protests, which began Aug. 19 over the junta's increase in the price of fuel. But analysts say the protesting monks – who are largely considered above reproach in Burmese society – may threaten the military leaders' firm grip on power.
"[The monks'] actions can embolden Burmese people, who've so far feared taking part in protests, to come out on the streets in large numbers," says a Burmese analyst in Rangoon who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.
Clergy hold tremendous sway over the public in this religiously devout nation where nearly 90 percent of the population is Buddhist. The normally apolitical monks have been known to intervene during key moments, such as during protests against the British colonialists and the failed 1988 pro-democracy rebellion.
This week, the monks employed one of the more rarely used weapons in their dissident arsenal: They have refused to accept alms from the military regime – a boycott that is likely to embarrass the junta.
"In a staunchly Buddhist country, such a boycott is the most severe form of punishment for a Buddhist," one anonymous Buddhist abbot told the Associated Press, referring to the moratorium on accepting donations from the regime. "The boycott brings extreme shame to the ruling junta and should be taken seriously."
Given their historical ability to foment dissent, the military has been cautious, preferring to use gentle persuasion – and material enticements – to mollify the monks. Last week, high-ranking junta officials made donations of cooking oil and other food items to Buddhist monasteries, according to the New Light of Myanmar, the state-run newspaper. Despite several stern warnings, the military has yet to arrest any of the protesting monks.
On Wednesday, about 500 monks found the gates locked at the Shwedagon pagoda, the country's most revered temple, which sits on a hill dominating the country's largest city and former capital, Rangoon. The monks then proceeded to temporarily take over Sule pagoda before dispersing peacefully.
The holy men's participation in the protests began during the first week of September, when authorities in the northern town of Pakokku beat up hundreds of monks as they protested peacefully against the fuel price hikes. Burmese monks gave the junta until Monday to apologize for the violence. The military remained silent, prompting the monks to boycott the military's alms and take to the streets Tuesday, when four of them were arrested. Many of the clerics who were marching Wednesday were demanding the four monks' release.