Monks rising: the basics on Burma
Answers to some of the fundamental questions on a nation in flux.
Burma's military rulers are trying to choke off an escalating protest movement led by Buddhist monks that has gripped the country since last week. Tens of thousands of clergy and lay people have marched in cities and towns across Burma (Myanmar) in the largest antigovernment demonstrations in nearly two decades.Skip to next paragraph
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After an initial standoff, authorities have denounced the monks, arrested political activists, and imposed a nighttime curfew and a ban on public gatherings in the two biggest cities, Rangoon (Yangon) and Mandalay. Police fired shots and tear gas to disperse crowds Wednesday in Rangoon, killing two monks and a civilian, according to the Reuters news agency. But thousands still continued to march. Armed security forces are stationed around the city, according to news agencies. The US and other foreign governments have urged authorities not to resort to violence against demonstrators.
Isolated by its rulers and excluded from the economic prosperity of its neighbors, Burma is among the poorest countries in Asia. Parts of its northern and eastern frontiers are controlled by ethnic-based armies, some of whom have signed ceasefires with the military. Fighting in these areas, which has ebbed and flowed since the 1940s, has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, including many refugees in Thailand.
What prompted the monks to march?
The sudden withdrawal of fuel-price subsidies in August led to student-led protests in Rangoon that were quickly suppressed. Earlier this month, security forces violently broke up a peaceful protest by monks in the northern monastery town of Pakokku. When monks demanded an apology for the rough treatment and didn't get one, they declared a boycott on receiving alms from junta members – a form of excommunication.
An underground network of clergy condemned the regime and asked the public to support their protests. Revered and respected as a moral authority, the monks have become formidable opponents. "This is a movement that has been created by young monks ... they believe it's their obligation to speak out against an unjust government," says David Mathieson, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Initial protests involved columns of monks chanting prayers at temples, but quickly swelled into gatherings where some speakers called for political and economic reforms. Prominent entertainers and opposition politicians joined the gatherings this week. As many as 100,000 people lined the streets of Rangoon, the former capital, in recent days. Lay people linked arms around the marching clergy.
What historical role have the Buddhist clergy played?
During British colonial rule, monks supported proindependence movements, while also opposing inroads made by Christian missionaries in Burma. Nearly 90 percent of the current population of 53 million are followers of Theravada Buddhism, the same school as in neighboring Thailand and Laos. Burmese monks wear red robes, in contrast to the saffron robes worn by sects in Thailand.
In 1988, monks supported a popular uprising in Burma that forced a change of junta and a promise of democratic reform. In 1990, after the opposition won elections that authorities refused to honor, monks announced a boycott on receiving alms from the military. Security forces responded by crushing protests, closing temples, and arresting hundreds of monks. During the 1990s, senior clergy were put under strict supervision as the regime made a show of donating to monasteries and erecting temples.
Who is Aung San Suu Kyi and why is she important?
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, a nationalist hero who was assassinated by a rival in 1947, one year before Burma gained its independence. In 1988, during a visit from the UK, where she lived with her husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford professor, she emerged as a political opposition leader. The following year she was placed under house arrest, where she has remained, on and off, for 12 of the last 18 years. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.