Monks rising: the basics on Burma

Answers to some of the fundamental questions on a nation in flux.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

On Sept. 22, hundreds of monks passed a security cordon and chanted prayers outside her house in Rangoon. Ms. Suu Kyi came to the gate and spoke briefly in her first public appearance since her most recent arrest in May 2003. The visit was highly symbolic, as it linked the current unrest to the suppressed democracy movement. Monks in Rangoon have since begun calling for her release and the freeing of all political prisoners.

Who runs Burma?

Since 1962, the military has ruled Burma in various guises. Until 1988, dictator Ne Win promoted a socialist economy. When mismanagement led to a popular revolt, Ne Win stepped down, and a new military council was formed. It renamed the country Myanmar, switched to a market economy, then refused to hand over power after it lost the 1990 election to Suu Kyi's party.

The current junta is led by Army General Than Shwe, a hard-liner who has shown little interest in political reform. The generals say Burma must remain united under strong leadership, or risk losing territory to armed separatist groups. During the 1990s, an expanded Army seized the upper hand against some ethnic rebel groups, and signed several ceasefire deals.

Since 2003, after an international outcry over a crackdown on Suu Kyi's party, the regime has pursued what it calls a road map to democracy. Last month it finished drafting the guiding principles of a long-delayed constitution that should pave the way for elections. Opposition groups say the charter would entrench military rule and does little to satisfy ethnic groups who favor greater autonomy.

Who are Burma's international friends and foes?

Burma emerged from self-imposed isolation in the 1990s to join the Association of Southeast Asia Nations. It has also cultivated ties with China and, more recently, India, signing deals to exploit oil, gas, and natural resources in return for economic and diplomatic support. China has sold weaponry and provided aid to Burma to help it overcome Western sanctions imposed since the 1988 crackdown.

Observers say Beijing holds great sway in Burma and may be pushing the generals to make changes in order to maintain stability on its borders. "I think China has more weight than the UN, which is toothless and has no clue about what goes on in Burma," says Aung Zaw, an exiled activist in Thailand.

The US is a staunch critic of Burma, and has been joined by European governments, particularly former colonial power Britain. US sanctions were tightened in 2003 after a violent crackdown on Suu Kyi's supporters. President Bush unveiled further restrictions on Tuesday. Some ASEAN countries have begun criticizing Burma in public, breaking with a long-held policy of noninterference in domestic affairs.

What's likely to happen next?

Protesters are determined to press on, despite the threat of a violent suppression by authorities. Some analysts believe that the regime will try to avoid a repeat of previous bloodshed while the world is watching. But that is unlikely to sway the generals if their backs are against the wall.

Some Army officers might want to buy off protesters by offering policies to ease economic hardship. But so far the leadership has mostly ignored such advice, says Thant Myint-U, a former UN diplomat and author of "The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma." "The road map and the constitution are already a concession, in their minds," he says.

If the past is any guide, unrest may wax and wane for some months, as it did in 1988, but the regime is unlikely to collapse, say analysts. Nor do protesters expect it to, at least not overnight. For now, their hopes of momentous change appear to be outweighing caution at possible reprisals. A wild card in the volatile mix is ethnic separatists, who, sensing weakness in their military opponents, may revive their fight to wrest control of territory.

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