Burma: monks vs. junta
Officials move refugees out of monasteries to stem monks' influence.
Mae Sot, Thailand
The longstanding tensions between the two largest organizations in Burma (Myanmar) – the military and the Buddhist clergy – are finding new outlets as both groups confront the devastating aftermath of cyclone Nargis.Skip to next paragraph
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The monks have temples sheltering victims in the delta – and have begun to organize funding and supplies for victims, which they hope to deliver via an underground network of sympathetic citizens and exiles worldwide and in Thai border areas such as Mae Sot.
But nearly two weeks since the storm struck, the military, unquestionably, has the upper hand, with guns, helicopters, and relief supplies. And now, it is starting to force cyclone victims out of monasteries into tent camps, prompted by concern that the monks could help spur protests.
Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher in Bangkok with Amnesty International, says the government has the right to relocate people for their well-being in an emergency. "But if they are being moved on account of being associated with the monks," he says, "it's emblematic of the last 40 years, where the government is putting its survival over the survival of their people. Their rights are already being violated. As good Buddhists, people are used to hanging out in monasteries."
Ananda, a Burmese monk who says he fled to Thailand after leading an antigovernment protest of 270 monks in 2003, says the monks wield considerable influence. "People only have two choices: Will you demonstrate, or will you die?" he says. "If the monks organize people, there will be big demonstrations again. So the government wants to separate monks and the people."
The junta's concern about the monks stems most recently from unrest last September. After initially small demonstrations following a government price hike in fuel, monks led a weeks-long display of defiance against the regime in the biggest public protests in Burma since 1988.
The regime eventually cracked down; the United Nations said 31 people were killed and dozens were unaccounted for.
Last weekend, the junta, eager to affirm its legitimacy, went ahead with a referendum on a new constitution, an action that was sharply criticized by other countries. State radio said the draft constitution was approved by 92.4 percent of 22 million eligible voters, and put voter turnout Saturday at more than 99 percent of eligible voters in areas that went to the polls. Burmese opponents have said the government coerced votes.
Not enough supplies in camps?
This week, monks said that people in the Irrawaddy Delta were being relocated by boats and trucks into the state-run camps, where it was unclear if there was sufficient food or water to help them, according to Agence France-Presse.
About 80,000 people had sought shelter in schools and temples in the Irrawaddy Delta town of Labutta, which was left in ruins by the cyclone, they said.
"The authorities do not have enough supplies. Monks still have to take care of these victims," says a young monk from Labutta, who had traveled to the main city of Rangoon (Yangon) in search of donations. "[People] want to rely on Buddhist monks," he said.
And in a move that alienated other Burmese, security forces were also restricting citizens from directly aiding cyclone victims in the delta, reported the Associate Press.