Monks with guns? Burma's younger activists get bolder.
Last year's crackdown on Burma's biggest protests in 19 years spurred them to try new tactics, from teaching human rights to stockpiling arms. Part 1 of three.
If Ashin Zawta has his way, the next time the government of Burma (Myanmar) clamps down on dissent it will have to deal with a new force: monks with guns.Skip to next paragraph
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"Last September the Army proved too powerful for us and defeated our nonviolent tactics," says the young monk, whose real name, like those of other activists in this story, has been changed for security reasons. "We need weapons. That is the only way we can bring down this regime."
One year after monks led thousands in Burma's largest antigovernment protests in 19 years, many activists say they are losing patience with the slow pace of change. Up against a powerful regime, they are calling for fresh tactics, from teaching human rights theory to stockpiling arms.
"The younger activists' frustrations are growing. They want to take up arms because they were so brutally suppressed last September. They have gone their whole lives without seeing change," says Win Min, an expert on Burmese political affairs at Thailand's Chiang Mai University.
While the activists turning toward violence still form a minority, young monks have never before openly advocated violence, and this may signal a new phase in the evolution of the political opposition, says Mr. Win.
Burma's military government killed dozens of protesters and detained at least 800 in August and September 2007 when a surge in fuel prices sparked large demonstrations, led by Burma's widely respected monks. The stark defeat of the uprising – which became known as the Saffron Revolution, for the monks' deep-red robes – left many younger activists questioning the prevailing political wisdom.
Though Buddhism is traditionally associated with nonviolence, Mr. Zawta says the junta does not respect life or Buddhism, forcing some monks to take this extreme position.
"The regime is like a rabid dog," Mr. Zawta says. "It bit us and infected us with militancy. The old ways aren't working – the only solution is to arm the people.
"Some of the old monks preach caution and tell us to focus on patience and the Buddhist way," he continues. "But many of us are realizing that we have to go out there and do something."
New tactics: teach rights, deliver aid
The younger monks are more active, Zawta says, adding that more are learning English so they can communicate with international media and expose conditions inside the country.
As with many young monks, last year's protests politicized Zawta. He forged links with the All Burmese Monks Alliance (ABMA), an underground network of activist monks that formed in the wake of last September's crackdown. The Alliance, which has become a leading underground opposition group, gives political sermons and organizes aid delivery to Burma's south, which was devastated by cyclone Nargis in May.
Most monasteries in Burma provide free education to the community's poor, including lessons in English, math, and Buddhism. But Zawta and other Alliance-affiliated monks have supplemented the curriculum with a dose of human rights theory and political history. "Most young people don't even know about 1988," he says, referring to the failed uprising of that year.
Years ago such overt anti-regime talk in monasteries would have been unthinkable. But members of the post-September generation say monks can no longer play a secondary role in Burmese politics.
This new focus comes with a price, however. Authorities have cracked down on the monk movement, arresting many of the leaders of last year's protests. Earlier this month, intelligence agents raided a monastery in Rangoon, Burma's main city, and arrested a senior monk. The government also recently derobed ABMA leader U Ashin Gambira and plans to try him on sedition charges.
Some leading monks have fled for Thailand, while others remain in country and work underground, surreptitiously distributing leaflets and facilitating other activists' work. The Monks Alliance has housed activists being hunted by the government in their monasteries.
Remembering the Saffron Revolution, 2007
Aug. 15: Regime doubles fuel prices.
Aug. 19: 500 people protest in a rare march in Rangoon, the main city.
Aug. 28: Monks protest for the first time in Sittwe.
Sept. 5: Troops fire warning shots in Pakokku.
Sept. 18: Thousands of monks march in many towns. Officials use tear gas and warning shots on monks in Sittwe.
Sept. 23: 20,000 monks and nuns join the biggest marches since 1988.
Sept. 24: 100,000 protest in Rangoon.
Sept. 26: Security forces beat, arrest protesters; fire tear gas, warning shots.
Sept. 27: Authorities raid monasteries, arrest monks. At least nine people are killed in a violent crackdown.