THE center of political dissent in Burma is shifting to the country's dominant religion. This is the view of Western diplomats in Burma following last week's protest by thousands of Buddhist monks in Mandalay.
Wearing ocher robes and carrying lacquer ``begging bowls,'' large groups of monks walked single file past Mandalay's military installations Aug. 8 in defiant silence, these diplomats say.
Another kind of protest might have brought swift reprisal under the martial law imposed by the regime, which finds itself increasingly isolated and despised by many Burmese after 27 years of rule. But the monks, who hold strong moral authority in Burmese society, carried off the subtle protest. With Burma largely closed off, reports about the event required a few days to reach the outside world.
The monks took advantage of their monastic routine in which they normally walk door to door each morning in small groups to receive food from the faithful, an act of giving which in the Buddhist faith gains them merit for subsequent lives. On Aug. 8 the monks walked in unusually large numbers, marching where soldiers could see them, sending a signal of public defiance.
Their silent clerical protest was perhaps the largest political incident on a day that marked the first anniversary of the start of massive killings of pro-democracy protesters by the Army. Diplomats say hundreds - perhaps thousands - of Burmese were killed by the Army from Aug. 8 to Sept. 18, when martial law was imposed.
Many Burmese had anticipated large-scale protests to commemorate the date. But the Army in recent weeks has detained more than 1,000 members of the leading opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
With its strength sapped, the NLD was unable to rally more than a few dozen members in Rangoon for a quick meeting at a party office, diplomats say. Also, a massive troop presence in Rangoon on Aug. 8 deterred demonstrations. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest on July 20.
The 200,000-strong monkhood, on the other hand, is the only nationwide institution, other than the Army itself, that has remained relatively autonomous, although the government has tried to impose controls since 1980. Most monks were denied access to military camps last December, presumably to prevent them from influencing soldiers.
Compared to other parts of Burma, Mandalay monks are the most politically active. The historic city is the second largest after the capital, Rangoon, and serves as Burma's center of religion, business, and culture.
Since last year's protests, the government has promised a multiparty election by May 1990 to transfer power to a civilian government. It has allowed parties to form, set up an election commission, and issued an election code.
Diplomats, however, say few Burmese expect a fair election. ``The Army wants a guided democracy, in which they do the guiding,'' one Western diplomat says. ``And they prefer Aung San Suu Kyi not to be there.''
The NLD leader is also the daughter of Burma's national hero, Aung San, assassinated in 1947.
During her campaign drives for democracy, she parlayed her father's popularity into her own, drawing large crowds in disobedience of a restriction on assemblies of more than five people.
Her arrest last month came weeks after her party openly defied many of the regime's rules on publishing and on crowd sizes - and after Aung San Suu Kyi criticized long-time leader Ne Win.
Ne Win claims he retired more than a year ago, but diplomats and many Burmese say his presence is still felt in government. Aung San Suu Kyi may have earned Ne Win's ire for challenging Army rule and doubting his claim that he was a trusted aid of her father, the founder of modern Burma.
``It's very hard to see how the regime will let her resume her political activities,'' the Western diplomat says.
Aung San Suu Kyi is reportedly staging a hunger strike to force the Army to move her into a government medical facility, or perhaps a jail, where her situation might draw more attention. The government denies she is on a hunger strike and is keeping her incommunicado.
Some diplomats say she may have miscalculated in hoping for public sympathy with a hunger strike. Her apparent attempt in campaign speeches to play one military faction against another may also have been a mistake.
Ironically, NLD members arrested in recent weeks have largely come from one party faction associated with Aung San Suu Kyi. Another faction, allied with NLD leader Tin U and known as the Patriotic Old Comrades Association, is considered less prone to challenge the Army since many members are military veterans. Nevertheless, Tin U himself, a former Army chief of staff, was arrested on July 20.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who sometimes quotes India's independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, has tried to use civil disobedience in her campaign, rather than street demonstrations that might draw Army bullets. But the Army accuses her of using the tactics of Burma's weak and outlawed Communist Party in confronting authorities. Most of all, she is accused of trying to cause the ``disintegration'' of the military.
Army Chief of Staff Saw Maung appears to have admitted July 5 that disgruntled elements in the Air Force and Navy were prepared to take power last September, according to a report in the regime's Working People's Daily.
The military has tried to win back public confidence with propaganda and public-works projects. But the economy is seriously deteriorating, and the government has been forced to sell vast quantities of cut-rate - and second-rate - rice to the urban poor. Local military tribunals were set up last month to administer summary justice to those who defy martial law.
``What is going on is quite awkward,'' says Saw Maung. ```Defy all power,' they say. Very wrong.''
To leave a nationalist legacy, the Army has changed the official name of country to Myanmar, and Rangoon to Yangon. But the change has elicited more jokes than allegiance among Burmese.
In the meantime, the monks of Mandalay are keeping Aung San Suu Kyi's spirit of defiance alive.
With the Army having the upper hand for the moment, ``religion may be the only channel for protest right now,'' the Western diplomat says.