Burma's Buddhist monks take to the streets

After facing violence from the ruling junta, Buddhist holy men said they would refuse alms from the military – a move that is likely to embarrass Burma's dictatorship.

Saffron-robed Buddhist monks have begun participating in a series of antijunta protests, pumping new life into the month-long agitation that, until now, had not seemed strong enough to threaten Burma's military dictatorship.

Hundreds of protesting Buddhist monks on Wednesday occupied one of Burma's most revered temples, challenging the country's military rulers in the most defiant wave of demonstrations in nearly two decades.

Fear of reprisals have cowed the Burmese public from continuing to participate in the protests, which began Aug. 19 over the junta's increase in the price of fuel. But analysts say the protesting monks – who are largely considered above reproach in Burmese society – may threaten the military leaders' firm grip on power.

"[The monks'] actions can embolden Burmese people, who've so far feared taking part in protests, to come out on the streets in large numbers," says a Burmese analyst in Rangoon who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

Clergy hold tremendous sway over the public in this religiously devout nation where nearly 90 percent of the population is Buddhist. The normally apolitical monks have been known to intervene during key moments, such as during protests against the British colonialists and the failed 1988 pro-democracy rebellion.

This week, the monks employed one of the more rarely used weapons in their dissident arsenal: They have refused to accept alms from the military regime – a boycott that is likely to embarrass the junta.

"In a staunchly Buddhist country, such a boycott is the most severe form of punishment for a Buddhist," one anonymous Buddhist abbot told the Associated Press, referring to the moratorium on accepting donations from the regime. "The boycott brings extreme shame to the ruling junta and should be taken seriously."

Given their historical ability to foment dissent, the military has been cautious, preferring to use gentle persuasion – and material enticements – to mollify the monks. Last week, high-ranking junta officials made donations of cooking oil and other food items to Buddhist monasteries, according to the New Light of Myanmar, the state-run newspaper. Despite several stern warnings, the military has yet to arrest any of the protesting monks.

On Wednesday, about 500 monks found the gates locked at the Shwedagon pagoda, the country's most revered temple, which sits on a hill dominating the country's largest city and former capital, Rangoon. The monks then proceeded to temporarily take over Sule pagoda before dispersing peacefully.

The holy men's participation in the protests began during the first week of September, when authorities in the northern town of Pakokku beat up hundreds of monks as they protested peacefully against the fuel price hikes. Burmese monks gave the junta until Monday to apologize for the violence. The military remained silent, prompting the monks to boycott the military's alms and take to the streets Tuesday, when four of them were arrested. Many of the clerics who were marching Wednesday were demanding the four monks' release.

Since the protests began Aug. 19, the junta's crackdown on protesters has been harsh. At protest rallies in Rangoon, toughs hired by the junta were seen beating up protesters, and herding them into waiting trucks. Security forces arrested 13 prominent leaders of the 1988 generation – a group of activists involved in Burma's 1988 pro-democracy movement – and nearly 100 other activists.

The interim leader of the '88 generation – a close aide of their chief, Min Ko Naing – who has so far managed to evade arrest, says that pro-democracy agitators have for weeks been urging senior Buddhist clergy to join the protests.

"The participation of monks will encourage ordinary Burmese to come out on the streets to express their pent-up anger against the regime," he says.

He says that despite the low level of participation, the public is sympathetic to the activists' cause, and many are surreptitiously helping the protesters.

"You knock on a door late at night and whisper, 'Let me in, brother.' People willingly help us, even though they're well aware of the dire consequences," he says in an interview in Rangoon.

Yet opinions remain divided over whether the monks will be able to mobilize the Burmese public to protest. The military has twice the manpower now than it did during the failed 1988 riots. And the fear generated by the recent iron-fisted crackdowns on protests will make it difficult to mobilize the Burmese public instantaneously.

However, there is simmering public anger among Burmese over the recent hike in fuel prices. And anti-junta sentiments run high.

In mid-August, the junta, without warning, nearly doubled the prices of gasoline and diesel, and raised the price of natural gas nearly fivefold. Prices of food commodities and public transportation have since spiraled, exacerbating the economic woes of an already impoverished Burmese population.

What's pinching people the most is the steep rise in bus fares. There are an estimated 2.4 million bus commuters in Rangoon alone, all now forced to shell out up to three times more for fares.

While Burma was once so productive that it was known as Asia's rice bowl, today nearly a third of Burmese are chronically malnourished or physically underdeveloped, according to the World Food Program. The per capita income in Burma is around $175, among the lowest in Asia – even below neighboring Bangladesh. Ninety percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line.

Daw May Oo, an emaciated 30-year-old woman, lives with her 10-year-old son in a satellite township on the outskirts of the city. She survives on a meager 1,000 kyat per day (less than $1). A housemaid, she needs to travel to downtown areas of Rangoon to work. With the price hike, her fares have doubled and 60 percent of her earnings are now lost on transportation.

Even food prices have been slowly rising, she says. "At this rate," she says, "even getting a meal per day might become a luxury."

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