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Monks with guns? Burma's younger activists get bolder
By Anand Gopal, CSM, September 18, 2008
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
Rangoon, Burma -- 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.
<< Standing up: A year ago monks, here in Rangoon, led the biggest antiregime protests in 19 years. The junta’s violent crackdown against them spurred many younger activists to consider more aggressive tactics.
"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.
Older activists: too cautious?
The security dragnet is forcing some groups, such as the semi-legal National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to operate with caution. During the September demonstrations, NLD's central committee urged party members to avoid the protests, though it verbally supported the monks.
"But the youth[s] started helping the monks anyway, and they defied party orders and marched," says Nay Shi Shwe, a leader of the NLD's youth wing.
"There is definitely frustration with the leadership," he continues. Young people "think that this is a good opportunity to fight the dictatorship, but the old men are taking too much time. They want to wait until 2010" – the year of scheduled elections – "but we want action now."
Older activists of the NLD, whose election win in 1990 was ignored by the ruling junta, say that too open an association with proscribed groups and illegal demonstrations may jeopardize the party's hard-fought semi-legal status and disqualify them from the 2010 elections.
But to some, the party seems to be caught in suspension, without a coherent policy to address the current political climate. "The NLD is slowly losing relevancy," says a member of the underground group, the 88 Generation Students.
Still a unifier: Aung San Suu Kyi
But while the NLD stagnates, youths, monks, and underground activists agree that Ms. Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years, is the only figure who can unite the opposition and revitalize the party.
When Suu Kyi reportedly refused to meet the United Nations envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, a few weeks ago, the hopes of many activists who are frustrated with the UN and NLD jumped.
"The UN is no good. All they do is talk, and when they come here they are focused on dealing with the regime [rather] than with fighting for democracy," says Thaw Htun, an opposition sympathizer.
Mr. Gambari is mandated to help facilitate the release of Suu Kyi and the reopening of NLD offices, but in six visits he has only met mid-level government officials and no one from the junta leadership.
Suu Kyi's lawyer, U Kyi Win, suggests that her refusal may be a strategy to convince authorities to alleviate the conditions of her detention rather than a principled opposition to the UN's role in Burma. She'd also refused food deliveries for almost a month until the government agreed this week to some of her requests, including the right to receive mail regularly and certain foreign publications.
Activists with the underground groups say they are not banking on legal strategies or UN visits. Instead, many are looking for new opportunities in the current political climate.
"My vision is that through the development of local NGOs after Nargis, we can start building community-based activist groups," says Hein Thein, a longtime opposition member.
Mr. Thein says these groups can function like "urban guerrillas," rising to protest when needed and blending back into society during times of repression. If the whole community is involved in such work, he says, it becomes very hard for authorities to crack down effectively.
Other sections of the underground, like some young monks, think armed insurrection is the key. "We can't make the mistakes our predecessors did," says Tha Kay, one such advocate. "We have to develop new leaders and a new vision. For example, we are stockpiling arms. It's too early to use them, but the time will definitely come."
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.