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Buddhists fear ‘white head’ monks will give junta excuse for violence

by Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, September 25, 2007

Rangoon, Burma -- Burma’s junta threatened unspecified action against protesting Buddhist monks yesterday as up to 100,000 people marched in the biggest protest seen in a week of ever-expanding demonstrations in the city of Rangoon.

<< Buddhist monks march on a street in protest against the military government in Yangon, Myanmar

Buddhist monks leading the demonstrations called for discipline amid rumours that plain-clothes policemen were posing as monks. Identified as “white heads” – because their recently shaved heads are still unbrowned by the sun – protestors feared that the police were planning to stir up violence among the marchers as a pretext for a bloody government crackdown.

Meanwhile, there were appeals to the junta from Britain, the United States, Europe, Singapore and the Dalai Lama not to use force against the protesters.

Brigadier-General Thura Myint Maung, the Burmese Minister for Religious Affairs, gave the first reaction by a member of the junta since the monks began their demonstrations a week ago.

“If the monks go against the rules and regulations in the authority of Buddhist teachings, we will take action under the existing law,” he was quoted as telling state television.

“The protest marches in the streets are just a tactic that was systematically plotted from outside the country.”

Democracy activists estimated that 100,000 people marched in Rangoon, five times as many as on Sunday. For the first time, the red-robed monks and their secular supporters were joined by 50 members of the National League for Democracy, the political party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner whose victory in elections in 1990 was ignored by the military Government.

As on the six previous days the marchers congregated at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest site of Burmese Buddhism, which is believed to contain hairs of the Buddha.

Two prominent Burmese entertainers, the comedian Zaganar and the romantic actor Kyaw Thu, brought food and water to the pagoda as an expression of respect for the monks.

“We are Buddhist and all Buddhists have to support this movement,” Kyaw Thu said. “We will do whatever we have to do take care of the monks. They are doing a lot on behalf of the people.”

Distinguished writers, a poet and musicians also appeared at the pagoda, and a group of doctors and nurses established a committee to tend to the health of the demonstrators. Many ordinary people decorated their dress with small pieces of cloth cut from the same cloth as the monks’ robes as a symbol of solidarity.

Despite the scale of the defiance there were few obvious members of the security forces on the streets and when the demonstrators passed the Ministry of Defence building the soldiers guarding it showed no reaction.

The State Peace and Development Council, the leaders of the Government, gathered for a regular meeting in Naypyidaw, the newly established administrative capital, hacked out of the jungle in central Burma.

Their deliberations remain a mystery, but there is intense speculation about how they will respond to the demonstrations, which began last month with a few hundred activists angry over price rises but have developed into the most serious challenge to the Government in 19 years.

Generals have ruled Burma since 1962, and the present head of the Government is Than Shwe, who began his career in psychological warfare operations against Burma’s rebellious ethnic minorities. Little is known about him.

There was outrage last year when video footage of the wedding of one of his daughters, Thandar Shwe, was posted on the internet. It showed the bride handing out diamonds to guests, shouting: “They’re real!” – in a country where many people do not have enough to eat. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London said: “The Government has reacted with commendable restraint.

“We hope that continues. A violent response would make matters far worse.”

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