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Brutal generals and dissenting monks

by TIMOTHY APPLEBY, Globe and Mail (Canada) September 27, 2007

If priesthood forms an alliance with the winner of 1990 election, a 'very significant force' would be born

Yangon, Myanmar -- Penniless, devout and thoroughly dangerous. Amid reports of mounting violence inside isolated Myanmar, that assessment now seems to be the ruling military's view of the unarmed, maroon-robed Buddhist monks leading the popular revolt against 45 years of dictatorship.

Numbering 400,000 to 500,000 in a country that is 90 per cent Buddhist, with a monastery in virtually every community, the monks in what used to be called Burma command huge respect, providing spiritual guidance and a ubiquitous role at weddings, funerals and other events in the community.

The monks are traditionally aloof and secretive, and the absence of foreign correspondents in the country makes their aims hard to read, said A. Haroon Akram-Lodhi, a professor of international development studies and Asian specialist at Trent University.

In the first weeks of the protests, he noted, the priesthood known as the sangha appeared anxious to keep some distance from pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1990 election and has spent most of the intervening years under house arrest.

But recent reports of an alliance with the famous dissident suggest a shift in the landscape.

"This is the most surprising development if it turns out to be the case," Prof. Akram-Lodhi said.

"Together they would be a very significant force ... and the military would have to use a lot of violence."

Sixty years after Burma secured its independence, the generals running one of Asia's most repressive nations have changed its name to Myanmar, built a shiny new, eerily empty capital city 320 kilometres north of Rangoon (now called Yangon) and struggled to persuade their few foreign friends the current upheaval can be contained.

But in many regards, Myanmar's crumbling infrastructure and its 50 million impoverished, ardently religious people remain stuck in a time warp in which Buddhism remains the basis of daily life.

Thus it was hardly surprising that the army held its fire for several weeks, as throngs of demonstrators led by monks choked the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay and other cities, galvanized over a 500-per-cent jump in fuel prices last month.

"An attack on the monks is an attack on people's faith, and that's where there's going to be a lot of problems," Prof. Akram-Lodhi said.

It is thought that about 10,000 monks have been taking a role in the protests. And they know how to yank the military tiger's tail.

Dependent entirely on donations for their livelihood, the monks' recent announcement that they would no longer accept handouts from the junta struck a particular nerve, said Myint Swe of the BBC's Burmese-language radio service.

"The government wants the image they are pious and helping the monks."

Drawn from the Theravada, or southern, school of Buddhism, Myanmar's monks have long been politically active - "the worst of all" the trouble makers, George Orwell wrote in Burmese Days, his 1934 novel about British imperialism's fast-fading glories.

From the British colonial era, through to the 1988 rebellion in which an estimated 3,000 civilians died, non-violence has been the monks' hallmark.

And by every estimate, the support they enjoy is near universal.

"The country is very devout. It's also incredibly poor and unequal, and people find solace in their faith," Prof. Akram-Lodhi said.

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