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Buddha's Peace Prevailed in Mandalay

by Moe Yu May and Marwaan Macan-Marka, IPS, Oct. 13, 2007

MANDALAY, Burma -- When Burma’s military regime mounted an attack on unarmed Buddhist monks and civilian protestors in Rangoon, the residents of this ancient city feared similar treatment.

<<Mandalay's Kuthodaw Pagoda is one of its many Buddhist monuments and monasteries

On the first day of that crackdown, Sep. 26, monks were targeted by heavily armed soldiers, the riot police and the pro-government militia. Monasteries in Rangoon were raided at night, the resident monks beaten and hundreds arrested.

Yet interviews conducted by IPS this week reveal a contrasting picture in Mandalay, the heartland of Buddhism in this country, where the landscape is peppered with a rich mix of pagodas and monasteries. As a showdown loomed up between crimson-robed monks leading anti-government marchers, there were scenes of soldiers worshipping the monks and appealing to them to avoid a clash.

‘’I saw soldiers worshipping the monks and asking them to go back to their monasteries,’’ said a female university student. ‘’They did not want a confrontation.’’

And even when force was used to disperse the demonstrators it was limited to tear gas and rubber bullets, added residents who had joined the protests. They had also seen shots being fired into the air rather than at demonstrating crowds.

One monk confirmed that a military commander had guaranteed that monasteries in this city would be spared night-time raids, unlike in Rangoon. ‘’A monk who knew the commander complained that we could not sleep at night due to fear of arrests. The commander assured him that his troops would not attack the monastery,’’ said the middle-aged monk.

Not spared, however, were university students and civilians who were part of the protests, which came after nearly 20 years of people living in fear of a repressive junta. The regime’s crackdown resulted in some 50 students being arrested. And like Rangoon after the assault, there were rumours of people seeing dead bodies being dumped into the nearby river.

The Burmese army’s softer approach in Mandalay has been attributed to the large number of Buddhist monks who live in the many monasteries that dot this central city, where Burma’s last king reigned before British colonisation. Some estimate that nearly 100,000 of Burma’s some 400,000-strong brotherhood of monks can be found in the pagodas, Buddhist schools and monasteries here.

‘’There is a very strong bond between the Buddhist monks and the community in Mandalay,’’ says Zaw Min, a former resident of the city who now lives in exile in Thailand. ‘’There is a Buddhist presence everywhere. The soldiers also know this.’’

What prevailed here in September has parallels to what happened in Mandalay in 1988. Then, thousands of pro-democracy activists, including monks, took to the streets only to face a brutal response from the military that left some 3,000 protestors dead, mostly in Rangoon. ‘’I was in Mandalay in 1988, and there were no major clashes unlike in Rangoon,’’ Zaw Min, spokesman for the Democratic Party for a New Society, told IPS correspondent Marwaan Macan-Markar in Bangkok.

The anti-government protests held here were part of the public discontent that broke to the surface in mid-August following a sudden 500 percent spike in oil prices. On the eve of the crackdown, demonstrations had been held in 26 cities and towns across this South-east Asian nation. But only in Rangoon and two towns in the Kachin State, the northernmost province, did the junta unleash severe measures.

‘’This also reveals the disarray in the way the regime responded to the situation. The suppression in Rangoon was very tough; so too, in the Kachin State,’’ says Zaw Oo, director of the Vahu Development Institute, a think tank based in northern Thailand that specialises in Burmese affairs. ‘’The order to crackdown depended very much on the local commanders. Each used a different means of suppression.’’

According to ‘The Irrawaddy,’ a current affairs web site and magazine published by Burmese journalists in exile, the order to use force ‘’was made by junta leader Gen. Than Shwe, but there were moments when the army -- senior and junior officers -- appear to have disagreed on how to handle the protests.’’

‘’There was a time when the possibility of a coup seemed real,’’ it added in a report on Monday, quoting a source in Rangoon who has since left the city. ‘’There were some top commanders who did not want to use deadly force and there was real tension within the junta.’’

Burma’s military, which has dominated the country for the past 45 years following a coup, has gained notoriety for its brutality. Little wonder why doubts have been raised about the number of people who were killed by the junta’s forces during the late September crackdown. The official number of deaths is 10, but anti-government groups estimate that over 200 people have been killed.

Two light infantry divisions from outside Rangoon were sent into the city to confront the demonstrators, Win Min, a Burmese academic with inside knowledge of the country’s military affairs, told IPS. ‘’They were both battle-hardened divisions. They had been deployed before to fight (separatist rebels) in the Karen State.’’

But the two light infantry divisions dispatched to Mandalay were not as battle tested, added Win Min, who teaches at Chiang Mai University, in northern Thailand. ‘’I also heard that many commanders did not want to shoot the monks in Mandalay although they got the orders to do so.’’

Yet the reprieve of sorts that Burma’s second largest city appears to have enjoyed has done little to ease the mood of the people. They share similar sentiments to those in Rangoon in the aftermath of the crackdown.

‘’What we need now is security. We don’t have it,’’ said a 35-year-old teacher near the Mandalay university. ‘’Even though I did not do anything wrong, I feel so unsure in mind about what will happen next.’’

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