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Protests of the Burma Buddhists

by Richard S. Ehrlich, Global Politician, Oct 31, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- Tens of thousands of maroon-robed monks are trying to stage a Buddhist revolution against Burma's military regime, but Buddhists in next-door Thailand have not lent support to the Burmese quest for democratic enlightenment.

Burma's Buddhist clergy, including young novices, ordained monks and senior abbots, are said to be as numerous as the armed forces in the impoverished nation also known as Myanmar. An estimated 500,000 monasteries and temples -- many of them in disrepair and weakened by cracks and mildew -- are scattered throughout Burma, the biggest country in mainland Southeast Asia. On the other side of Burma's eastern border, meanwhile, more than 400,000 Thai monks and novices live and study in 40,000 ornate Buddhist temples, often equipped with televisions, computers and other worldly items.

Wealthier Thailand's Buddhist monks, who wrap themselves in bright, saffron-colored robes, waged an embarrassing, failed demand during the summer to have Buddhism declared Thailand's state religion in the new constitution. When Thai critics expressed dismay that Thai Buddhist monks were dabbling in politics, and appearing to alienate this country's minority religious faiths, the bid for a constitutional clause collapsed. More than 90 percent of Thailand's 64 million people are Buddhists, and news of Burma's protests has been splashed across Thailand's broadcast and print media. Burma is under harsh rule by a military which seized power in a 1962 coup.

Thailand is currently trying to emerge from military rule after army generals staged a bloodless coup one year ago. The most vivid public display by Thailand's military toward Burma's military was a two-day visit to Burma in August by Bangkok's coup leader, Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin.

A photograph published in Thailand's leading English-language newspaper, The Bangkok Post, on Aug. 29 showed Gen. Sonthi politely bowing his head while shaking hands with Burma's military leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, after the two green-uniformed men met in Naypyidaw, Burma's new capital.

Burma's military regime occasionally snipes at its Buddhist clergy for being infiltrated by "bogus monks" who are allegedly puppets of "traitors" manipulated by America, Britain, and other foreign countries which seek to exploit Burma's oil, natural gas, and other resources. Thailand's Buddhist clergy, meanwhile, is often hit by domestic criticism from Thai columnists, intellectuals and others who are dismayed that this country's abbots and monks are not focusing enough on the lofty teachings of Buddha. "All too many monks in this country do not observe even the most rudimentary precepts required of lay Buddhists, let alone the 227 precepts that saffron-robed monks, who are supposed to propagate and teach the religion, must observe," said the English-language Nation newspaper in a June editorial after listing several scandals within the clergy.

"Many [believers] who call themselves Buddhist, are apparently content with superficially observing religious rites that they don't see as having much relevance to modern society, let alone their personal lives," it said.

Thai Buddhist clergy are often in the news here for all the wrong reasons, including their money-minded obsession with manufacturing "magic" amulets, which are sold nationwide in an unregulated, multi-million-dollar industry, enriching select abbots and temples. Purists complain that Thailand's Buddhist clergy have fallen into "corrupt" practices by playing on people's superstitious belief in the popular amulets, and for also getting in trouble by occasionally cavorting with women and criminals.

Cross-border solidarity with Burma's beleaguered Buddhist clergy has not been strong. Mistrust between the two communities is partly the result of brutal wars which Thailand and Burma fought against each other, hundreds of years ago. Bangkok keeps those bloody events alive in school books, block-buster movies, and other dramatic reminders.

Buddhism is supposed to transcend such barriers, but Thailand's clergy has not appeared willing, or able, to support Burma's clergy in its current march for democracy. Many Buddhist monks in Thailand are instead happy to appear in public consecrating commercial buildings, blessing politicians of all stripes, flocking to shopping malls to check out the latest electronic gadgets, and lecturing followers about moral rectitude. Thailand and Burma share the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and both countries stress Buddhism in daily life, including the prominent publication of religious news in the media. Most people in both nations display an extremely devout, generous and genuine reverence toward temples, shrines, icons, statues, pictures and other Buddhist symbols.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. He received Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism's Foreign Correspondents Award.

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