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BURMA: 'How Many Monks Must Die Before The UN Moves?'

By Marwaan Macan-Markar, IPS, Feb 5, 2008

MAE SOT, Thailand -- For one Buddhist monk from Burma, the brutal crackdown of peaceful street protests in the country last September was anything but a victory for the military regime.

<< Ven. Ashin Kovida

The force used by the junta exposed its true character to the world. ‘’The international community really got to know how oppressive the Burmese military regime is,’’ said the monk, leaning slightly forward on the chair he was seated on as if to emphasise the point. ‘’That is one of the advantages of our struggle.’’

‘’There were many people who were killed -- monks, students, the public -- when the military brutally attacked the people who were demonstrating,’’ he went on. ‘’It also showed why the military regime is responsible for the way Burmese Buddhism has been treated. The history is ugly.’’

But the junta is not the only body that comes to mind as he reflects on what has happened over four months after the crackdown of street protests, the likes of which have not been seen in nearly two decades in that South-east Asian country. ‘’I want to ask the U.N. Security Council how many monks and people have to be sacrificed before the U.N. Security Council intervenes,’’ he continues.

And the Ven. Ashin Kovida is the ideal candidate to speak out against both entities. He was in Rangoon when the junta ordered its heavily armed troops to fire at the unarmed demonstrators. He was also the head of the committee of monks that helped shape the march of thousands through the streets of Rangoon during that brief September cry for economic relief and political freedom.

The march that the 15-member Buddhist Monks’ Representative Committee led had over 100,000 people on to the streets of Rangoon, a large number of whom were monks from the former capital wearing deep maroon robes. According to the United Nations, 31 people were killed and hundreds were arrested during the crackdown. But opposition and human rights groups place a much higher casualty rate, with over 100 deaths and over a thousand protesters arrested.

The monks were among the victims, too, states one group, the All-Burma Monks Alliance. Three monks were killed, one of whom was beaten to death, while another died after being tortured, it revealed in late January. The fate of 44 monks and nuns who were arrested when the military raided 53 monasteries across Burma, also known as Myanmar, still remain unknown, it added.

Such oppression appears to have enraged an already beleaguered population. ‘’The people have continued to suffer as they did before September,’’ Kovida said through an interpreter during an interview with IPS. ‘’The struggle against the military regime will continue this year. There is a strong desire among the people to do so.’’

Yet the likelihood of Kovida being in the forefront of new public protests against the junta appears remote. For after the September protests, he had to flee his country for the safety of Mae Sot, a Thai town on the Thai-Burma border, to evade arrest.

It was a flight from oppression that took over three weeks. The thin, 24-year-old monk had to hide in a house some 40 miles out of Rangoon to evade the Burmese forces searching for him, with copies of his photograph in their hand. For his trip to the Thai border, Kovida had to let the hair on his shaved head grow, then have it tinted gold, and to complete the disguise of a hip teenager, he shed his robes for street clothes. He even sported a bracelet for added affect during the bus-ride to the border.

Currently, there are 23 monks in this border town who have fled Burma following the crackdown. They, like Kovida, are all young, in their 20s, confirming a view that gained ground during the September protests that it were the young angry monks from among the country’s 400,000-strong Buddhist clergy who led the way to challenge the junta. And 10 of them, including Kovida, have applied to the U.N. refugee agency to seek political asylum.

But there is more to Kovida’s story than that of a young monk who dared to take on one of this region’s brutal regimes. It is a tale of political enlightenment of a Burmese who grew up in poverty in a small village of 20 houses in the western region of the country. When he arrived in Rangoon in 2003 to further his studies as a monk -- his only route to education -- he was marginally aware of the military’s notorious record since grabbing power in a 1962 coup.

‘’During my free time I began to learn English at the British Council and at the American Centre, and through some friends I was able to see videotapes of what happened in ’88,’’ said Kovida, referring to the bloody crackdown of a pro-democracy uprising in Burma in August 1988, where some 3,000 pro-democracy activists were killed by the military.

That political education beyond the walls of the monastery soon led to a new train of thought. ‘’I started to ask why there was such a big difference between the poor people in my village and the rich in the city,’’ he said. ‘’I wanted to know why there were so many poor people when Burma has so much natural wealth.’’

Before long, his journey of inquiry had led him to the obvious answer. ‘’I realised that the fault was with our military government,’’ he revealed. ‘’I felt very angry thereafter and felt I had to do something.’’

The junta’s decision to raise the price of oil by 500 percent overnight with no warning, last August, added to Kovida’s growing rage. ‘’We began to see more people suffering, children who could not afford to go to school, more children begging for food on the streets,’’ he said. ‘’Many monks could not ignore this because these were the people who always gave the monks food in the mornings.’’

Then came the trigger that saw the transformation of Kovida from a Rangoon outsider to the protest leader in the city. In early September, Burmese soldiers clashed with monks who were protesting against the spike in oil prices in the central town of Pakokku. The soldiers dragged away 10 of the 300 monks who had been protesting and beat them with bamboo sticks.

‘’The military regime failed to apologise for what was done in Pakkoku by the deadline the monks set, Sep. 17,’’ said Kovida. ‘’We then start to organise for a protest in Rangoon but realised there was no leadership. A new committee had to be set up.’’

It was out of such an atmosphere of rage and uncertainty that the Buddhist Monks’ Representative Committee was born. And young Kovida stepped forward when the monks in Rangoon called for a leader to head the committee. ‘’Our plan was for the monks to start marching and lead the crowds,’’ he said. ‘’We agreed that we had to be systematic. And the march had to be peaceful.’’

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