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Myanmar monasteries deserted six months after protests

AFP, March 25, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar -- An elderly Buddhist monk sits in his saffron robes inside a Yangon monastery, one of just a handful of senior monks trying to teach and care for dozens of young novices reviewing their lessons nearby.

<< Myanmar monks beg for alms near Bago, north of Yangon

Six months ago, this monastery was full of monks who were at the forefront of pro-democracy protests that unfolded in September, eventually swelling to more than 100,000 people in the streets of Yangon.

Now this monastery -- like most others in Myanmar's main city -- is almost empty, after monks and other activists fled a deadly military crackdown that began on September 26.

"We monks have done what we could do for the people. What is the result?" the senior monk said.

"Many monks went back to their hometowns. They left the monasteries because of the suppression and their fears," he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The violence that Myanmar's security forces used to break up the peaceful protests shocked the world and instilled a pervasive fear in the people here.

Monks are considered inviolate in this devoutly Buddhist country, where they are treated with the utmost respect by the public.

They were treated as saviours when the began taking to the streets in cities around Myanmar -- formerly known as Burma -- in September.

Protests first broke out in Yangon on August 19, when pro-democracy activists began staging small street demonstrations in anger at a surprise hike in fuel prices that left many unable to afford even the bus fare to work.

Hundreds of monks in the central town of Pakokku joined the protests on September 5, but security forces fired shots over the crowd and beat some of the monks, according to witnesses.

The violence shocked the clergy, who began leading marches against the ruling junta in cities around the country.

About 300 monks joined the first march in Yangon on September 18, in what became daily protests.

The general public only started joining the movement four days later, when the monks defied a security barricade and walked to the home of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.

She appeared briefly at the door, tearing up in an iconic moment that captured the nation's imagination and inspired tens of thousands of people to take to the streets.

At its peak, the protest movement drew more than 100,000 people on to the streets of Yangon, while other demonstrations took place in cities around the country.

When the military decided to crack down, their tactics were severe.

Protesters, including monks, were beaten in the streets. Shots were fired into crowds, and a Japanese photojournalist was shot dead at close range. More than 3,000 people were arrested, and rights groups estimate some 800 remain in detention.

The violence against the monks was particularly appalling for residents in Yangon. Security forces staged night-time raids on monasteries, leaving behind blood-stained floors and ransacked rooms as they took monks to makeshift detention centres.

Most monks fled the violence, growing out their hair and seeking shelter in villages.

Thailand-based Myanmar analyst Win Min estimated that as little as 10 percent of the monks in Yangon are still in the city.

Although the junta last month announced a timetable for elections, with a constitutional referendum set for May and a multiparty poll in 2010, daily life remains a struggle in Myanmar, one of the world's poorest countries.

"The economic situation in Burma is worse now than at the time of the protests last year," said Sean Turnell, of Burma Economic Watch at Macquarie University in Sydney.

"The regime's response to the protests ... frightened off any would-be investors who might have thought Burma a destination for their capital," he said.

"Of course, it also frightened away foreign tourists, and the much needed foreign exchange they bring in," he added.

Even in a nation that has suffered under military rule for 46 years, the violence against the monks has instilled an even greater sense of fear in the public, Win Min said.

"The frustration is still there, but the fear is greater. People are more afraid than they were before," he said.

"They are scared, because they think if the military can do this to the monks, they will do worse to the ordinary people."

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