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In the calm before the storm

by Spike Mountjoy, Scoop, June 12, 2008

A group of young Monks in the Burmese river-side town of Pakokku were at the forefront of the pro-democracy uprising that swept their country last year. Before the storm, when all they had to worry about was peacefully overthrowing the brutal military dictatorship ruling lives, Spike Mountjoy was taken into their monastery and their world for an emotional day as they relived the uprising and its frightening consequences.

Pakokku, Myanmar -- A young monk pushes the shutters open and shafts of sunshine cast oblong patterns on the dusty wooden floor, while down in the monastery grounds young kids in rags are playing in the dirt.

<< Monks walking in demonstration at the height of the saffron uprising in September 2007, chanting the "Metta Sutta" (Discourse on Loving Kindness). Picture by Vicino Elontano (via Flickr)

Here in Pakokku on the banks of Myanmar's Irrawaddy River, you might be forgiven for thinking life, as hard as it is, goes on undisturbed.

Middle-aged men pull heavily laden carts, their worn bodies straining under the load. Mangy dogs snooze in the shade, and people crowd under sun umbrellas in the outdoor teashops that line the dusty streets. Even in winter the temperature is up around 30 degrees.

The air is thick with the smell of fish paste and tobacco smoke from locally grown cheroots.

In the cool of the evening monks meet with friends from other monasteries at teashops to watch English football on satellite TV.

But this veneer of peace belies the tension and violence of only five months earlier, when armed police and soldiers brutally crushed pro-democracy demonstrations led by the town's monks.

Following the demonstrations the military regime has intensified surveillance in the town.

Some 80 monasteries here are home to more than 10,000 monks - it's a major centre of Buddhist learning in the devout country.

We are being shown around the grounds of an old monastery by several English-speaking monks. Even though this monastery is not believed to be one of the four in Pakokku under heavy surveillance when the conversation turns to the events of September last year they lead us up to the attic of the meditation hall. Up here, they say, we can talk freely.

Locals say plainclothes police and informers wait at some monastery entrances to take note of who comes and goes. Some informers do it for the money or to improve their chances of promotion, and others are government employees following orders. Being seen with foreigners can be a surefire way to attract the attention of listening ears.

Our monk tour-guides say meeting with us is a risk worth taking if we can remind people of their situation and their struggle.

It was in this holy town on September 5 that the military was first used to crush demonstrators in the 2007 uprising.

Thet Mon Win (not his real name) was one of around 500 monks walking through Pakokku that day and he still bears the scars.

The procession was chanting the metta sutra, Buddha's words on loving-kindness: "May all beings be happy and safe, and may their hearts be filled with joy . . .". Some were waving banners as they walked down the potholed streets.

In the early afternoon they met several lines of police blocking the way and behind them were soldiers. When the monks refused to return to their monasteries the authorities attacked, firing live rounds over their heads to disperse them.

Twenty-six-year-old Thet Mon Win, originally from Mandalay, ran into a nearby house but he was seen by police and arrested. They dragged him outside and tied him to a tree with a rope around his neck. Five months later and the marks on his right collarbone are still visible.

From there he was taken to the local police station and stripped of his crimson robes – a deep affront to a monk in Myanmar. He was released three days later. Talking about it now he chokes on his words.

The day after the crackdown, September 6, was an anomaly during last year's mostly peaceful protests. A large group of monks took 20 officials and military officers hostage, locking them in Pakokku's Ah Le Tiak monastery.

The officials had apparently gone to apologise for the previous day's violence but were held for more than five hours while four of their cars were torched. The monks demanded the release of demonstrators arrested the day before.

After mediation by a senior abbot the officials were let out through a back gate and most of those arrested in the demonstration were released in the week following.

The monks we spoke to expressed their frustration with the military regime but said non-violent resistance was the only realistic weapon against the heavily armed government.

According to the Thai-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners – Burma (AAPP-B) the regime is still holding more than 1860 political prisoners, at least 700 of them arrested since August last year.

The AAPP-B says people continue to be arrested without warrant, denied access to legal counsel, and in most cases, tried and sentenced unfairly.

They say torture is common.

Thet Mon Win is a kind of hero among his friends who are confident he will continue to resist the military government.

The friendship among them is brotherly as they lounge in the shade smoking local cheroots, reading newspapers and chatting.

The monks sleep side by side on paper-thin reed mats unrolled on a flat wooden platform.

If you want to know how people in the community are feeling, talk to the monks. Rising together at 5am, they walk around the neighbourhood receiving offerings for breakfast. They go door to door again at 7.30am collecting lunch, mostly rice, which is taken at 11am, the last time they will eat till the following day.

"Gas is not affordable. The price of rice has gone up. We can no longer afford meat. We are really struggling.” Thet Mon Win says they have been hearing this message for more than a year, but the people’s suffering increased dramatically with the August price hikes which saw the cost of cooking fuel increase by 500 per cent.

The struggle is visible in the tired eyes of people walking the sun-baked streets.

So the monks are hitting back with one of the few weapons they have, a nation wide boycott on alms from the military. When soldiers turned up at this monastery's gates in December offering sacks of rice the monks saw it as an attempt to buy their favour.

A bespectacled young monk was among those there when the trucks arrived. "When the soldiers turn up with the rice we say no, we forsake the rice," he tells us. The soldiers stood by silently as the group of monks ceremoniously scattered grains in the street in an act of defiance. The rest they took and distributed to the many in need throughout the city.

They say the military made sure their water and power were disconnected for the next week.

This alms boycott took place at monasteries across the city. At some monasteries all the rice was dumped in the street, where it remained until local officials returned to clean it up.

It was part of a nationwide alms boycott called by the All Burma Monks' Alliance, which is demanding the government apologises for its violence, reverses its price hikes, frees all those arrested, and begins talks with democracy groups to resolve the crisis.

For Buddhists in Myanmar giving alms is a privilege and a way to gain merit – an attempt to secure a better rebirth in the next life. For this reason refusing alms from the military, the vast majority of whom are Buddhist, is a potent weapon. The monks we spoke to were prepared to continue the boycott indefinitely.

The community of monks, or sangha, is a central aspect of Burmese culture.

Most men spend some time as a monk during their life. Indeed, every man we talked to in Pakokku had experienced monastic life at some point, even if only for a month during the water festival, a time when ordinary citizens can experience living like a monk.

The youngest join the sangha at seven. This is common for kids from poorer backgrounds who cannot afford schooling. The monks of Pakokku are drawn from right across the country, with a large number coming from the impoverished Chin state.

Following the demonstrations many fled back to their villages after threats from the military. One monastery with more than 700 monks last year had fewer than 250 by January. But now they are returning and the police have their sights on them. Monks from Pakokku now have to apply for a permit to travel, and we were told that for those wanted by the government just being out in public is not safe. They say more than 30 of their leaders are still in hiding after last year’s unrest.

The United Nations say that 31 people were killed by the government during last year’s crackdown. But the well-respected media organisation the Democratic Voice of Burma reports 138 people were killed, and other reports say hundreds were slaughtered and their bodies simply dropped in the jungle.

General Than Shwe's government maintains it killed only 13.

Myanmar has been under a brutal military dictatorship since 1962. The country's name was officially changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 by the State Peace and Development Council, who still rule. Although "Myanmar" is commonly used inside the country many democracy groups reject the name change as illegimate because the government was not elected. The governments of England, the United States and Australia still use the name Burma. New Zealand and the United Nations use Myanmar.

The SPDC says it intends to hold general elections in 2010. They informed the population via the state-owned and controlled newspapers, television and radio. But many are skeptical, and say the military government has a terrible record when it comes to elections.

It was after widespread demonstrations and the bloody crackdown of 1988 and '89 that the last general elections were called. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, the country's main opposition party, was voted in on a landslide. The army ignored the election result, and instead of taking power Ms Suu Kyi was put under house arrest where she has been for 12 of the last 18 years.

And if there are elections in 2010 she could be barred from taking power under the new constitution. Critics say this document, drafted by military-appointed delegates, is designed to keep the military in control.

After the last major demonstration in Pakokku in late October an agreement was struck with the local authorities - no one would be arrested if the monks promised not to march.

So far the monks have maintained this agreement.

In one of the town’s revered pagodas there is a plaque outlining the Buddhist precepts, with an English translation. Number one reads: "Forbearing patience is the highest moral practice". Last year monks were beaten by police on the street outside this pagoda.

When their patience wore thin last year and cars were torched people were surprised; local authorities, the people of Pakokku, the world. But it was a reminder that though they are Buddhist monks they are also young men.

When I explain to one monk that most of our country, half a world away, were cheering for him and "the crimson team", he looks away – when turns to face me again his eyes are watery. He said our support means a lot to them. On several occasions monks ask me whether people in New Zealand believed officials of the military government when they said protesting monks were impostors - not real monks. It cheers them up to know the military government has a serious credibility problem, even in far away New Zealand.

Perhaps in a moment of vanity one of the monks asks what people in New Zealand think of more of – the uprising of August 1988, or September last year? I tell him quite truthfully that the events of September had a big effect in New Zealand, even if only for a few weeks.

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