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Burmese days: A nation faces up to its future

by Peter Popham, The Independent, August 30, 2008

A year on from the 'saffron revolution', a nation faces up to its future

Rangoon, Burma -- The world had never seen anything like it. For an entire week last September we were riveted by the sight of hundreds, then thousands, then finally tens of thousands of Burmese monks, walking in bold defiance of the military regime through the streets of their country's towns and cities.

<< Young Burmese children preparing to become novice monks. MARIO POPHAM

It was quickly dubbed "the saffron revolution" – which was wrong on both counts. Burmese monks' robes are not saffron in colour but maroon or cinnamon. And "revolution" wasn't right either. The monks had no banners, no apparent leaders, made no speeches. Nor were they aiming to seize power. They merely walked through the streets, through the teeming monsoon rain, chanting the Metta Sutta, the Buddhist scripture on unconditional love.

Like previous mass protests, the monks' rising was provoked by the callous stupidity of the regime, which suddenly slashed fuel subsidies without warning in mid-August, sending the price of petrol, kerosene and diesel rocketing by 50 per cent and overnight making life impossible for the impoverished population. People could no longer afford to ride their motorcycles or take the bus to school or to market.

The first protest, four days later, was almost invisible: a silent march through central Rangoon by veterans of the great uprising of August 1988 who had served long jail sentences but were finally free again. The authorities left them in peace and similar silent, low-key demonstrations followed in other cities. Political life in Burma is like an immense game of Grandma's footsteps. Normally, Grandma wastes no time in whisking round and sending everyone off to jail. But if she dozes, before you know it the whole country is on the move.

That's what happened one year ago. Among the other protests that sprang up was one by a group of monks in a sleepy provincial town on the Irrawaddy called Pakkoku, near the tourist centre of Bagan. When nothing bad befell them, they marched again the following day. But now Grandma sprang into life. Despite the fact that, for Burmese Buddhists, assaulting or humiliating a monk is regarded as one of the worst things you can do, police beat them with truncheons, tried to tear off their robes, tied some of them to utility poles and arrested others.

The monks of Pakkoku responded by demanding an apology and giving the authorities two weeks to deliver it. The regime ignored the demand, so when the deadline passed the monks came out on to the streets, not only in Pakkoku but across the country. And now their demonstration took on a broader meaning. As well as an apology they demanded the rescinding of the fuel price rise, the release of political prisoners and the start of a dialogue on political reform.

Within days the movement had become gigantic. On 22 September, three days after it began, hundreds of monks penetrated the razor-wire barriers shrouding the approach to the house where Aung San Suu Kyi is confined, and Burma's democracy leader came out of her front gate to greet them and chant sutras with them. Over the next two days the movement peaked when monks invited the ordinary people to join in. More than 100,000 people filled the biggest boulevard in Rangoon, marching through the pouring rain.

But the walls of Jericho did not fall down. Senior general Than Shwe, the regime's ageing strongman, did not lose his nerve. Unlike in 1988, the junta did not buckle under the pressure. Instead it flooded Rangoon and the other cities and towns with troops, forced them to swallow their inhibitions about attacking men of religion, and ordered them to let rip. In a few days it was all over. Thousands of protesters were thrown into improvised jails, many more were disrobed and forced out of their monasteries and back to their homes, and an unknown number were killed, including the Japanese journalist Nagai Kenji, gunned down on camera in central Rangoon.

It was another dreadful setback for the forces of Burmese democracy. But the crushing of the revolt, which had been widely predicted, could not erase the fact that the regime had been challenged by a new opponent, one with deep roots among the common people: the Buddhist sangha, the community of monks.

Buddhism is at the heart of the Burmese way of life, the way Catholicism was at the heart of the lives of people in rural Spain or Italy a couple of generations ago. One of the side-effects of Burma's long isolation is that this centrality has yet to be challenged as it has in Thailand or Sri Lanka, where consumer capitalism has elbowed religion aside. In Burma it remains massively central.

One can get an idea of this centrality from the ceremonies that unfold in temples all over the country in March, after the rice harvest and before the hot weather and the rains. Boys and girls dolled up to look like princes – like Prince Siddhartha, to be specific – are presented at the temples before symbolically undertaking the Buddha's way of renunciation, having their heads shaved, taking the monastic vows and entering the monastery, where for weeks or months they live as monks and learn to do the things that monks do: to meditate, to chant sutras, to walk

through the towns and villages receiving gifts of food. Practically every Burmese Buddhist boy has this experience deep in his memory, and very many of the girls, too. Many return to the temples as adults for periods of retreat and contemplation.

The power of Buddhism extends to the generals: the late dictator Ne Win, who seized power in a coup d'état in 1962, was a deeply superstitious believer, and took up meditation in later life. His successors continue to respect the forms of the religion: after their humiliation in the election of 1990, the generals went on an orgy of pagoda building, a traditional way for a ruler to acquire merit and establish legitimacy. The junta has tried for decades to stamp its authority on the sangha, which is about as large as the army in terms of manpower. Every year the generals pour contributions into monasteries they regard as well-disposed towards them.

Buddhism is of crucial importance in the politics of Burma because most of the civil institutions of the state have either withered away or been deliberately smashed by the generals: parliament, the judiciary, trade unions, most political parties, the independent media, civil society in all its forms. All that remains is the sangha. The rule of the Buddhist kings, the last rulers regarded as legitimate by devout Burmese, ended only 123 years ago. That is the authority – usurped by the British – to which all hark back.

Much of the love and respect which Aung San Suu Kyi continues to enjoy among ordinary Burmese is due to her own profession of piety and the meditation discipline that has helped to sustain her through the years of enforced solitude.

So while few expected the monks to emerge from their uprising with anything approaching a victory, the dramatic confrontation confirmed their position as the other great power in the land, the one force with which the generals must reckon. And that lesson was reinforced by the next terrible test the country had to face.

The monks' revolt did not bring the junta down but it had several consequences. One was the first formal action ever taken by the United Nations Security Council against Burma, "strongly deploring the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators"; another was the dispatching of the UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, the former Nigerian foreign minister, to Burma (he was back in the country for another visit on 20 August). A third was the decision by the junta to attempt to deflect the world's anger by submitting a new, pseudo-democratic constitution to a referendum, a step on the return to a sort of democracy – though with a large, built-in role for the military. The referendum was scheduled for 10 May.

So it was taken by many Burmese as a very bad omen – karmic payback for their assault on the monks – when, barely a week before the referendum, one of the most destructive tropical cyclones in history came howling in from the Bay of Bengal, with winds of up to 130mph, and ravaged the low-lying, fertile and densely populated Irrawaddy delta. Cyclone Nargis was one of the deadliest cyclones of all time, but we will never know how many people it killed because, when the official figure for the dead reached 130,000, the Burmese military junta (formally known as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC) simply stopped giving updates. Some experts think the true toll from the cyclone could be more than 300,000. More than a million people were made homeless.

The regime proved no more reliable in bringing relief to the victims than in giving out statistics. Intensely paranoid about foreign designs on their country, it provoked a storm of international condemnation when it refused to admit the hundreds of foreign aid workers queuing at Burmese embassies all over the world for visas. "The country is not ready to accept foreign aid workers," a regime spokesman said. Journalists who entered the country as tourists then tried to cover the disaster were harassed and expelled. The delays in admitting aid were, according to the World Food Programme, "unprecedented in modern humanitarian relief efforts". Meanwhile, the generals gritted their teeth and pressed ahead with the referendum – only delaying it for a few weeks in areas where bodies were still hanging from trees.

So in the absence of the stormtroopers of international relief, who could the shocked and desperate Burmese peasants turn to? "While the government has been criticised for obstructing the relief effort," wrote an unnamed correspondent for the New York Times on 31 May, "the Buddhist monastery, the traditional centre of moral authority in most villages here, proved to be the one institution that people could rely on for help. Monasteries in the delta – those still standing after the storm – were clogged with refugees. People went there with donations or as volunteers. Monasteries that served as religious centres, orphanages and homes for the elderly are now also shelters for the homeless."

The International Missionary Centre, run by a senior monk called Sitagu Sayadaw, was one of the main centres of Buddhist relief. "Trucks of rice, beans, onions, clothes, tarpaulins and cooking utensils, donated from all over Burma" arrived at the Centre, wrote one reporter. "Each day, shortly after dawn, a convoy of trucks or a barge on the Rangoon River departs for the delta, loaded with relief supplies and volunteers."

Win Min, an expert on Burmese national security who teaches at a university in northern Thailand, commented, "The monks have played a very significant role, beginning with the opening up of the temples in the delta to offer refuge for the victims ... This has certainly brought the monks and people closer. The monks have won the hearts of the people."

And so the strange shadow war that began one year ago with the army's brutal assault on monks in Pakkoku moves into a new phase. Already the regime is filling the cities with troops in case somebody has the idea of marking the anniversary of the monks' uprising. But even if it goes unmarked, the challenge of the sangha will not go away. The monks cannot and will not take up arms against the junta. As one monk on the Thai-Burmese border said to me last September, "To play a physically violent role would be far from our beliefs." But neither can a regime saturated with traditional religious ideas crush the sangha underfoot as it might wish.

A new message has appeared in Aung San Suu Kyi's garden, inscribed on a large signboard and visible to her neighbours. It appeared last month, on Martyrs' Day. The message was simple but cryptic: "All martyrs must finish their mission." Suu Kyi, in other words, will continue her resistance, and the monks must continue theirs. The struggle goes on.

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