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Life of fear for Myanmar monk, 3 years on from protests

By Rob Bryan, AFP, Sept 16, 2010

MANDALAY, Myanmar -- U Ottama recalls joining thousands of fellow Buddhist monks who flooded Myanmar's streets in a saffron-robed protest brutally crushed by the army. Three years on, he still lives in terror.

<< 2007 protests in Myanmar posed the biggest challenge to military rule in nearly two decades

"We have to be very careful," he said quietly, taking a break from his monastic duties in central Mandalay region. "The local authorities have a list of who was in the movement and I'm on that list."

The 2007 protests began as small rallies against the rising cost of living but escalated into huge anti-government demonstrations led by crowds of monks, whose striking attire saw their movement dubbed the "Saffron Revolution".

Posing the biggest challenge to military rule in nearly two decades, this peaceful swell of hope and defiance was dealt with mercilessly: at least 31 people were killed by security forces while hundreds were beaten and detained.

Today more than 250 monks are imprisoned, thousands have been disrobed and key monasteries remain under constant watch for their role in the September rebellion, according to rights activists.

Monk U Ottama, whose name AFP has changed for his protection, said government spies are everywhere.

"The majority of monks don't like our regime... but we can do nothing. We are very unlucky for having a military government," he confided, as rust-red robes fluttered on the washing line outside.

"I'm still angry with the regime. Whenever I think about them I get very angry. Every monk feels like me, I think."

Feelings of bitterness towards the junta may still be strong among the monks, who number up to 400,000 in Myanmar, but U Ottama said they were "very afraid" of joining -- let alone leading -- further anti-government action.

He said the authorities had stepped up efforts since 2007 to curry favour with senior monks -- "to calm them down" and stop them talking about the regime -- who had then told their juniors to steer clear of dissident discussion.

But in hushed corners, with fellow brethren he trusts, U Ottama talks about politics every day, and when the monastery's lights go out he tunes his radio to the BBC or Voice of America to get "correct news".

"The Myanmar government says they are the killers of the airwaves," he said.

Economic hardships present a further challenge for the wider population: since coming under military rule in 1962, Myanmar has slumped from prosperity to being one of the poorest countries in Asia.

"The people have to work hard for food and clothing and living. They can't give much thought to politics or creating some movement. That's why they are not interested in the 2010 election," U Ottama said.

The national poll, scheduled for November 7, will be Myanmar's first election in two decades but is widely expected to be neither fair nor free.

A controversial constitution passed in 2008 bars monks from any formal political role, ending a long tradition in Myanmar. But U Ottama, in his 30s, still thinks they should be able to play a part.

"In Thailand, the Buddhist monks don't take part in politics but they can have influence on the government," he said. "We should have a chance to vote, but we have no chances."

The regime's wariness over the monks is understandable: they have a history of political defiance during Myanmar's most tumultuous periods and they command deep respect from the people.

But another imminent "revolution" seems unlikely.

"One of the downsides of the 2007 movement was that for this generation, it was potentially a one shot deal," said Myanmar analyst David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch.

"It was a very brave and noble thing to do and it got a lot of support, but the regime knew exactly what to do to -- they brutally crushed it to send a message. The vast majority of the monks now want nothing to do with politics."

Some of them have found other ways to channel their spiritual leadership. A senior monk in northern Yangon division said he was focused on local community work, rather than a political uprising.

"We are all stakeholders. People need to do what we can at a grassroots level," said the 42-year-old, who says he took part in the Saffron Revolution "spiritually, not physically".

"I think the monks would be willing to do something like the protests again but it's difficult because they are not well coordinated nationally," he said.

But if the approaching election fails to bring reforms, U Ottama hopes the characteristic Buddhist tolerance of his countrymen -- however constrained by logistics and fear -- will wear thin.

"If the situation does not change after the election, demonstrations will happen I think," he said. "We should no longer be patient."

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