Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - Political tension in military-ruled Myanmar has taken an ominous turn, with soldiers clashing this week with sections of the country's respected Buddhist clergy. The confrontation was the latest in an unfolding drama that has featured rare public protests against the hardline regime for implementing massive hikes in fuel prices in mid-August.

Monks in the central town of Pakokku on Thursday openly defied the regime by burning four cars belonging to local authorities.

"The monks, who are students at a large monastery in Pakokku, are very angry with the military regime," said Than Win Htut, a senior producer for Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a radio and TV station run by exiles from Myanmar and based in Oslo, Norway.

Clashes first erupted on Wednesday between soldiers and monks in Pakokku town, some 500 kilometers north of the old capital Yangon. That morning, soldiers fired warning shots to break up a crowd of more than 300 monks, representing apparently the first time security forces have used their firearms since the protests against the fuel hike began last month.

"The monks started a protest march from their monastery and were cheered on by thousands of people as they headed into the town," said Than Win Htut. "The soldiers dragged about 10 monks away, tied them to electricity poles and beat them with bamboo sticks."

One of the monks involved in the protest told DVB that the outpouring of anger was linked to the fuel hike, which has hit the clergy in the stomach the same way it has the rest of the impoverished population.

"We can't sit back and watch the people who sponsor us sink into poverty. Their poverty is our poverty as well," the monk was quoted as saying.

In Myanmar, where more than 85% of the country's 47.3 million people are Buddhists, the monks, monasteries and temples depend heavily on public donations for their survival. This includes the food and alms that laypeople give monks when they visit communities every morning with empty bowls to collect their day's meal. Myanmar's Buddhists follow the Theravada school of Buddhism, as in Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

The clash between clergy and security forces in Pakokku is being viewed with a greater degree of interest than the fuel-hike-related protest involving some 150 Buddhist monks during the last week of August in the country's northwestern Arakan state. That's because Pakokku is home to the second-largest community of Buddhist monks in the country, estimated by some to be close to 10,000 ascetics. The largest Buddhist clerical community is in the nearby city of Mandalay. Both places are highly regarded as centers of Buddhist learning.

"This could trigger a reaction among monks elsewhere, forcing them to come out and protest," said Win Min, an academic on Myanmar affairs at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand. "It has the capacity of spreading, since the monks have a close network, particularly in the area around Pakokku."

The Buddhist clergy is "the most organized institution after the military" in Myanmar, he explained during an interview. "They have always been a very influential part of Burmese society and could assert that role again now."

Myanmar's history is replete with such interventions. During the days prior to British colonization, the Buddhist clergy played a central role as advisers and shapers of national affairs in the royal courts. When Myanmar, then called Burma, became a British colony, the monks were in the vanguard of the movement against Western imperialism.

Such political activism continued even after independence was achieved in 1948, and when the country came under the grip of successive military regimes after a 1962 coup. Among the more recent episodes was the leading role monks played during the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, which was brutally crushed by the military.

"Many young monks took part and were shot to death during the pro-democracy demonstrations, " said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner in Myanmar, now based in Thailand, who was part of that peaceful uprising against the military rulers. Some monks were beaten and disrobed, he said. "There are still 90 Buddhist monks in prison for their political activity during that period. They are part of [Myanmar's more than 1,100] political prisoners."

Buddhist monks were also victims of a brutal military crackdown in August 1990, when they came out in protest after the junta refused to recognize the results of parliamentary elections held a few months before. The opposition National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, routed the pro-junta party at those polls, the first held in the country in nearly 30 years.

The current protests against the fuel hike, which saw prices rise by 500% overnight, show little sign of easing, despite the harsh methods deployed by the junta. Before the clash in Pakokku, the military regime appeared to keep its soldiers on a leash, but instead let loose thugs linked to the regime to beat back demonstrators and journalists who attempted to cover the conflict.

That strategy, say analysts, was employed to avoid rekindling memories of the brutal manner in which soldiers crushed the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. The showdown in the Pakokku potentially points to a tactical shift, with the junta falling back on armed soldiers to control the crowds. Two military platoons were used on Wednesday to break up the monks chanting a prayer and demonstrating peacefully.

"Events may now take a turn for the worse," speculated Debbie Stothard, of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a regional rights lobby. "We may be entering a period of brinkmanship.

"The monks have taken a stand in a very provocative way. They are asserting their role of having a moral obligation to help improve the people's welfare," she said, adding that if more monks protest, it could mean "the military is gradually losing control of the situation".


Source: Asia Times - September 8, 2007