The Burmese government’s response to ongoing protests

The large-scale and unabated protests in Burma have probably caught many people by surprise. Led by angry young Buddhist monks who wanted an apology from the government for the abusive treatment of fellow monks who protested in Pakokku. The government has yet to stop these the majority of these protests–tear gas was thrown at monks in Sittwe (Akyab) in Arakan State, but aside from that, there has been little violence. The government’s current plan of action seems to be counterattacks on the scale of protests and the identity of the monks participating in them. The Burmese government’s English newspaper The New Light of Myanmar called the protesting monks cohorts of the West and claimed they were charlatans. According to news reports from a few small-scale news sources, the government and its civilian bodies (mass organizations) have been dispatching members dressed as monks to discredit the monks in small towns. In one instance, ‘monks’ went into a government-owned co-op store in a small town in Arakan State and wreaked havoc by vandalizing the store. According to its owner, the ‘monks’ appeared to be new faces in town, and according to the abbots of local monasteries, young monks had not been allowed to leave during the time the incidents occurred.

One of the most interesting things about the protests in Burma is that many monks have decided to boycott the military. As many newspapers have noted, in Burmese, “boycott” is the same as “upturned alms bowls”, both thabeik hmauk. In Burma, monks of the Buddhist order regularly seek food and rice from their local community, making rounds throughout nearby neighborhoods in the early morning, since monks cannot eat past noon. By refusing to accept offerings from certain individuals is a less severe form of excommunication. To combat this growing chorus of monks who refuse to accept rice and food from military families and government officials, the Burmese government has regularly featured monks who have accepted donations and food from the wives of military officials and other personnel. This is interesting–it only takes a scroll down a PDF file of the New Light of Myanmar (Burmese edition) to see how seriously the Burmese government takes this boycott. Throughout several pages are photos of monks accepting offerings from military officials and their families.

One of the New Light of Myanmar‘s headlines for September 19 is this: “Destructive elements inciting instigation to grab power through short cut–foreign radio stations airing exaggerated news, trying to instigate public, launching propaganda campaigns–due to exaggerations, tricks and instigation by bogus monks, violent demonstrations break out in Pakokku, some monks stage protest walk in Sittway–Some Buddhist monks also march in procession in Yangon–people oppose any attempt to destroy peace and stability, wish Sayadaws to guide monks to follow Vinaya rules in interest of people.” Quite a mouthful.

Essentially, what the Burmese government wants the Burmese people to believe is this: the protesting monks aren’t ordained and that they’ve been influenced by the propaganda of Western media (BBC, VOA, DVB radio stations) that are inherently under the control of Western governments that have been plotting with NLD members to take over Burma and make it a sphere of influence for America, Britain and other countries of the West. A fanciful story.

The Irrawaddy has an hour-by-hour detailed account of protests that have occurred in Burma and ALTSEAN-BURMA has a detailed map of all the protests.

The Economist makes this conclusion:

This week’s, like other, smaller protests over the years since then, failed to budge the junta. Hopes have risen, time and again, that demonstrations would gather momentum and trigger an unstoppable revolt, only to fade away.

But if there is one group in Burmese society that the generals might hesitate to confront, it is the clergy. Not just because it might whip up the masses to overthrow their tyranny at long last, but because of the influence Buddhists believe they have over the process of rebirth. Giving alms to monks is one of the main ways to make “merit”, so if this is denied the generals, they may lose their chance of advancement in their next life. A punishment amply merited.

It’s best not to put all the eggs in one basket and hope that the Burmese military government will retire from power. But hopefully there will not be any more Burmese martyrs who die for the cause of democracy.

6 thoughts on “The Burmese government’s response to ongoing protests

  1. Richard says:

    Great post. I generally do not read the Myanmar Times, but this post reminds me why I should.

    By no means does it seem the junta will retire. But it also does not seem like any threats from the military gov’t are being taken seriously at this time. They are not being credited as anything more than desperate measures to maintain control

    In my opinion there seems to be a great unification under the current wave of peaceful protest. How long will that last? That is what we are waiting to see. The number of marches so far have been too many to keep up with. Of course, that’s a good thing.

    The mass marches by the monks are giving the people a chance to stand up without so much fear of retribution – for now anyways. That is what is most important.

    Unfortunately, the brave march right to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s home means she is probably already under heavier guard to keep that from happening again. That’s one thing the junta can do at this hour of determination among the people of Burma.

    I suscept there will not be as heavy a retribution for the uprising thanks to the large number of monks involved. But then again, the junta is notoriously unpredictable. We will just have to wait and see.

  2. Abhipanya says:

    Many interesting points. How low, yet sadly very unsurprising, it is that the junta is resorting to such underhand means as the impersonating of monks to create more confusion and reasons for displays of violence and agression.

    Here the Thai’s also use the same term as the Burmese – ‘upturning the alms bowl’ – but I’m assuming because of that, the military are now looking for the only way there is to ‘attack’ the monks and that’s by attempting to discredit them by creating confusion about their ordained status, impersonation and of course, the old favourite, questioning their ‘vinaya’ (the monastic rules). The only ways to bring monks down are to convince others of how ‘bad’ they are – and seeing as they’ve tried to get them to stop through what amounts to nothing more than ‘merit-making bribery’, they’ve now turned nasty … well … more nasty than usual anyway.

    However, the leaders of the rallies seem to be sticking to their guns, so to speak, in calling for orderly and peaceful marches.

    The only worrying thing is, as has been said, the likelihood of the junta lashing out. They are probably feeling rather like the proverbial ‘cornered tiger’ at the moment and that in turn coupled with the way they have behaved in the past is disconcerting to say the least. Let’s hope the sheer numbers, especially of monks, who are almost acting as a human shield for the civilians (whom I’m sure would have been violently put down by now had it been them doing it alone), and the wide press coverage will help to keep this as violence free as possible.

  3. Nitin says:

    Much depends on the speed at which the monk’s protests gathers popular support on the streets. It’s difficult to have a movement that is both long-drawn and non-violent at the same time.

    The junta can simply play a waiting game, and wait for the protests to fizzle out slowly, or erupt into violence. In case of the former they win, in case of the latter they’ll have a cover to use force, and they win too.

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