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 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.