Friday, September 21, 2007

Buddhist monks lead Burma democracy protests

Two thousand Buddhist monks have staged a third day of protest against Burma’s repressive military rule. Four monks were arrested in Tuesday’s protest though the military has so far refrained from opening fire. But a violent confrontation may be inevitable as the protests spread countrywide. 300 monks marched through Rangoon in the rain to Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma's most sacred landmark, while chanting Buddhist prayers. Another 500 monks demonstrated in Burma’s second city Mandalay while in Sittwe, 560 km west of Rangoon, more than a thousand monks staged a sit-in outside a police station. “It was raining hard all day but the monks marched without umbrellas,” said one protester. “Some of them collapsed because they were so tired from walking.”
Eyewitnesses said the monks were joined by thousands of civilians and high-school students who walked ahead of and around the monks to ensure they were not harmed.

According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, several monks taking part in the Rangoon protest waved placards calling for UN action on Burma as Security Council members in New York prepared for a briefing on the situation. The UN secretary general's special adviser on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, will brief the Security Council on the recent wave of political unrest in the country.

Plainclothes security officials stood guard on the protests but there was no violence or any arrests. For the first time onlookers outnumbered the monks and formed a protective human chain around the monks as they prayed at the Sule pagoda in the centre of Rangoon. Those watching offered support to the marchers, in the form of drinks and alms. An unnamed diplomat told AFP that "today marks definitely an escalation."

This protest is the longest display of dissident behaviour in Burma in two decades. The cause of the protests was a sudden hike in petrol prices in August which caused an initial wave of street protests from ordinary citizens. Then on 5 September security forces fired warning shots over a demonstration of clergy members in the holy city of Pakokku. Buddhist leaders retaliated by briefly taking hostage security officials at a monastery.

The monks demanded an apology from the government by 17 September or else rallies would resume. When the government failed to apologise by Tuesday, the protests resumed. The ruling junta’s problem is that arresting Buddhist monks is a difficult proposition in this deeply devout nation. "The monks are the only ones who really have the trust of the people," says Khin Omar, an exiled dissident now living in Thailand. "When they speak up, people listen."

The monks have demonstrated their seriousness by refusing to take alms from the higher echelons of the military. Almsgiving is a crucial part of Burmese culture and their refusal is a threat in a country where people believe they cannot reach nirvana without recognition of good deeds. The Rangoon-based Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks are advising monks not to accept alms from soldiers and are now telling their followers that the ruling generals are a force of evil. At the South Dagon Nikal Ngar Yat monastery, which is sponsored by the wife of junta leader senior general Than Shwe, 200 monks staged a protest and marched to a nearby pagoda with their alms bowls upside down, to indicate that they would not be accepting any donations.

Burmese media trying to cover the story have faced arrest and censorship. Three journalists covering Tuesday’s demonstration in Rangoon were arrested and questioned by the police who took their equipment. A photojournalist, Win Saing, was arrested while trying to photograph a pro-democracy group making offerings to monks in Rangoon. Saing remains in custody. Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association have called on ASEAN (which includes Burma) to put pressure on the Burmese government to stop media censorship. The government has meanwhile stepped up its propaganda by portraying the protesters as violent agitators mobilised by the opposition and foreign governments. The pro-government media have also accused the foreign press of creating unrest. No foreign journalist has obtained a visa to enter Burma since the start of the protest. Reporters Without Borders have described the Burmese military as using a “detestable strategy” aimed at preventing reports from doing their job.

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