Barefoot Against The Junta: Buddhist Monks Lead Myanmar Protests
Thousands of Buddhist monks are leading massive protests through the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city. They carry no weapons and wear only their saffron-colored robes, but their most powerful weapon is the reverence in which they are held throughout the country.
Their heads are shaven and they march barefoot and silent, dressed in dark saffron-colored robes. The city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) seems to be dominated by the Buddhist monks these days. They have been marching repeatedly through the streets of Myanmar's biggest city for a week -- and their marches are getting bigger by the day.
Uniformed officers and plain-clothes intelligence agents have formed an especially tight cordon around Shwedagon Pagoda. The country's most important sacred site -- a tower 98 meters (322 feet) high and adorned with 1,100 diamonds, more than 1,300 precious stones and 13,153 gold plates -- has great symbolic value. It was from here that democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate currently under house arrest, once led another mass movement for the overthrow of the junta. That first attempt at protest ended on Sept. 19, 1988, when the soldiers of the regime simply mowed down thousands of peaceful demonstrators. The coming days will tell whether or not there will be a repeat of those grim scenes.
Will The Protests Be Crushed?
What is certain is that the regime, which ironically calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), will not relinquish its power peacefully. Naypyidaw -- the new administrative capital, in the highlands 322 kilometers (200 miles) away from Yangon -- already issued orders to soldiers and intelligence agents on Sept. 8 to end the protests forcefully if necessary. In Myanmar's second-largest city of Mandalay, the regime's henchmen have even distributed machetes to the Union Solidarity and Development Association -- a band of thugs that takes care of the junta's dirty work in times of crisis. The evacuation of hospitals in Yangon is another sign that the junta intends to crush the demonstrations soon.
But that will likely not be so easy this time. The opposition movement has learned from the long period of repression it has suffered under the junta. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party is still the driving force behind the movement. On Saturday the marches passed ther house where she is being detained, and she greeted them at the gates. Her first public appearance in four years.
The NLD won about 80 percent of the seats in parliament during elections in May of 1990, but the military prevented it from taking power. Student leaders from the bloodily repressed popular uprisings of 1988 who have since been released from prison regrouped this spring, forming the underground movement "Generation 88."
And it seems the people's patience is at an end. The junta is making billions out of the country's natural resources and living in the lap of luxury even as galloping inflation causes severe poverty for most of the population. A third of all children in Myanmar suffer from malnutrition.
When the junta sharply raised fuel prices by as much as 500 percent in mid August it seemed a line had been crossed. First, small groups of three, four or five students and dissidents took to the streets. The junta brutally ordered all resistance to be crushed and all protesters to be arrested. But then, in early September, the monks joined the protests -- a decision that is increasingly putting the junta under pressure.
The Junta Fears the Wrath Of the Gods
For not only is Myanmar a profoundly Buddhist country -- the ruling generals are also extremely superstitious. If an overly harsh clampdown of the protests by the security forces were to lead to the death of any monks, the generals would feel they have incurred the wrath of the gods. The monks are fully aware of this strength.
And the monks are getting increasingly brave. On Saturday, for the first time, more than 10,000 of them took to the streets of Mandalay and by Monday the anti-government protests in Yangon had reportedly swelled to up to 100,000 people. The monks are no longer just asking for a retraction of the fuel price hike. They are calling for the overthrow of the despised junta. Demonstrations have also been announced in other parts of the country.
Does this mean the junta's fate is sealed? Former student leader Aung Zaw, who now publishes the Myanmar exile magazine Irrawaddy in Thailand, has his doubts. "The junta still has plenty of bullets, and it will use them," he said when contacted by telephone. Underground dissidents in Yangon disagree. They say that people still have plenty of hunger and this time they won't back down.
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