Monday, September 24, 2007

Monks’ Protest Is Challenging Burmese Junta


BANGKOK (NYT), Monday, Sept. 24 — The largest street protests in two decades against Myanmar’s military rulers gained momentum Sunday as thousands of onlookers cheered huge columns of Buddhist monks and shouted support for the detained pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Buddhist monks, escorted on each side by hand-holding supporters,
protesting Sunday in the wet streets of Yangon, Myanmar.
--Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Winding for a sixth day through rainy streets, the protest swelled to 10,000 monks in the main city of Yangon, formerly Rangoon, according to witnesses and other accounts relayed from the closed country, including some clandestinely shot videos.

It came one day after a group of several hundred monks paid respects to Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi at the gate of her home, the first time she has been seen in public in more than four years.

The link between the clergy and the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement, the beginnings of large-scale public participation in the marches and a call by some monks for a wider protest raised the stakes for the government.

So far, it has mostly allowed the monks free rein in the streets, apparently fearing a public backlash if it cracks down on them in this Buddhist nation.

Monks were reported to be parading through a number of cities on Sunday, notably the country’s second largest city, Mandalay, where an estimated 10,000 people, including 4,000 monks, had marched Saturday.

A crowd of 10,000 protested in Mandalay on Saturday. --The New York Times

Myanmar’s military government has sealed off the country to foreign journalists but information about the protests has been increasingly flowing out through wire service reports, exile groups in Thailand with contacts inside Myanmar, and through the photographs, videos and audio files, carried rapidly by technologies, including the Internet, that the government has failed to squelch.

The state-controlled press has carried no reports about the monks’ demonstrations.

Since the military crushed a peaceful nationwide uprising in 1988, killing an estimated 3,000 civilians, the country, formerly known as Burma, has sunk further into poverty and repression and become a symbol for the outside world of the harsh military subjugation of a people.

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has been locked inside her home for 12 of the last 18 years, and the government has arrested thousands of political prisoners.

The United States and Europe have led a tightening economic boycott that has been undermined by trade and assistance from Myanmar’s neighbors, mainly China but also India and some Southeast Asian nations. The United States has diplomatic relations with Myanmar but no ambassador. President Bush, his wife, Laura, and a roster of Hollywood celebrities have spoken out recently about Myanmar, and the abuses of human and political rights by the military junta are expected to take a high profile at the United Nations session starting this week.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asked about Myanmar as she arrived at the United Nations on Sunday, told reporters that the Bush administration was closely monitoring how the government deals with the protests.

“The Burmese people deserve better,” she said. “They deserve a life to be able to live in freedom, just as everyone does. And the brutality of this regime is well known, and so we will be speaking about that and I think the president will be speaking about it with many of his colleagues.”

The public display of discontent in Myanmar mirrors that of the previous uprising — anger over a brutal and incompetent military government that has turned one of Southeast Asia’s best endowed and most sophisticated nations into one of its most repressed and destitute.

Surreptitiously shot photographs and videos recorded on Sunday showed thousands of civilians marching quickly through the streets side by side with the monks, emboldened by the continuing demonstrations into a rare show of defiance.

Some pictures showed people joining hands in a protective cordon as they walked beside the monks in their dark red robes. Others showed Buddhist nuns with shaved heads marching through the streets as onlookers applauded.

In audio recordings people shouted “Do-aye” — “It is our task” — a slogan of determination that was also heard on the streets in 1988.

The photographs and videos themselves represented acts of courage in a closed and repressive country that has tried to quash the spread of information.

But modern communications technology has brought the protests into the world’s eye in a way that was not possible in 1988.

Both the government and protesters have so far sought to avoid the kind of confrontation that led to widespread bloodshed in the 1988 uprising, which was led mostly by students.

“The monks are the highest moral authority in the Burmese culture,” said Soe Aung, a spokesman for a coalition of exile groups based in Thailand. “If something happens to the monks, the situation will spread much faster than what happened to the students in 1988.”

This gingerly approach by authorities — and the challenges it poses — were demonstrated on Saturday when guards removed barriers to allow about 500 monks to walk down the tree shaded street where Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi lives.

She met them at the iron gate outside her home and witnesses told wire services that she was in tears as she greeted the monks, who chanted prayers as they faced the security officers with riot shields who sealed off her home.

On Sunday, witness accounts relayed by exile groups reported that members of the public shouted their support for her and that some of the protesting monks also shouted, “Release Suu Kyi!”

Uniformed police officers and soldiers have stayed in the background throughout a month of building protests. But witnesses said plainclothes police officers trailed the marchers and some, armed with shotguns, were posted along the route.

The Associated Press reported that police officers turned back a small group of monks who tried to march for a second day to the home of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi.

Although she has been sealed off from the public and has been allowed almost no visitors, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, 62, remains a martyr and rallying symbol for the population.

“She has been out of contact with virtually everyone, but her symbolic importance cannot be underestimated,” said Basil Fernando, director of the Asian Human Rights Commission. “Symbolically, her reintroduction into the political life of the country at such a dire moment is of enormous importance.”

The daughter of an assassinated independence hero, Aung San, she came to prominence when she became a leader in the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988.

Her political party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in 1990, although the junta, fearing her charismatic appeal, had already placed her under house arrest.

The military government annulled the election results and held on to power. But it miscalculated the public mood again in 2002 when it released her from house arrest and allowed her to tour the country, visiting party offices.

She drew increasingly large and enthusiastic crowds until a band of government-backed thugs attacked a convoy in which she was traveling, killing several people. The government seized her again and placed under even stricter house arrest, cutting off her telephone and deepening her isolation.

The latest protests began Aug. 19 in response to sharp, unannounced fuel price increases of up to 500 percent, immediately raising the prices of goods and transportation.

They were led at first by former student protesters and other activists, but most of the leaders had been arrested or were in hiding when the monks began their protests last Tuesday.

The monks were apparently motivated at first by an attack on a small demonstration at which security officers fired shots into the air and beat a number of monks.

Since then, the monks’ protests have spread from city to city and have become more overtly political.

On Saturday, an organization of clergy called the All Burma Monks Alliance, called for a widening of the protests in a statement that said, “In order to banish the common enemy evil regime from Burmese soil forever, united masses of people need to join hands with the united clergy forces.”

It went on, “We pronounce the evil military despotism, which is impoverishing and pauperizing our people of all walks, including the clergy, as the common enemy of all our citizens.”

September 24, 2007

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