Saturday, September 22, 2007

The March of the Monks

On August 26, 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi assumed the leadership of Burma's fledgling movement for democracy at a rally at Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda. The Burmese military crushed the movement and since then has kept Burma's only Nobel laureate under house arrest with only intermittent periods of freedom.

Today in Yangon, 500 Buddhist monks marched past Suu Kyi's home while another 1,000 monks assembled at Shwedagon pagoda and an estimated 10,000 people (including 4,000 monks) marched in the city of Mandalay to protest Burma's repressive military dictatorship. It was the fifth consecutive day of protests by monks against the regime.

Earlier this week, in a move designed to shame the government, monks began refusing the alms that are distributed by the military. Monks have reportedly been marching with their begging bowls held upside down to demonstrate their rejection of the regime.

Meanwhile, the Burmese military has responded by arresting pro-democracy leaders and using hired thugs to beat up marchers. While the monks involved in the protests are clearly supported by the populace (90 percent of which is Buddhist), thus far only a few non-clergy have been willing to march with them. The government clearly is capable of bringing great force to bear against the protests, although killing monks would risk enraging their silent supporters.

The recent protests were prompted by a fuel price hike imposed by the government in August. Bus fares have doubled in the cities creating great hardship in a country with a per capita income of $175 per year.