When monks defied the generals

It’s 11 years since monks in maroon robes marched in Yangon and other cities in the daring protests against rising living costs that the world knows as the “Saffron Revolution”.


AN ANXIOUS junta’s efforts to suppress coverage of the protests and a subsequent crackdown were thwarted by foreign news agency reports. Courageous Myanmar reporters and citizens also revealed the monks’ bravery and the Tatmadaw’s brutality to the world in words and images sent via the internet.

The crackdown began on September 26 and the use of sometimes lethal force against monks enraged Myanmar Buddhists and evoked sympathy and outrage around the world. But what motivated thousands of members of the community of monks, or sangha, to defy the junta and march in solidarity with the people?

In August 2007, amid discontent over the state of the economy, the junta removed fuel subsidies without prior notice, leading to petrol and diesel prices rising by up to 100 percent and compressed natural gas used by buses increasing by 500 percent.  Commodity prices and bus fares shot up and there were sporadic protests against the increase in the cost of living.  The peaceful demonstrations were organised by leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group.

The 88 Generation group had condemned the fuel price rises in an August statement that was followed about a week later by a critical response from the National League for Democracy, whose leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest.

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There had been no immediate response from the NLD to the fuel price hike because, with its leader absent, the party was largely moribund. The party’s elderly leaders gathered at NLD headquarters once a week to have a chat but did little else. They did not show much interest in the economic and social situation of the people.

The 88 Generation leaders paid dearly for their role in the protests. Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Zeya, Ko Jimmy, Phone Cho, Arnt Bwe Kyaw and Mya Aye were arrested in August 2007. They and other 88 Generation activists were each sentenced in November 2008 to 65 years’ imprisonment for illegally using electronic media and for forming an illegal organisation.

However, the arrests failed to halt the protests. The turning point that brought monks on to the streets en masse was an incident in Pakokku, central Myanmar, in early September when three demonstrating monks were brutally assaulted by the security forces. After the junta ignored a demand to apologise, monks began marching in increasing numbers in Yangon, Mandalay and elsewhere throughout the country. As they marched the monks chanted the Metta Sutta, the sutra on loving kindness.

About two thousand monks marched in Yangon on September 22. The next day the number of monks, nuns and lay persons marching in Yangon was estimated at 15,000.  A protest in Yangon on September 24, with a vanguard of monks followed by civilians and numbering up to 100,000 people, was the biggest in the city since the national uprising in 1988.

On September 25 the junta declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Yangon and Mandalay and hindered internet access in a prelude to the inevitable crackdown, which began early the next day when troops began raiding monasteries and confronting protesters.

There were ugly scenes on September 26 when riot police used tear gas and batons to violently disperse monks who had gathered at the Shwedagon Pagoda. The protests continued, despite the brutality of the security forces, which were supported by a notorious vigilante group known as Swan Arr Shin. The prominent comedian, Zarganar, was arrested after offering food to the monks at the Shwedagon.

On September 27, Japanese video journalist Mr Kenji Nagai became the only known foreign casualty of the Saffron Revolution when he was shot dead at close range while filming troops dispersing protesters on Sule Pagoda Road. The junta said the crackdown resulted in 13 deaths but scores were believed to have been killed, including up to 40 monks and 70 civilians.

The Saffron Revolution occurred when Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest and leading members of the 88 Generation Students Group were behind bars awaiting trial or on the run from the authorities. The monks became involved and defied the junta because they found the people’s suffering to be unbearable.

The unexpected rise in fuel prices, oppression of the military dictatorship, hunger for democracy, hardship caused by high living costs and the effect of junta rule on the country’s image and dignity were the fundamental causes of the 2007 protests. It was the people’s suffering and hardship that prompted members of the sangha to march in defiance of the junta and risk their lives. Their altruism and courage should be honoured.

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