BANGKOK/PENANG — Two years ago, the sight of thousands of saffron-clad monks marching in silence, hands clasped and heads bowed, briefly sparked hopes that some loosening of military control in Burma might be in sight.
Would the junta dare harm the revered monks and pink-robed nuns who took to the streets to bolster protests that begun as a response to an arbitrary fuel price hike in August 2007.
Some observers thought, for the few short days between the start of the monk demonstrations and the army crackdown that the army would not dare touch the monks. However, the Saffron Revolution was crushed when the army moved in under the order of the ruling generals.
In hindsight, given that monks in Mandalay were beaten up, imprisoned and shot in 1990, when they marked another two year anniversary—commemorating the 1988 student demonstrations when the army killed around 3000 Burmese—such optimism was unfounded.
Speaking at a Bangkok press conference on Tuesday to launch the Human Rights Watch report “The Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Activism in Burma,” author Bertil Linter said that “the crackdown in 2007 undermined whatever little legitimacy the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has in the eyes of most Burmese people.”
However, given that the army has a new constitution which mandates a civilian version of military rule and it is seeking to legitimize itself by holding elections in 2010, while not releasing the 2,100 political prisoners in the country’s jails, it seems the junta will not be challenged in the foreseeable future.
Venerable Sayadaw U Pannya Vamsa is spiritual director at the Burmese Buddhist temple in Penang, Malaysia. Speaking to The Irrawaddy last week, he said that the international community needs to understand that the situation in Burma is getting worse—“That has been the trajectory for the past 60 years, and that while we are grateful for the kind support they have shown, the people of Burma need to see action, and there needs to be direct dealing with the real problems faced by Burma’s people.”
While the clergy does not have or seem to seek an overtly political role, its 400,000 members are a bellwether for Burma’s political climate, and it has sought to open political space for others, by carefully chosen activism, such as in 2007. However, it seems unlikely that the monks and nuns will be able to take to the streets any time between now and the 2010 elections.
More than 250 Buddhist clergy remain in prison, and unknown numbers of monks either sought refuge overseas or returned to their villages, discarding their robes. There seems to be scant prospect that a heavily infiltrated Sangha (another name for the Buddhist clergy), now under constant army surveillance, can mobilize again anytime soon.
Monks in Burma have sought assistance from their counterparts in the Sangha in exile. One of the most outspoken and prominent is U Pannya Vamsa, who is also co-founder and chairperson of the International Burmese Monks Organization (IBMO), established in October 2007, as Burmese monks and nuns were being shot at, beaten, rounded-up and imprisoned.
“Before 2007, I did not take a direct interest in politics,” he said. “I left Burma five decades ago to do missionary work and that was my priority. However, the monks in Burma pleaded with me to use my voice and influence, as they could not in such a repressive system.”
While direct political involvement is not ordinarily sanctioned by Buddhist teaching, there are exceptions, as Stanford University’s Paul Harrison outlined in a 2008 interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.
He said that clergy are forced to use their influence to help the oppressed when there is no other option. That Buddhist clergy have become more active in recent decades is “a testimony to the situation in many Buddhist countries where previously things were not so bad in terms of political oppression.”
Things have been bad in Burma for a long time. The Burmese Sangha have been politically active a number of times, and their defiance of some sacrilegious British actions—such as Crown officials refusing to remove their shoes when entering places of worship—helped spark the resistance to colonial rule. The Sangha later protested following the 1962 military coup and participated in demonstrations against military rule in 1974, 1988 and 1990.
Now, the Sangha is trying to take the fight to the global level, and U Pannya Vamsa told The Irrawaddy he is forming alliances with religious leaders of other faiths, at the highest level, to raise awareness about the situation in Burma. He was condemned in an unsigned letter published by the Ministry of Religion in Burma for his efforts, though significantly no junta figure would put his or her name to the document.
Under the controversial 2008 constitution, approved in a rushed and in a flawed referendum held within days of the Cyclone Nargis disaster, monks do not have voting rights. This is something carried over from previous constitutions and electoral systems in the country and indicates that the military has sought to keep the clerics at a remove from politics, fearing their influence, which is based on what Linter described as “a symbiotic relationship with the Burmese people”, 90 percent of whom are Buddhist and whose alms-giving helps to materially support the Sangha across the country.
U Pannya Vamsa thinks that the military is trying to divide the Burmese people, to ensure that no effective opposition can challenge its grip on power.
“The army will proceed with elections its own way, based on the premise that its sole ambition is to perpetuate military rule in Burma, in whatever form,” he said.
Some donor governments and other organizations have advocated some form of engagement with the junta, seeing the elections as an opening to bring about a more enlightened authoritarianism in Burma and in turn creating space for civil society or opposition groups to gain a political foothold.
U Pannya Vamsa believes this to be a fallacy. “I spoke to the EU, who seemed happy that Burma was going to have elections,” he said. “However, I explained that these are not going to be real elections. ‘Election’ is just a name, this is an army project, under army law.”
With the Sangha in Burma silenced, the ethnic ceasefire groups either divided among themselves or mulling a response to the junta’s demand to join the state security services, and the political opposition scattered or in jail, there seems little prospect that the junta can be successfully challenged anytime soon.
U Pannya Vamsa says that with more coherent international support, the Burmese opposition can revive and form a united front, “without ceding their autonomy or identity in the process.”
He thinks that this might set an example to members of the Burmese military, some of whom who are not happy with their leaders, or how the country is run.
“Not all the military are bad,” he said, “but they just follow orders, as they have no leadership to show them another path, and do not know what to do.”
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