For an entire week in September, international news bulletins were dominated by an extraordinary sight: hundreds, then thousands, and finally tens of thousands of Theravada Buddhist monks, walking in open defiance of the military regime through the streets Burma. The barefoot, cotton-robed monks had no apparent leaders. They made no speeches, carried no banners, chanted no slogans. They were not attempting to seize power. They merely walked through the streets, chanting the Metta Sutta, the Sutra of Lovingkindness.

Uprising On September 24, 2007 more than 100,000 people, led by robed Buddhist monks, flooded the streets of Rangoon, Burma to march in protest against the nation's ruling junta © AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Uprising On September 24, 2007 more than 100,000 people, led by robed Buddhist monks, flooded the streets of Rangoon, Burma to march in protest against the nation’s ruling junta © AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Yet they were risking their lives and liberty. Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship since 1962. The most notorious instance of the junta’s vicious repression occurred in October 1988, when the military suppressed a wave of protests by opening fire on protestors in Rangoon, killing at least three thousand people. Thousands were arrested—many receiving lengthy prison sentences—and thousands more fled the country in exile. The junta’s brutal policy was effective in silencing dissent, and the nation of forty-five million became a virtual prison camp, and one that was rapidly growing poorer. In forty years of military misrule, Burma slumped from a position of promising abundance to one of the world’s least developed countries, according to the United Nations.

With the impoverished people of Burma growing more desperate, something had to give. Nonetheless, even seasoned Burma watchers were stunned when monks took the front line in September’s uprising. Buddhist monks have always played a vital role in Burmese society. The monasteries function as informal orphanages and hotels for the indigent. Lay people who want to live the monk’s life are welcomed for short or long periods. Following the 1988 massacres, the junta generals, eager to win the valuable support of the revered clergy, donated large sums of money to certain monasteries. Some abbots succumbed to their blandishments, but many did not, keeping the military at arm’s length.

The latest protest was provoked by the regime’s sudden decision on August 15 to raise fuel prices by 50 percent, rendering everyday life impossible for millions of citizens. Four days later, veterans of the 1988 protests led a silent march through central Rangoon. Similar demonstrations soon followed in other cities. In Pakokku, west of Rangoon, a small group of monks marched peacefully in protest. When they marched again the next day, the police attacked. Despite the strong cultural and religious taboo against harming monks, the police beat, arrested, and humiliated them, trying to disrobe them and binding them to electricity poles.

The sangha of Pakokku requested an apology from the authorities. On September 19, when the regime had failed to respond, the monks began to march—not merely in Pakokku, but in cities and towns across the country. Once the monks began marching, their courageous initiative took on broader significance. They demanded four things: an apology for the mistreatment of the monks, the revocation of the rise in fuel prices, the release of political prisoners, and a dialogue on political reform with the democratic movement. The protests had rapidly become a general call for change.

The demonstrations swelled mightily day by day. On Saturday, September 22, three days after the movement began, hundreds of monks marched to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of the National League for Democracy, who has been under house arrest for twelve of the past eighteen years. Suu Kyi, herself a devout Buddhist as well as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, greeted them at her gate with palms together and tears in her eyes.

The protests reached their peak two days later, on September 24. At first the monks had expressed a wish to march alone; now they invited citizens to join them in their marches. Indelible images emerged from the day’s events: a river of cinnamon robes, flanked by the white shirts of the people cheering the monks on; thousands of monks marching through torrential downpours. The Associated Press estimated that 100,000 people filled one of Rangoon’s biggest boulevards, as far as the eye could see.

Burmese monk U Te Za Ni Ya lives in a monastery in the Thai town of Mae Sot. He served more than eight years of a ten-year jail sentence for his role in the 1988 uprising, and became a monk after he was released. I asked U Te Za Ni Ya what business the monks—who are traditionally expected to meditate, chant, and perform ceremonies—had in taking part in a political uprising.

“To play a physically violent role would be far from our beliefs,” he replied. “But we can have a mediating role. When Lord Buddha was alive, he tried to mediate between one particular king and the people who were rebelling against him, in a peaceful way. Monks believe that if you pursue the peaceful way, then both contending sides can follow you. In this spirit we could start the dialogue to release political prisoners, to lower fuel prices, and so on.” Unable to get a visa to Rangoon to report on the uprising, I crossed by boat to the Burmese fishing port of Kaw Thaung. Here too, the monks had marched. After meditating at the monastery, I joined two monks in their humble dormitory for a cup of tea. They were listening solemnly to the news on Voice of America. Already the military crackdown on the monks had begun. Many were arrested, beaten, and killed, although how many remains unclear. The BBC has reported that as many as ten thousand people, many of them monks, were rounded up for interrogation in makeshift detention camps. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident news organization based in Norway, puts the death toll for all protestors at 138, but the true number will probably never be known.

The uprising in Burma was brutally crushed after just one week, but it is not dead. One leader of the 1988 protests explained that because the monks made no speeches, their leaders could not be identified by the police. Only two of them were arrested; the other leaders presumably remain at liberty, ready to take more peaceful actions in the future. At the same time, the monks’ leadership has infused the democratic movement with a new awareness of the potential of nonviolence.

Burma’s decades-long dictatorial nightmare has taken its toll; there is little if any faith in government institutions, and citizens cannot trust one another in a society teeming with spies. Yet the dharma continues to thrive in Burma, and these recent events are a moving testimony to the way the Buddhist tradition can inspire courage and virtue, in even the most terrifying circumstances.

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