The barefoot art of war

Thousands of Buddhist monks have hit the streets in Myanmar, deploying some shrewd political jujitsu against the corrupt, iron-fisted junta.

Published September 26, 2007 10:06AM (EDT)

Thousands of Buddhist monks are leading massive protests through the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city. They carry no weapons and wear only their brick-red and saffron-colored robes, but their most powerful weapon is the reverence in which they are held throughout the country.

Their heads are shaven and they march barefoot and silent. The city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) seems to be dominated by the Buddhist monks these days. They have been marching repeatedly through the streets for a week -- and their marches are getting bigger by the day.

The population has begun openly showing its support too. Tens of thousands of people have reportedly joined the march of the monks. Other spectators form human chains or simply applaud. Brave-hearted monks are holding passionate speeches by Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. They speak of the suffering and the desperate poverty of Myanmar's 50 million inhabitants -- and call for the overthrow of the junta that seized power in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) in 1962. The regime's policies have effectively laid waste to what was once Southeast Asia's richest country.

By night the junta has been demonstrating its full might. Military trucks have been patrolling the streets of Yangon after nightfall, with heavily armed marines equipped with assault rifles standing on the bed of each truck. They are guarding every strategic location in this city of 5 million.

Uniformed officers and plainclothes intelligence agents have formed an especially tight cordon around Shwedagon Pagoda. The country's most important sacred site -- a tower 98 meters (322 feet) high and adorned with 1,100 diamonds, more than 1,300 precious stones and 13,153 gold plates -- has great symbolic value. It was from here that democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate currently under house arrest, once led another mass movement for the overthrow of the junta. That first attempt at protest ended on Sept. 19, 1988, when the soldiers of the regime simply mowed down thousands of peaceful demonstrators. The coming days will tell whether there will be a repeat of those grim scenes.

What is certain is that the regime, which ironically calls itself the State Peace and Development Council, will not relinquish its power peacefully. Naypyidaw -- the new administrative capital, in the highlands 322 kilometers (200 miles) away from Yangon -- already issued orders to soldiers and intelligence agents on Sept. 8 to end the protests forcefully if necessary. In Myanmar's second-largest city of Mandalay, the regime's henchmen have even distributed machetes to the Union Solidarity and Development Association -- a band of thugs that takes care of the junta's dirty work in times of crisis. The evacuation of hospitals in Yangon is another sign that the junta intends to crush the demonstrations soon.

But that will likely not be so easy this time. The opposition movement has learned from the long period of repression it has suffered under the junta. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party is still the driving force behind the movement. On Saturday the marches passed the house where she is being detained, and she greeted them at the gates. Her first public appearance in four years.

The NLD won about 80 percent of the seats in parliament during elections in May 1990, but the military prevented it from taking power. Student leaders from the bloodily repressed popular uprisings of 1988 who have since been released from prison regrouped this spring, forming the underground movement "Generation 88."

And it seems the people's patience is at an end. The junta is making billions out of the country's natural resources and living in the lap of luxury even as galloping inflation causes severe poverty for most of the population. A third of all children in Myanmar suffer from malnutrition.

When the junta sharply raised fuel prices by as much as 500 percent in mid-August it seemed a line had been crossed. First, small groups of three, four or five students and dissidents took to the streets. The junta brutally ordered all resistance to be crushed and all protesters to be arrested. But then, in early September, the monks joined the protests -- a decision that is increasingly putting the junta under pressure.

For not only is Myanmar a profoundly Buddhist country, but the ruling generals are also extremely superstitious. If an overly harsh clampdown on the protests by the security forces were to lead to the death of any monks, the generals would feel they had incurred the wrath of the gods. The monks are fully aware of this strength.

A newly formed underground group, the Young Monks' Union, has for days been calling on citizens in all parts of the country to join their protest. The monks have opted for a clever tactic: Their faith requires them to beg for their daily food every morning. But for days, they have refused to accept alms from members of the military or their relatives. This is one of the movement's most powerful weapons. Such a decision is tantamount to a kind of excommunication in the Buddhist country. The monks apparently want to pressure the lower ranks of the military to break away from the junta leadership.

And the monks are getting increasingly brave. On Saturday, for the first time, more than 10,000 of them took to the streets of Mandalay and by Monday the anti-government protests in Yangon had reportedly swelled to up to 100,000 people. The monks are no longer just asking for a retraction of the fuel price hike. They are calling for the overthrow of the despised junta. Demonstrations have also been announced in other parts of the country.

Does this mean the junta's fate is sealed? Former student leader Aung Zaw, who now publishes the Myanmar exile magazine Irrawaddy in Thailand, has his doubts. "The junta still has plenty of bullets, and it will use them," he said when contacted by telephone. Underground dissidents in Yangon disagree. They say that people still have plenty of hunger and this time they won't back down.

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By Der Spiegel staff

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