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The Saffron Revolution

By Aman Ullah

(On the nine years commemoration of Saffron Revolution)

Nine years ago, in 2007, thousands of barefooted monks chanting the Metta Sutta, a prayer of love and compassion, marched in cities across Burma including Rangoon and Mandalay , calling for an improvement in public well-being in the face of the growing economic hardships afflicting Burma’s Buddhists. This peaceful uprising was known as, “the Saffron Revolution,” named after the color of monks’ robes.

In August 2007, the Burmese junta suddenly decided to lift fuel subsidies. As a result, fuel prices skyrocketed as much as 500% overnight, with food and other commodities’ prices following suit. What didn’t happen was the same rise in income levels, leaving millions of people across the country unable to perform even the most basic functions such as buying food, traveling, and paying for children education.

On August 19th, Buddhist monks overturned their alms bowls, historically considered an act of defiance, and refused to receive alms from the Burmese generals. In other words, they stopped giving these generals Buddha’s blessings. They began to protest in the streets of major cities, and soon they were joined by pro-democracy activists, nuns, and local residents. In a matter of a few days, thousands of demonstrators from all walks of life were pouring into the streets across Burma, demanding the political and economic reforms from the military government.

On September 5th, troops broke up a demonstration in Pakokku, a town in central Burma, injuring dozens of monks. Members of the Sangha, the Buddhist clergy union, delivered an ultimatum to the military government to be met by September 17th, demanding an apology. The junta never apologized.

On September 22nd, thousands of monks marched in cities across Burma. Ten thousand monks took to the streets in Mandalay alone, the second largest city in Burma. In Rangoon, monks chanting the Metta Sutta, a prayer of kindness and compassion, marched to the home of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to honor the democracy leader. Daw Suu Kyi appeared before the monks and shed tears of gratitude.

Led by monks, the demonstrations multiplied and swelled in size over the next days. On September 24th, crowds filled the streets of more than 25 cities across Burma, with 100,000 peaceful marchers in Rangoon alone. The next day, machine-gun toting soldiers gathered ominously at intersections.

Despite the backdrop of 8888 uprising when soldiers beat and gun down student protesters with no reservations, many local and international onlookers were convinced that the Saffron Revolution was different because of the concentration of Buddhist monks in the movement. Because Buddhism is the predominant religion in Burma, the role of monks is held in high reverence. And to touch or assault a monk, let alone kill, is considered one of the gravest sins any man can commit.

On the 26th of September, the landmark Shwedagon Pagoda was barricaded by troops, and a curfew was imposed by the military dictators. During the night, soldiers raided dozens of monasteries across Burma, beating and killing monks according to eyewitness accounts.

Unfazed by the night raids and the rumors of arrest, on the morning of September 27th, 50,000 courageous citizens gathered on the streets of Rangoon to demand freedom from fear. Soldiers opened fire on the crowds, killing at least nine unarmed protesters. One of these was Kenji Nagai, a Japanese journalist, whose murder was caught on video and beamed around the world.

With each passing hour, more monks were detained as more soldiers filled the streets. The Burmese junta shut down internet and cell phone service to stifle the flow of information to the outside world. Even so, accounts emerged of a crematorium burning day and night to destroy evidence of military brutality. A Burmese colonel defected after refusing an order to slaughter hundreds of monks.

On October 11th, the UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the brutal actions of the Burmese regime. The US and many EU countries announced tighter sanctions against Burma. Soldiers were deployed heavily on the streets of every city and on the premises of emptied monasteries. With the leaders of the movement, including hundreds of monks, civic activists and local residents detained, large-scale demonstrations ceased. Reports suggest that low-level resistance continued, including small demonstrations and imprisoned monks refusing food from their oppressors. The streets of Burma may have quiet down and the day-to-day hustle and bustle resumes, but the sense of dissatisfaction, alienation, and anger against the ruling junta never fade away.

This is not the first time that the Military Junta brutally suppressed the Buddhist monks. The junta has never hesitated to suppress Buddhist monks who are suspected of being against military rule. Because of the Sangha was so powerful and well-established, Ne Win always seemed the Sangha as a threat to him. Between 1963 and 1967, the Revolutionary Council issued a number of directives restricting the freedom of monks, such as, “Monks who want to travel need a Movement Order from the local military authorities” ‘or, “Anyone who wants to become a monk needs permission to do so from the military”. In April 1964, all Sangha groups were ordered to register with the government. This measure was taken in order to purge the Sangha of ‘political monks’. A directive from 1971 said, “The appointment of an abbot must be countersigned by the local military committee”. All these edicts remain in effect at the present in Burma.

Although the 1974 constitution included several provisions relating to religious freedom, these were subject to limitations and even punishable. Article 153 of the 1974 constitution, for example, says that, “…every citizen shall have the right to freely … profess the religion of his choice. The exercise of this right shall not … be to the detriment of national solidarity and the socialist social order (…)” In order to curtail religions even further, the military government has been enforcing several laws such as the Emergency Provisions Act of 1950, the Unlawful Association Act of 1908 (amended in 1957), the State Protection Act of 1975 (amended in 1991), and the Sangha Law of 1990. Accordingly the Sangha is being watched by the Burmese military intelligence agencies.

The Military junta has not only been used the State Protection Act of 1975 against the Muslims and Christians but also against the Sangha. A monk from Maymyo was sentenced to four years under the Unlawful Association Act in 1989 because he was suspected of having had connections with the MSA (Mon Sangha Association, which claimed to desire an independent Mon state, but only in a peaceful way). A monk from Mandalay was sentenced to three years under the Emergency Provisions Act in 1991 because he had written an article about the Buddhist tenet of non-violence.

In 1990 the Sangha spearheaded a peaceful march in Mandalay commemorating the dead of 1988 and demanding that power be handed over to the elections’ victors. The army opened fire on the demonstrators and killed two monks. In protest, the Sangha imposed a religious boycott against the military and their families. SLORC responded forcefully. The army raided more than 350 monasteries throughout Burma and arrested hundreds of monks, including U Yewata, head of the Mandalay Monks’ Association. A law was laid down banning all Buddhist organizations but t he one controlled by the Junta.

In addition to the aforementioned laws, the military government enforces the Village Act of 1908 and the Towns Act of 1907, two pre-independence statutes allowing forced labour. Military officials and security forces often compel persons, especially in rural areas, to contribute money, food, or uncompensated labour to state-sponsored projects to build, maintain or renovate Buddhist monasteries and pagodas. The military junta even went so far as to claim that forced labour is considered as ‘a noble act of charity’ in a Buddhist country. This is not only a serious insult to the Buddhist religion but also a gross affront to human dignity. In August 1994, the army used the Village and Towns Acts to raid Buddhist monasteries in Mandalay, thereby relocating hundreds of monks who were forced to work at agricultural projects. Many other monks were forced to disrobe and dredge the moat at Mandalay Palace to the extension of the runway at the local airfield.

Moreover, during the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) rules, directives and decrees were the basis for law. Religious freedom, like all other freedoms in Burma, is subject to military rule. In 1996, a monk from Moulmein was sentenced to two years under SLORC Law No. 5, because he had distributed leaflets about Sammasati (‘Right Mindedness’) without prior permission from the local authorities. However, the judgment did not answer the question as to how Right Mindedness can possibly lead to deterioration of the stability of the state, or to misunderstanding among the people. The military regime continues to imprison monks for efforts to speak and associate freely.

Sayadaw Ahshin Nandabo, a 66-year-old monk from Mudom Township, Moulmein, had built a pagoda on a patch of ground given to the Sangha by a MP of the National League for Democracy. On 6 January 2001, the monk was arrested, and on 19 January he was sentenced to ten years (under which law?) because “no prior permission had been taken from the government for the construction of the pagoda”. A directive from 1972 said that, “no monastery or pagoda may be built, rebuilt, renovated, or maintained without prior permission from the military authorities”, which currently remains in effect. Military personnel often loot, damage, or destroy Buddhist monasteries in ethnic minority regions, thereby arresting or extra-judicially killing the monks.

The junta’s crusade is part of their political interests. Although according to the regime there is religious freedom in Burma, the reality is that there is religious discrimination. The junta is suppressing Muslims and Christians in order to disperse them, while it pretends to promote Buddhism. Buddhism is promoted by the military at the expense of other religions to increase the military’s’ nationalism. The generals systematically use propaganda in their attempts to falsely convince the Buddhists that the military regime is representing their interests. Such is the state of Law and Religion in Burma today. Under the cloak of law, Buddhists are suppressed and the Sangha curtailed, as these are among the most active in the struggle for the restoration of democracy and human rights.

However, the Thein Sein Government can easily divert the Buddhist monks’ anger at the government by means of fomenting anti-Muslim riots throughout the country.