Burma: One Monk For Every Soldier: The Observer

September 30, 2007 at 5:32 pm | Posted in 1 | Leave a comment

Only a mutiny in the army – and it is possible – can end the Junta’s rule in Burma.

It is an epic clash between the monks and the military in Burma. On one side: the wisdom and non-violent principles of over 2,500 years of Buddhist tradition. On the other: military might honed over 45 years of brutal authoritarian rule. The number of monks in Burma is estimated to be anywhere between 400,000 to 500,000. The number of soldiers is around 400,000. So, one monk for every soldier.

When the monks began marching in peaceful protest over a week ago, the junta remained ominously silent. Then, on Tuesday, the crackdown began. An unconfirmed number of monks were shot dead, monasteries were raided and hundreds of monks have been imprisoned.

How will the predominately Buddhist population of Burma respond to this attack on members of its revered religious order? With absolute horror, I imagine, as they have done to previous attacks (an unverified number of monks were shot dead during the nationwide uprising in 1988, and over 500 were imprisoned).

But people’s reactions will probably be expressed behind closed doors. The regime has a terrifyingly effective network of spies and informers, and people are often not willing to openly voice any criticism of the regime for fear of imprisonment and torture.

The surveillance has been so insidious that there are Burmese people I have met who do not trust anyone outside their immediate family; they won’t talk openly to cousins or close friends. When I asked a friend for advice on how to safely do research in Burma, he told me to operate under the assumption that everyone I met was an informer – including him.

After the events of 1988, the regime began to eliminate all possible means of dissent within the country. The student community, which had led and organised the demonstrations, was politically emasculated. Through surveillance and intimidation, the regime managed to create a country in which there is no social or political space for people to gather or organise in big numbers.

Many Burma watchers, myself included, thought that protests of the kind which took place in 1988 couldn’t happen again as there is seemingly no way to gain a critical mass within such an oppressive environment.

And yet, over the past fortnight, the monks have risen up in numbers it would have been impossible to imagine just a few weeks ago. They are being led by the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks, an organisation that must have been operating deeply underground as few people had ever heard of them before last week.

Many of my Burmese friends are unsurprised by surprising events such as this. One friend always travels prepared for any eventuality; he sits bolt upright throughout overnight train journeys with his belongings clasped in his lap, just in case. When I ask his opinion on future events, he squints his eyes with theatrical aplomb and says, “In Burma, anything can happen.”

Somewhere within that “anything” is the possibility of a mutiny within the army. For many soldiers, being ordered to shoot or beat up a monk goes against every grain of their spiritual up-bringing, and ensures they will carry the burden of bad karma for life-times to come. And the lower-ranking soldiers share certain similarities with the rest of the population: they, too, are poor, badly treated and afraid.

I used to see soldiers living in the crumbling outbuildings of the old British Secretariat, the regime’s main ministerial building until it moved to its new capital. In the centre of Rangoon, these poorly-paid soldiers had to use kerosene lamps and cook over camp-fires as if they were in the jungle.

One of the many rumours to emerge from Burma over the past couple days is that there may be a split in the army. Troops from central Burma are said to be marching towards Rangoon. Some say they are coming to challenge the soldiers who are attacking monks; others say they are coming to reinforce them. Whether these rumours are true or not, they are often accurate barometers of people’s hopes and fears: Will they free us, or will they crush us?

If the army succeeds in crushing this uprising – which, so far, it seems to be doing – then the regime will set to work purging the monastic order of what it likes to call “destructive elements” and even more monks will be imprisoned and tortured. The regime’s intelligence agents will shave their heads and infiltrate the monasteries, praying among the monks as one of them.

What little space for political organisation once existed within the monkhood will be obliterated. Yet another attempt by the people to speak out about their suffering will have been silenced.

So how will the Burmese people respond to soldiers aiming their guns at unarmed monks? How can they respond? If they are able to push aside a lifetime of oppression and fear, they can make martyrs of themselves and walk out into the street towards the guns. And the monks could do the same – if they are still able to mass themselves – there is, after all, at least one monk for every soldier willing to shoot him. (Emma Larkin/The Observer)

(Emma Larkin is the author of Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, published by John Murray. She spent the better part of two years living in Burma to research the book and is currently based in Bangkok, Thailand)


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