Monks Hold Rare Protest

A group of monks risk arrest to demand further reform in Burma.
2011-11-15
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Monks announce their demands at the Maha Myatmuni pagoda in Mandalay, Nov. 15, 2011.
Monks announce their demands at the Maha Myatmuni pagoda in Mandalay, Nov. 15, 2011.
RFA

Five Buddhist monks staged a rare protest in Burma’s second largest city on Tuesday, saying they wanted the government to release all political prisoners, end a longstanding ethnic armed conflict and allow freedom of speech.

They gathered at the famous Maha Myatmuni pagoda in Mandalay to announce their demands written in banners which they unfurled and put up at the building, drawing at one stage about 500 fellow monks and onlookers.

The monks, in their maroon-clad robes, and the authorities engaged in a standoff until the abbot of the nearby Masoeyein monastery mediated and persuaded the group to continue their actions at the monastery compound.

Police in plainclothes and military personnel deployed at the scene, a female eyewitness said.

Their action came a day after a widely anticipated release of a second batch of hundreds of political prisoners did not materialize, presenting a new test for President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian administration, which took power from the former military junta in March after historic elections, held a year ago.

About a month ago, over 6,300 prisoners, including more than 200 political detainees, were released under a government amnesty program although key dissidents remain locked up, drawing criticism from international observers and opposition parties.

Tuesday’s monk protest is believed to the first since the Saffron Revolution of 2007, when marches by monks calling for reforms were brutally suppressed by the Burmese army. At least 31 people were killed and thousands were thrown in jail.

“Our first demand is for the release of our monk brothers, then an end to civil war—especially in Kachin State right now—and the third is to allow us the freedom to speak and write to begin our peace movement," Ashin Sopaka,  the leader of Tuesday’s protest, said.

He said his group had originally consisted of 10 members but the other five monks backed out fearing a violent reprisal.

“Now we are left with five, but we have a lot of people joining us here [in support]. For now we are just calling ourselves the Monks Who Want Peace,” he said before moving to the monastery.

The security guards at the pagoda disconnected the electricity when they learned that the monks had occupied the building but the protesters used a generator to maintain power supply, thanks to fellow monks who delivered the equipment and members of the public who provided fuel.

Local support

Another protester, U Maga, told RFA that the group had received encouraging support from the local community who updated them on developments outside, including movement of military and police personnel.

"There are laypeople and other monks waiting outside and contacting us. They will provide everything that we need, including water, engine oil, and food, and they said they will follow our instructions,” he said.

Another protester, Ashin Zawtipala, estimated the crowd at more than 500 people at the height of their protest campaign, saying they were prepared for the worst.

A male eyewitness said the local community in Mandalay had been stirred by the monks’ decision to speak out.

"It had been some time since we’ve seen this kind of movement in Mandalay, and people are glad to see it," he said.

Ko Ko Gyi, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy’s Mandalay chapter said the monks’ actions were meant to raise public awareness of the political issues at stake in Burma’s future.

"This can't be considered a ‘protest.’ The monks are also voicing their support for the ongoing discussions between [prodemocracy leader] Aung San Suu Kyi and the higher authorities."

Protest relocates

A female eyewitness said she spoke with one of the monks as they left the pagoda to the Masoeyein monastery, where about 1,000 monks live. 

“While they were moving to the monastery on foot, we followed them and I asked a monk about the situation. He said negotiations had not gone well. One authority after another, including senior monks, came to talk with them,” she said.

None of the monks living in the monastery joined the five who continued their protest in the building’s compound.  A few hundred people made their way there and remained with the monks. 

"Now we are all in the monastery at Old Masoeyein where the five monks will continue preaching to us. We have all followed them.”

Witnesses said that the Masoeyein abbot agreed to a request by the public to resume talks on Wednesday at the monastery, where the monks will be permitted to hold discussions for three days.

It is not clear why the authorities did not release the political prisoners on Monday as expected before President Thein Sein leaves to attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit later this week in Indonesia.

But reports said the move was put off at short notice by the powerful National Defense and Security Council and that the authorities are now expected to decide any releases on a case-by-case basis instead of in large groups.

Thein Sein’s government has launched several reforms, including dialogue with the opposition, lifting of strict media controls, an offer to discuss peace with ethnic armed groups and passing of laws giving workers the right to strike and opposition parties to re-register themselves.

Aung San Suu Kyi told a rare press conference on Monday marking the first anniversary of her release after years of detention that she was "encouraged" by the reforms so far but called for more changes, including release of all political prisoners.

Reported by Ko Ko Aung, Ingjin Naing, Nyan Win Aung, and Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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