BANGKOK—Buddhist monks in the central Burmese city of Pakokku have demanded an apology for an armed crackdown on a demonstration by hundreds of their number, as well as the release of all political prisoners, including opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
A newly formed alliance of monks is protesting the crackdown on recent protests in the country. According to one of its leaders, the monks have issued a Sept. 17 deadline for the government to meet their conditions.
These include an apology for the violence, a cut in commodity prices, and the release of all political prisoners, including leaders of the 1988 generation of student pro-democracy leaderss, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
The All Burma Monks Alliance comprises various "Sangha" or Buddhist monastic associations from across the country. The group says if its conditions are unmet, the Sangha will refuse to accept alms or donations from any member of the military.
"We have prepared for the boycott by making networks with fellow monks from major cities, and we have also received confidential support from some senior abbots in the State Sangha Council," a leading activist monk of the alliance told RFA's Burmese service.
He urged all monks and ordinary people to unite to fight against military rule.
In a move reminiscent of the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations, which ended in a bloody military crackdown, the monks appear to be flexing their considerable power over the hearts and minds of the populace, even those employed by the junta, experts said.
"They did that once before, way back in 1990," Joseph Silverstein, former senior distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University, told RFA. "The monks were very much opposed to the military brutalization of the students and people in '88 and [the military's] absolute unwillingness to accept any discussion about the future."
When the army began attacking the monks for their prominent part in those protests, "the monks declared that they would not accept any alms from the military, nor would they perform any religious services with regard to the dead and others," Silverstein said.
"Most of the army is Buddhist," Silverstein said. "And most of the families of the army are Buddhist, with the result that because of the significance of Buddhism in the lives of the people, this is a very, very serious attack on the military."
Most of the army is Buddhist. And most of the families of the army are Buddhist, with the result that because of the significance of Buddhism in the lives of the people, this is a very, very serious attack on the military.
Monasteries have been put under close surveillance since a sudden rise in fuel prices sparked demonstrations across the country in August.
Last week, monks angry at being beaten with truncheons in the Pakokku crackdown took 13 local officials captive in a compound before burning a number of government vehicles in front of thousands of onlookers, witnesses said.
Initially, 500 monks marched peacefully through the town ahead of the military intervention, chanting prayers and holding placards, with local people offering them bottles of water.
But the protest was broken up by government troops and hired thugs of pro-government groups, who blocked the monks' way, pointing guns at the unarmed protesters and firing shots into the air, before setting upon them with truncheons and rifle butts, residents said.
When the monks ran, their attackers rounded them up using rope lassos, one monk told RFA.
In Pakokku, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and RFA in collusion aired fabricated news to the effect that U Khin Maung Win and U Hla Win Naing were included in those who dispersed the monks who started a protest walk on Sept. 5. In retaliation, the monks destroyed the house of U Khin Maung and the store of U Hla Win Naing.
At least one young monk was severely injured. The monks took reprisals overnight by destroying the electronics store owned by Hla Win Naing, secretary of the township branch of the pro-junta USDA group that helped organize the crackdown on Wednesday, residents said.
In 1988, said Brian Joseph, director for South and Southeast Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy, monks played a critical role. They are credited with helping to rally popular support for the uprising, which was put down with deadly force, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of people.
Pakokku, a seat of Buddhist learning, is home to an estimated 10,000 young monks studying in more than 80 monasteries. Government-run media have criticized the monks for resorting to violence and blamed the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and RFA for inciting them to it.
"In Pakokku, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and RFA in collusion aired fabricated news to the effect that U Khin Maung Win and U Hla Win Naing were included in those who dispersed the monks who started a protest walk on Sept. 5," the government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported.
"In retaliation, the monks destroyed the house of U Khin Maung Win and the store of U Hla Win Naing. In that incident, the Pakokku NLD incited the monks to get involved in the anti-government activities," it said.
Meanwhile, monasteries in the city of Bago, also known as Pegu, have come under close watch by security forces, who also put members of the opposition NLD under surveillance, the overseas Burmese Web site Mizzima News reported.
Mizzima, run by exiled Burmese journalists, said monks had also been prevented from leaving their monasteries in Bago, some 80 kms (50 miles) north of the former capital Rangoon, and one of the country's biggest cities.
The U.S. State Department called Tuesday for international access to more than 150 Burmese currently detained for their part in the protests.
"Multiple reports indicate that many of these protesters have been brutally beaten and interrogated," spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement.
"We call upon the Burmese regime to allow access to prisoners by international humanitarian organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and renew our call for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Burma," he said.
Original reporting by Zaw Moe Kyaw, Ko Ko Aung, and Sein Kyaw Hlaing for RFA's Burmese service. Additional reporting by Richard Finney in Washington. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Khin May Zaw and Sarah Jackson-Han.