Monks who led Myanmar’s failed 2007 Saffron Revolution uprising, which was violently suppressed by the then-ruling military junta, on Wednesday demanded the government apologize for the bloody crackdown as they gathered in Yangon to mark its six-year anniversary.

Activist Monk Gambira in an undated photo. Photo: RFAThe monks, who have refused donations of alms from the military and ceased providing religious services to them as a form of political protest since the crackdown, said that they would not consider lifting the ban until they receive an official apology.

“We monks boycotted the military twice in 1990 and 2007, and have not held any religious service [for them] since [2007],” senior monk Sanda Siri said to around 100 monks and guests who gathered at Thadu Monastery in Kyeemyindaing township to mark the anniversary.

“We want to end this boycott for the people, but we cannot withdraw it unless the authorities apologize to the monks.”

Buddhists have a longstanding practice of donating food and other necessities to monks, but the clergy boycotted alms from the army in 1990 when the government refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party despite a decisive victory at the polls.

They declared a similar boycott in 2007 following the anti-junta Saffron Revolution, which started as a protest in Yangon led by tens of thousands of monks against high fuel prices, but ended in a military crackdown which left at least 31 people dead and saw hundreds of monks arrested.

Goals of the anniversary gathering—which was held for only the second year following sweeping reforms enacted by President Thein Sein—also included the promotion of nationality and religion, peace and national reconciliation, and firm democratic progress for Myanmar, religious leaders said.

The monks, who had gathered from as far away as Mandalay, Pokokku, and Sagaing, also called on the government to free all remaining political prisoners, grant full access to human rights and democracy for all of Myanmar’s citizens, and make an official overture to the country’s exiles, welcoming their return.

Seeking apology

Kawiya, a monk from Mandalay, said the apology is important because the government has to learn to respect its citizens.

“The country’s leaders and authorities don’t see us as their people,” he said. “They see us as if we were their prey or some kind of game animal. These days we monks must be united to work on behalf of society—for all people and for our religion.”

According to a report by Agence France-Presse, Sandar Siri also called on his fellow monks to work together to rein in communal violence that has swept through Myanmar since last year and threatened to reverse democratic reforms made by Thein Sein since he took power from the military regime following elections in 2010.

A Buddhist monk speaks to others before they take part in a march in Yangon, 23 September 2007, launching the biggest challenge against military rule in nearly two decades. Photo: AFP“The path to democracy has just appeared. In order not to ruin it, we urge you to avoid ethnic and religious violence,” AFP quoted the monk as saying.

Religious violence, largely carried out by nationalist Buddhists and targeting Myanmar’s minority Muslim community, has left around 250 killed and more than 140,000 homeless in a series of spreading clashes since June last year.

Role of monks

Members of the prominent Myanmar civil society organization the 88 Generation Students group said that the monks have played an important role throughout the country’s history and must use their power as a popular moral authority to help the nation continue on its path to democracy.

Min Ko Naing, one of the group’s leaders, praised the Buddhist Sangha, or monastic community, for taking a leading role in some of the country’s most important movements, including against Japanese and British colonialism during World War II.

“Please continue trying to open people’s eyes and ears,” Min Ko Naing told the gathered monks. “We student [activists] alone cannot change the country. You, the monks, must collaborate with us.”

“If you collaborate with the students and the people, no authority can refuse change. The country’s reforms were spurred on because of the monk-led Saffron Revolution.”

Ko Ko Gyi, another 88 Generation Student leader, said that the livelihood of the monks is tied to that of the layperson in Myanmar, where members of the Sangha rely on the public to provide them with daily offerings.

Buddhists monks and their supporters take part in a march in Yangon, 23 September 2007, launching the biggest challenge against military rule in nearly two decades. Photo: AFP“As monks are provided for by the people. They can’t stay away from making things better when people are suffering,” he said, adding that Myanmar’s current political transition is a “dangerous time” and warning that what might seem to be a period of easing “could be a trap.”

“There are many countries that went backward from the situation that we are in now. I would like to urge you to think carefully about how to practically approach our transition to get the best results [for the people].”

Mae Sot gathering

A similar anniversary ceremony was held in Mae Sot, across the border in Thailand, led by the International Buddhist Monks Organization (IBMO), a New York-based group that has continued to promote the goals of the monks who took part in the Saffron Rebellion.

Sandaw Batha, a monk with the IBMO, reiterated the demands of his fellow Sangha members in Yangon, saying that “the first objective in celebrating the six-year anniversary of the Saffron Revolution is to demand the government’s apology for the crackdown.”

But he also called for Myanmar’s monks to remain united in their goal of furthering democracy and moral values in the country, saying that the government was attempting to lessen their influence in the country.

“They have broken the monks’ unity, which is very bad. We are demanding a stop to this kind of attack.”

Wednesday’s anniversary ceremonies follow reports that Yangon region Chief Minister Myint Swe—who led security operations in the city during the uprising—reportedly denied involvement in the Saffron Revolution, saying he was willing to be investigated and would submit to the death penalty if found guilty.

“If you think I’m responsible, I am ready [to face justice],” Myint Swe reportedly told business people from the Myanmar Fisheries Federation in a meeting in Yangon last week, according to 7 Days News, a local journal.

“To be frank, I am ready to be hanged [if there is a guilty verdict].”

Myanmar’s military-drafted 2008 constitution provides immunity for the actions of former junta members during military rule.

Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.