THE military crackdown in Burma (renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta in 1989) was bound to happen.

photo courtesy of Myo Khin/MizzimaFor almost six weeks, the Burmese people have been staging marches against the debilitating effects of a five-fold fuel price hike in August. The marches slowly grew as the weeks progressed, and by Wednesday, had turned into a massive protest action reminiscent of the pro-democracy uprising of August 1988. Inspired by the participation of Burma’s revered Buddhist monks, more than a hundred thousand protesters spilled out into the streets to join the peaceful demonstrations, demanding an end to 45 years of military rule.

That same day, the ruling junta finally unleashed its patented response. In three days of violence, the crackdown has left several Burmese dead, including at least five monks. Soldiers have also sealed off monasteries in the two main cities of Rangoon and Mandalay, locking up the monks to prevent them from joining the demonstrations. Hundreds more were beaten up and arrested as the soldiers have momentarily retaken control of the streets. (View more images at

This is the first time in close to two decades that the Buddhist monks have come out of their monasteries to publicly denounce the military regime headed by Senior General Than Shwe. Until the past couple of months, the monks had been content with showing their disapproval of the junta by performing the patam nikkujjana kamma, literally “overturning the bowl” to boycott alms given by the regime. This act of defiance started in 1990 in response to a military crackdown that same year in Mandalay where monks were among those killed and arrested as thousands of them marched to commemorate the second anniversary of the 1988 uprising.

In his report as a 2006 fellow of the Southeat Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Indonesian freelance journalist Wahyuana described how the alms ritual is one of the most important in Theravada Buddhism. “A monk’s refusal to accept,” he wrote, “signifies the moral degeneration of the alms-giver.”

As such, patam nikkujjana kamma was considered then as the most radical political action by a Buddhist sangha (monastic order). Not only were monks bound to refuse alms from military personnel, they were also not to perform religious rites for them.

Read Wayhuana’s report, “Alms and the Monks.”

Yet with the alms boycott, at least 3,000 monks have continued to land in jail for such an “offense,” the most recent case in 2003 involving several members of the influential Mahar Gondhayone monastery in Kabayre, Rangoon. In prison, the monks are prohibited from wearing their robes and treated like criminals.

One monk whom Wayhuana interviewed, U Myawade Sayadaw, spent more than eight years in jail for his refusal of alms from the military rulers. The monks knew what harm they face, he said, but are nonetheless unfazed. “History shows that this action can topple a ruler.”

Such repressive actions of the military junta, noted Wayhuana, have only made remaining politically inactive a less compelling option for the monks. And with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi still under house arrest and the rest of the National League for Democracy silenced, it has become evident in recent months that the monks have embraced a more active role in Burmese politics, serving as the main source of strength of a much weakened pro-democracy movement.

Following the violent crackdown and the expected arrival of United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gimbari today, there is a relative quiet in the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay as protest actions have somehow subsided. But the lull is without doubt an uneasy one even as the Burmese people look to the days ahead clutching the fervent hope that democracy — and the fall of the ruthless military regime — will only be a matter of time.

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