BANGKOK (Reuters) - The maroon-robed monks at the heart of Myanmar’s biggest pro-democracy demonstrations in 20 years are no strangers to political struggle in the mostly Buddhist nation, under military rule the past four decades.
At least 10 monasteries were raided and sacked this week and hundreds of monks arrested on apparent suspicion of spearheading marches that drew as many as 100,000 people in Yangon.
Small protests started last month against shock rises in fuel prices, a huge blow to Myanmar’s 56 million people — already some of the poorest in Asia.
But the real turning point came when soldiers fired warning shots and then roughed up monks and civilians marching in the town of Pokokku, 600 km (370 miles) north of Yangon, on September 5.
“They tied the monks to the street lamp posts with ropes, just like people do to horses or dogs,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, a spokesman for National Council of the Union of Burma, a group of exiled politicians.
“They refused to apologize as demanded by the monasteries, which really triggered the mass rally,” he said.
Although Buddhist clergy are officially meant to stay out of temporal affairs such as politics, in Myanmar, or Burma as it used to be called, they have a long history of leading protests against oppression.
Buddhist monks spearheaded protests against Burma’s imperial master, Britain, and then continued in the same vein against the generals who have ruled for most of the Southeast Asian nation’s 60 years of independence.
Their campaign against the British became known as the “Shoe Question”, since British officials refused to remove their footwear when entering Buddhist temples or other holy places, a sign of grave disrespect in local culture and tradition.
In 1919, violence erupted in Mandalay, a centre of Buddhist learning, when a group of Buddhist monks tried to expel a group of shoe-wearing British visitors from a pagoda.
The leader of the rebellious monks was sent to prison for life for attempted murder, but the incident inspired Burmese nationalists to use Buddhism as a rallying point for their cause.
Monk Wisara became a national martyr after his death in jail in 1929 after a 166-day hunger strike in protest at a rule stopping him wearing Buddhist robes in jail.
After independence, the monastic political role emerged again in a 1988 uprising against the military rulers, who are believed still to be keeping as many as 90 monks behind bars from those days.
Although the army killed an estimated 3,000 protesters in the 1988 crackdown, temples have become a safe haven for young men to study both worldly and spiritual subjects — as well as to run underground anti-government activities, analysts and dissidents said.
The monks re-entered the struggle after Pokokku, using the former capital’s Shwedagon Pagoda, where ancient Burmese kings used to pray before waging war against their enemies, as a symbolic rallying point.
Analysts fear more bloodshed in what is becoming a life-and-death struggle between the monkhood, Myanmar’s highest moral authority, and the might of the military.
“The Burmese junta has never shirked from using violence against any peaceful movement,” Thai historian Charnvit Kasetsiri said.