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Myanmar monks 'remain a potent force' two years after saffron revolt

Myanmar's monks are silent but still seething with anger two years after the army cracked down on their saffron revolt.

Bangkok // Myanmar's monks are silent but still seething with anger two years after the army cracked down on their saffron revolt. Yangon is relatively quiet and the monks are back in their monasteries and villages, but memories of September 2007 are still fresh and there is a simmering discontent that could erupt at any moment.

"The monks have not forgotten what happened, and are laying low for now, but are ready to take to the streets again when they feel it necessary," a senior monk who led the protests two years ago said on condition of anonymity. He was arrested in the mass round-up of monks after the army crushed the demonstrations. "All the monks in my [former] monastery in Rangoon [Yangon] are praying every day this week for an end to military rule."

The events of two years ago are also etched deeply on the minds of many ordinary citizens, especially in Yangon, where the most brutal attack crackdowns occurred. "We will always remember what the army did to the monks," said Aye Win, a retired schoolteacher. "We were shocked. The monks are the most trusted and revered people in our society, so we can never forget how the military treated them." Min Thu, a taxi driver, said people were stunned by the violence the monks were met with. "We really feared for them when they took to the streets, and people tried to protect them by marching alongside of them. But we never believed the generals would attack them so viciously."

The protests started as small demonstrations in mid-August 2007 by the leaders of the 88 Generation group, who had been prominent during the mass pro-democracy demonstrations in August 1988, against rising food and fuel prices. But these exploded into a major mass protest when the monks, in their saffron-coloured robes, took the lead in what became known as the saffron revolt. "We came out onto the streets because we knew people were suffering," said the senior monk, who is now in hiding in Thailand. "After the fuel price shot up, we saw how it affected people, and we couldn't let them suffer alone."

Analysts said this was a pivotal moment in Myanmar's history. "Almost all the monks marching on the streets - it had never happened before," said Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert and author of the recent report, The Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Protests in Burma, issued by US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). At least 120 people were killed in Yangon alone, the former human rights rapporteur for Myanmar, Paulo Pinheiro, told The National shortly after his mission to Mya mar weeks after the crackdown.

More than a thousand monks were detained within weeks of the clampdown in Yangon, according to HRW. "Hundreds of them were tortured in custody," said David Mathieson, the Thailand-based Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch. At least 237 monks remain in prison, according to the Thailand-based group of political prisoners, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP-B). There are about 400,000 monks in around 45,000 registered monasteries across Myanmar. Many of these monasteries were closed and the novice monks forced to return to their homes in the aftermath for the crackdown. "Exactly how many monks went home [after the September 2007 protests], we don't know," said Mr Lintner.

Many have been unable to subsequently go back to their monkhood because the authorities actively prevented them from returning. As a result many monasteries are virtually empty. The monks remain a potent force in Myanmar, and the junta fears they may again become an important focal point for future protests.and those deemed to be leaders are under constant monitoring. "I'm being watched all the time. I am considered an organiser," the Buddhist monk U Manita told HRW recently.

"Between noon and 2pm, I am allowed to go out of the monastery. But then I'm followed. "We don't want this junta. And that's what everyone at my monastery thinks as well." Many analysts and diplomats believe the monk-led protests were an aberration and unlikely to be repeated. But others say they remain a powerful, if at present dormant, force in Myanmar's politics. "The monks have been a force for change in the past, and because they are viewed by the people as a legitimate source of authority in Myanmar, as opposed to one that has only guns to thank for its power, they remain a potent force," said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Myanmar researcher.

"This gives hope that the latest saffron revolution [in 2007] won't be the last." ljagan@thenational.ae