Are Burma's Monks Planning Another Saffron Revolution?


For the past few weeks, rumours that Burma’s military intelligence has planted "hit squads" in the border towns of neighbouring Thailand have been doing the rounds here in Mae Sot. Monks, dissidents and rebel army operatives are all on high alert. At an outdoor cafe frequented by foreigners on Friday morning, an English teacher from one of the refugee camps sighed as he stubbed out a cheap Burmese cigarette. "There’s some big boys in town this morning — in the last couple of days I’ve seen them everywhere," he told me.

The men he refers to, muscled and well-fed Burmese with crew cuts clad in camouflage pants and T-shirts, swagger through the city’s cafes, noodle stalls and beer bars, taking note of who is about. They might be the alleged "hit men", they might not — they certainly arrive in shiny 4-wheel-drive pick-ups with blacked out windows and Burmese number plates.

Mae Sot has always been a hotbed of Burmese activists and black marketeers. Some of the city’s best known families have made their money running goods back and forth over the Burmese border and smuggling is regarded something of a sport, with the winners reaping hefty cash rewards. When the "Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge" opened in 1997, at the height of Thailand’s financial crisis, the locals went legitimate and the economic meltdown was just something one read about in the newspaper.

Mae Sot is a rough city. Last month a prominent young Thai gang member was found dead with his penis stuffed in his mouth, allegedly murdered by a rival Muslim gang with its roots across the border. The town awaits his death to be avenged and no one will be surprised when it is.

When the so-called "Saffron Revolution" of 2007 went belly-up after soldiers of Burma’s ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council, started shooting anyone in range, it was no surprise that Mae Sot’s population increased in a burst. The route through the jungle from Rangoon to Mae Sot was was well trodden in the aftermath of the 1988 student uprising — which ended much the same way as the monks’ protest.

After both events, the SPDC’s formidable military intelligence machine went about its insipid, methodical and diligent hunt for activists who dared challenge the junta’s authority. Many of their prey emerged from the jungle, hungry and paranoid, in Thailand. But those who were left behind — or those with sufficiently low profiles and the determination to stay and fight against the regime — suffered the most. Two years later many are still in jail.

A recent "amnesty" by the SPDC gave criminals their liberty, while just four of the hundreds of monks who have been in jail for the past two years were released. Thousands more monks are still on the run, a vocal cluster of them based in Mae Sot.

The warnings of assassination squads at large are taken seriously in this city. On Valentine’s Day last year, the Karen National Union secretary-general Mahn Sha was shot dead at point blank range at his home here. Since 1949 the KNU has fought the world’s longest running insurgency and its association with Mae Sot is the stuff of legend.

The All Burma Monks’ Alliance also maintains an underground headquarters in Mae Sot. Ashin Issariya, or "King Zero", is one of its leaders. Ashin said of the recent amnesty that saw 7000 people walk free from jail, 128 of them political dissidents: "Yes, they only released four monks, which is very bad, in the mean[time]they have arrested another 10. We feel a great responsibility to help them [the incarcerated monks], to protect them, to try and get them released from the prisons."

Human Rights Watch said last month in its report The Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Protest in Burma that the prospect of a repeat of 2007’s protests is "very real".

Giving weight to this claim and adding to the tensions across Burma is the ultimatum handed down by the ruling body of monks, or the Sangha. The Burmese Sangha demanded the junta apologise for the "killing and insulting" of monks in September 2007 and that all jailed monks be released by last Friday or face excommunication.

The junta did not cede.

The All Burma Monks’ Alliance carries great weight in a society where, by declaration of the SPDC, Buddhism is the national religion and monks have always been revered. In the early mornings they ply the streets collecting alms — foodstuffs mainly — as the people pay tribute and make merit to their religious conscience. In return the monks pause on their doorsteps and bless home and hearth or the business of the layman.

By the time most people rise for breakfast the monks have gathered their offerings at a communal table. By midday they have eaten and afterwards it is forbidden for a monk to take food until the following day. The same routine occurs to varying degrees across much of Southeast Asia, the difference in Mae Sot is that both Burmese and Thai monks participate in the ritual, pausing at the homes of their countrymen.

During the September 2007 protests, Burmese monks took the radical step of rejecting alms from the military. This is the precept of Pattanikkujjana, or turning the alms bowl upside down to those deemed to have violated religious principles. Such a simple act has consequences unfathomable for most in the West. In recent history it has only happened twice in Burma, once in 1990 when the junta ignored Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide election victory, and again in September 2007. It has begun again.

On Monday, as the tropical sun began to bake Mae Sot’s streets, Burmese and then Thai monks made their way through the streets on an annual tribute known as Tak Bat Thewo. People rose as early as 3am to prepare their tributes for the monks. But on Burmese state television that evening, footage of Burmese monks selling the tributes on the streets of Mae Sot’s sister city, Myawaddy, at the other end of the Friendship Bridge, was aired.

The message from the television coverage, aired of course at the direction of the SPDC, is that Mae Sot is corrupt and the Burmese monks who travel to Mae Sot are crooks. It is a small event, but indicative of the regime not having yet developed a specific policy of how to deal with the monks’ latest declaration that their military leaders have failed a once prosperous and proud nation.

It was a tentative offensive move by the SPDC in what will become a war of wills and will likely end, once again, in a shower of bullets that rains death upon monks and unarmed civilians. Then the world will again take fleeting notice, audiences will again shake their heads in lament of brutal military regimes in "places like that" and the sun will again begin to creep over Mae Sot’s streets. And the monks will still pause to bless those making merit.

In the distance, under the cover of semi-darkness, someone robed in the deep crimson cloth of a Burmese monk will scurry down a side street, too busy to take alms and on his way to yet another meeting to plot the Sangha’s next move against the SPDC.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.