In August and September 2007, there were large anti-government protests in Myanmar. The protests initially began over increased fuel prices and these evolved into larger demonstrations led by pro-democracy activists and Buddhist monks. Demonstrations led by Buddhist monks against the military junta brought 100,000 people into the streets of Yangon on September 24 calling for national reconciliation and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Two days later the junta began cracking down on the demonstrations. On September 27, soldiers and security forces fired automatic weapons into a crowd, killing perhaps dozens. Over 3,000 people were arrested. It was the strongest use of force since 1988, the event is sometimes called the Saffron Revolution because of the participation of saffron-robed monks.

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times, It was “the biggest demonstrations in 20 years against one of the most stubborn and brutal military regimes in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks and believers marched in the biggest cities of Burma, peacefully demanding justice, relief from soaring prices and democratic reform. Students armed with digital cameras e-mailed images of the so-called Saffron Revolution across the world. Then the inevitable crackdown began. Dozens of demonstrators were killed by police batons and army bullets; thousands were locked up. Twelve months later the opposition is scattered, its leaders imprisoned and its power broken...The September 2007 uprising originated in much smaller demonstrations against a sudden rise in prices caused by the decision of the junta to remove subsidies on food in August of that year. The sudden economic hardship that this caused added to long-running resentment about the refusal of the junta to acknowledge the results of a general election in 1990, won by the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the intervening years under house arrest.” [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, September 26, 2008]

Many who joined the protests were ordinary people moved by the courage of marching Buddhist monks to take their own stand against the government. The peaceful demonstrators were easy targets for the military. Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “Labor leader Su Su Nway told Time: "The junta is trying to create a very intimidating environment. People must stand up," she says, "and choose between freedom and oppression."Thousands of Burmese are doing just that... Significantly, Buddhist monks have marched by the hundreds in several cities, adding a stamp of spiritual authority to the protest movement in this deeply devout country....No surprise then that many Burmese sympathize with the protesters. "You knock on a door late at night and whisper, 'Let me in, brother,'" says an activist who has so far escaped the police dragnet. "People willingly help us, even though they're well aware of the dire consequences." The regime is doing its best to prevent further unrest and capture any stray dissidents. Trucks full of hired enforcers patrol major street corners in Rangoon. The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma has received reports that some of the arrested activists are being tortured. But the generals have to be careful with their clampdown--too much violence could fuel even more civilian anger. "It's likely that an economic spark, combined with a dramatically violent response from the regime, could set the stage for revolt," says Aung Naing Oo, a Bangkok-based Burma analyst. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, September 17, 2007]

Film: Burma VJ: Reporting from A Closed Country. (2008)

Beginning of September 2007 Protests in Myanmar

In mid August the Myanmar government abruptly rose fuel price that including a large hike in gasoline prices. In some places fuel prices were increased by as much as 500 percent. People were upset and took to the streets. In one cases two dozen protesters were only able to march 30 meters before they were beaten and wrestled into trucks by vigilante thugs.

Al-Jazeera reported: “At least 500 people led by pro-democracy activists in Myanmar have held a rare protest in Yangon over the government's arbitrary increase of fuel prices. A few days earlier the military government imposed a 100 per cent rise in fuel prices at state-owned petrol stations without giving any reason.The march led by former student activists of the 88 Generation Students' Group began with about 100 people, moving along a major road north of Yangon. The protesters did not shout slogans or hold up placards. The group said the crowd swelled as bystanders joined in before dispersing after marching for about nine kilometers. [Source: Al-Jazeera, Agencies, August 20, 2007 =]

“The protesters, including some former student leaders who have served long prison terms, said the authorities watched and videotaped the event but did not interfere. Min Ko Naing, a former student leader, said the protest was "to reflect the hardship our people are facing due to the government's fuel price hike". "Some cars stopped and those inside clapped their hands when they knew that we were staging this performance in protest against the fuel price hike," he added. =

“The government of Myanmar, formerly Burma, has a monopoly on fuel sales. The immediate effect of the massive price hike was felt by commuters as bus fares increased along with prices of basic consumer goods. In a statement, the Asia Pacific People's Partnership on Burma (APPPB) demanded that the government tackle the resulting problem of skyrocketing commodity prices and inflation rate. The APPPB said the increase in the price of natural gas was "not rational" given its abundance in the country. Khin Ohmar, the APPPB co-ordinator, quoted Ktay Kywe, a former student leader, as saying that while the majority had to walk, the military elites had vehicles that cost between $75,000 and RM250,000.” =

Two days later Aye Aye Win of Associated Press wrote: “ Hundreds of pro-democracy activists marched to protest the doubling of fuel prices by Myanmar's military government but scattered as junta supporters took at least six away in cars, witnesses said. About 300 protesters walked from the outskirts of the commercial capital Yangon, encouraging onlookers to join the rare display of public opposition as plainclothes police officers watched from a distance, witnesses said. "We are marching to highlight the economic hardship that Myanmar people are facing now, which has been exacerbated by the fuel price hike," a protester who identified herself only as Mimi told onlookers. [Source: Aye Aye Win, Associated Press, August 22, 2007 +]

“The demonstrators were confronted by a group of pro-government supporters and the two sides began shouting at one another, witnesses said. At least six protesters were forced into cars and driven away and the remaining demonstrators quickly dispersed, witnesses said. The protest came a day after 13 activists were detained by Myanmar authorities, including leaders of a pro-democracy group that demonstrated previously against the fuel-price increases. They could face up to 20 years in prison, the official media reported. +

“The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper said "agitators" of the 88 Generation Students group were detained for attempting to undermine the "stability and security of the nation." Members of the 88 Generation Students were at the forefront of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and were subjected to lengthy prison terms and torture after the rebellion was brutally suppressed by the military. The 1988 uprising was preceded by public protests over rising rice prices, a sudden demonetization and other economic hardships. The detentions overnight came two days after the group led more than 400 people in a protest march through Yangon against the doubling of fuel prices on Aug. 15. Those arrested included Min Ko Naing,” regarded as Myanmar’s second-most prominent political activist after Aung San Suu Kyi. +

Thugs Break Up Fuel Price Protests

A few days after the first high-fuel-cost protests began Associated Press reported: “Myanmar's military government broke up a peaceful protest march for a second straight day, beating and arresting participants in an attempt to tame street rallies led by democracy activists against fuel price increases. Plainclothes officers and some civilian supporters of the junta stopped about 40 people marching quietly two miles toward their party headquarters in the capital. Authorities ordered bystanders, especially journalists, out of the area after a 30-minute standoff. Protesters sat on the pavement and formed a human chain, but about a dozen were dragged and shoved into trucks and buses, where some were slapped around, said witnesses, who asked not to be identified for fear of being called in by police. Reporters were also roughed up by security personnel, who shouted abusive language. [Source: AP, August 23, 2007 ++]

“The protest march was the third this week against the government's doubling of fuel prices last week in the impoverished country. Government supporters with sticks attacked some of the 300 protesters who marched the day before, seizing eight who were accused of being agitators. The eight were interrogated and released. A similar protest was held three days before. Most demonstrators in the most recent protest were from the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. ++

"Unable to bear the burden of spiraling consumer prices, the public express their sentiments through peaceful means. However, the authorities have arrested, tortured, beaten up and endangered the lives of those who are peacefully expressing their dissatisfaction," Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy said in a statement. Economic dissatisfaction sparked the country's last major upheaval in 1988. ++

Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “A tense stand-off ensued before the marchers, who had been walking towards the offices of the opposition National League for Democracy, were manhandled into trucks belonging to the junta's feared Union Solidarity and Development Association A Reuters reporter at the scene was told not to take photographs. For a second day, armed police and truckloads of USDA men armed with spades and brooms took up positions in the center of the former capital. However, in an apparent effort to stop to the widespread public anger at last week's shock fuel price rises, bus fares for the shortest journeys were halved. However, the junta's coordinated action, starting with midnight swoops on the student leaders, had probably ensured the series of small but persistent social protests did not snowball into something larger. "These people have vowed to continue the struggle at all costs. They have vowed to go all the way, and so for sure they will continue to protest," said Aung Naing Oo, a 1988 protester who fled to Thailand to escape the bloody military crackdown. "But I doubt a large majority of people will participate. Small gatherings of 100 here, 200 there, will go on but the emphasis is on the word small," he said. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, August 23, 2007]

Two days later Associated Press reported: “Myanmar’s junta has detained at least 65 activists who protested fuel-price hikes, a state-controlled newspaper and witnesses reported, including two arrested as they were about to launch a fresh demonstration. The New Light of Myanmar said 13 of those arrested from the prominent pro-democracy 88 Generation Students group “are being interrogated” for allegedly undermining the government, colluding with insurgent groups and harming the community peace. [Source: AP, August 25, 2007]

Yangon was quiet with pro-junta supporters and plainclothes police deployed throughout the city to prevent further protests. Trucks stood ready to take demonstrators away. Nyan Win, a spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy party, said eight demonstrators had been released, but that the fate of the others was unknown.

Monks Join the September 2007 Protests in Myanmar

The anti-government rallies gained momentum when Buddhist monks in Pakokku joined the protests in early September. Pakokku is a center of Buddhist learning with many monasteries about 600 kilometers northwest of Yangon. Buddhist monks took up the cause to voice their discontent over the fuel price hikes. They joined and then led protests. At first the demonstrations were peaceful, with the monks calling for retraction of the price hikes. The monks chanted: “Let everyone be free from harm. Let everyone be free from anger. Let everyone be free from hardship.” When security forces began using violence against the monks—there were reports of troops beating protesting monks in Pakkoku on September 6—the demonstrations began to swell, in some cases, some have said, to more than 100,000 people.

Charles London, who was visiting Myanmar as a tourist at the time of the protests, wrote in the New York Times, “For weeks, monks had been marching in the cities throughout the country to protest the economic hardship and repression imposed by the ruling military junta. Some of the protests in Yangon used Sule Pagoda as a staging ground....During my stay, monks continued to march, and though locals seemed to know when and where these marches would occur, many said they were hesitant to go for fear of being blacklisted, having their children barred from school, their families questioned. In Mandalay, people told me the use of loudspeakers by religious groups had been outlawed, irritating Muslims who were in the midst of Ramadan. Though the muezzins were silent, the monks continued to organize new protests. [Source: Charles London, New York Times, October 21, 2007 ++]

“On my last day in the country, I couldn’t help but follow the three young monks as they wove through the downtown crowds. I saw another group hop off a bus, sloshing through puddles, also walking intently to Sule Pagoda. I noticed a crowd forming outside the temple. I joined it. Behind me, the police at City Hall unlocked the barbed-wire gate there. They started the engine of a jeep, but no one in the crowd took notice. Suddenly, 500 monks emerged in rows four across. They carried flags and overturned alms bowls. When the first group stopped and chanted a prayer, some people in the crowd dared to clap. It was timid at first, but as more monks emerged to begin their protest, the clapping grew louder until the whole crowd seemed overcome by it. A Burmese man leaned toward me. “They have never done this before,” he said. “They clap for freedom.” The faces in the crowd were excited, part bliss, part terror. As the monks kept pouring out of the temple, the clapping turned to cheers. They walked on and hundreds of civilians marched with them, in spite of the rain. “We march to University,” a man said, urging me to come. University Avenue is the home of Aung San Suu Kyi. I did not have the nerve to go. The clapping seemed to shatter the notion that the movement would be limited to the clergy. ++

“Back at my hotel, I noticed that CNN was scrambled. A veil was being lowered between Myanmar and the rest of the world. The Internet was cut, and soldiers from the country moved into the city. The morning I left, I heard that my young guide was looking for me. I can’t be certain why. But a few days later, back in New York, as I was scouring blogs for news of the crisis, I saw his picture. The junta had finally lashed out against the protesters. His forehead was bandaged. His white shirt was spotted red. I have no way to ask him what happened. He’s inside a country a tourist was never meant to see. ++

Protesting Monks Burn Cars and Take Government Officials Hostage

In early September 2007, news agencies reported: “Several hundred monks staged a demonstration in Myanmar in an escalation of the ongoing protests against massive fuel price increases, eyewitnesses said. And, the monks took about 20 officials of Myanmar's security forces hostage inside their monastery. The hostages were freed after a few hours when a senior abbot intervened to end the tense stand-off. The protesting monks numbered between 300 and 500 people, the eyewitnesses said. The monks also burnt at least four cars belonging to the officials in yesterday's incident, a resident said. 'Bystanders cheered as monks torched the cars one by one, but monks have told laymen that they will take care of the matter themselves,' he said. Police and firemen did not respond immediately to the torching of the vehicles. [Source: Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, September 7, 2007]

The officials who were held hostage had gone to the so-called Middle Monastery in the town of Pakokku, 600km north-west of Yangon, to apologise over an incident in which soldiers fired shots over the heads of protesting monks, a witness said. The officials had also gone to the monastery to ask the abbot to stop monks - who are highly revered in Buddhist Myanmar - from taking part in the sporadic marches that have broken out in the past two weeks, the witness added. The intervention by the troops was the first time they had been called in during two weeks of rare public dissent. A handful of monks were arrested, but most retreated to their monasteries.

Pakokku is a center for Buddhist learning, with more than 80 monasteries, including at least 15 that are used for teaching. There are an estimated 35,000 monks in the town. Intervening against monks in Pakokku is particularly risky for the ruling junta as the town is only about 130km from the country's second largest city of Mandalay. Historically, monasteries have played a major role in political uprisings, both in 1988 and in revolts against then-Burma's colonial master Britain. Before this, the military had responded by arresting leading dissidents and sending pro-junta gangs onto the streets of Yangon to break up protests.

A resident of Mandalay said the atmosphere in the city was very tense. News reports from dissident organisations suggest the generals have been pressing the heads of Mandalay's monasteries not to become involved. 'They seem to be more nervous. Once the monks in Mandalay start to rise, they will not be able to control it,' a Yangon-based politician said this week.

Tear Gas, Warning Shots Fired at Monks in Sittwe

In mid-September 2007, AFP reported: “Myanmar's junta admitted using tear gas and firing warning shots in the air to break up about 1,000 Buddhist monks protesting against the regime. The monks rallied Tuesday in Sittwe, 560 kilometers (350 miles) west of Yangon, and at least three were arrested by police, according to the Myanmar-language service of US-funded Radio Free Asia. The state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar said the protesters became "violent" and authorities "had to use tear gas and fired three shots in the air to disperse the crowd." One official and nine policemen were injured, the paper said in a rare admission about the use of violence. But it added no protesters were injured or arrested. [Source: AFP, September 19, 2007]

The protest was among several peaceful marches by Buddhist monks across Myanmar, which has been rocked over the past month. The nationwide marches drew hundreds of monks and other people who defied the regime's iron fist against public protest in the biggest anti-junta rally in a decade.

Three days later, Reuters reported, two men jailed for two years for giving water to protesting monks were freed after 1,000 monks had marched in Sittwe in northwest Myanmar and threatened more protests unless they were released.

Monk Protests Reach Yangon

Monks began protesting in Yangon in significant numbers on September 18. Associated Press reported: “Almost 1,000 Buddhist monks marched through the streets of Myanmar's biggest city, protected by a human chain of onlookers as they kept alive the most sustained and defiant protests against the military government in at least a decade. Having gathered at the golden hilltop Shwedagon pagoda, the country's most revered shrine, the monks marched to Sule pagoda in downtown Yangon and then rallied briefly outside the U.S. Embassy. With no destination evident, the monks marched through many of Yangon's main thoroughfares, attracting supporters as they carried on. Thousands of people walked alongside or behind them as they marched past Scott's Market, the city's main market that is also a magnet for tourists. [Source: AP, September 21, 2007///]

“It was the third straight day the monks have marched in Yangon. Their activities have given new life to a protest movement that began a month ago after the government raised fuel prices, sparking demonstrations against policies that are causing economic hardship. As they marched calmly in long processions though the city streets, onlookers accorded the monks respect by making the traditional Buddhist gesture of hands clasped together in front of bowed heads. They also offered snacks and drinks to the marchers, while others kept the streets clean by picked up water bottles. Such open expressions of support had been lacking at smaller demonstrations carried out by laymen over the past month. ///

“At the head of the procession were monks carrying religious flags and one carrying a begging bowl upside down, a symbol of protest. About 1,000 mostly young bystanders marched alongside, arms linked, to prevent any intrusion. No uniformed security personnel were in sight, though dozens of plainclothesmen stood by without interfering. In the Buddhist fashion of avoiding direct secular entanglements, the monks are making no explicit anti-government gestures, but their message is unmistakable to fellow citizens, because their normal duties outside their monasteries involve making morning rounds with begging bowls, individually or in small groups. ///

“The day before, a large crowd cheered as monks briefly occupied Sule pagoda, during one of several marches around the country. The monks pushed past closed gates to occupy the temple for 30 minutes before returning peacefully to their monasteries, witnesses said. At least four separate marches by monks took place on that day in Yangon, along with protests in at least two other cities, Sittwe and Mandalay. ///

“The saffron-robed monks have become the leaders of a movement launched on Aug. 19, when a few hundred ordinary citizens marched to protest a government increase in fuel prices. Several hundred activists have been detained. Angry over being beaten at an early demonstration, monks threatened to take to the streets unless the military junta apologized. The regime remained silent so they launched protests around the country that have grown from several hundred monks to several thousand. ///

“Monks also are refusing alms from the military and their families —embarrassing the junta. Some monks have started a religious boycott of the junta, symbolized by their holding their black begging bowls upside down as they march. In the Myanmar language, the word for boycott comes from the words for holding the bowl upside down. ///

“Monks have historically been at the forefront of protests. The protests also reflect long pent-up opposition to the repressive military regime, and have become the most sustained challenge to the junta since a wave of student demonstrations that were put down by force in December 1996. The state-run newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, claimed Wednesday that bogus monks, "instigators" and foreign radio station reports were helping to swell the crowds at protests. “ ///

Monks Take a Leadership Role in the September 2007 Protests in Myanmar

Denis Gray of Associated Press wrote: “It fell to Buddhist monks, normally nonpolitical advocates of loving kindness, to lead Myanmar's recent uprising, taking over from veteran activists who had secretly organized and planned to confront the ruling military. "We had to stand up and lead," said U Kovida, a young monk who was a key protest organizer. The "88 Generation" decided this summer that the time had come to again take on their country's junta. [Source: Denis Gray, AP, October 27, 2007 \\\]

“In fact, protest leaders say, the marches were orchestrated by longtime activist groups that feared progress in the government's so-called "road to democracy" would cement the military's power for generations more. "The army was preparing to rule the country for a long time, through the lives of our sons and grandsons. We knew we had to act," said Hlaing Moe Than, 37, a 1988 protest leader who spent eight years in prison, where he says he was tortured. \\\

“The leaders said that in prison, many schooled themselves in the ideology and tactics of Mohandas K. Gandhi and other advocates of nonviolent revolution, combining them with Buddhist teachings. Once freed, they regrouped to organize and plan under the cover of weddings, funerals and Buddhist ceremonies. They also developed links with the All Burma Monks Alliance and other activist Buddhist groups. \\\

“The decision to take to the streets, even at the risk of being shot, was timed to the completion of guidelines for a new constitution that pro-democracy leaders say would institutionalize military control under the guise of democracy. The guidelines were finalized September 3.David Steinberg, a Georgetown University professor, agrees the impetus for the uprising came from the pending constitution, which gives "the military effective power, with basic control over the executive and legislative process." \\\

“The 88 Generation activists had held small protests before the government doubled fuel oil prices Aug. 15. The increases ratcheted up the hardships— and anger—of the public in impoverished Myanmar. Then, on Sept. 5, soldiers beat and insulted several Buddhist monks who were protesting in the northern town of Pakkoku. In a society where monks are highly revered, this set off widespread demonstrations—monks and their supporters poured into the streets across the country. U Kovida, a 24-year-old monk who hid for three weeks before reaching Thailand, said leadership fell to the monks because the 1988 crackdown decimated the ranks of democracy activists and monks were exempt from restrictions such as a ban on gatherings of more than five people. \\\

“The monks also had an economic motive. The downward poverty spiral affected their livelihoods, as they depend on daily offerings of the faithful for food and other necessities, he said. "Buddhism could not prosper and grow in Myanmar under the military, so the monks decided that this time we had to shoulder the burden of protecting our religion," said U Kovida, whom the government accuses of hiding explosives in a monastery. He says that is a lie intended to discredit monks. \\\

“By striking back at the monks—monasteries were raided and some monks were killed—the military may have precipitated its eventual fall, said Min Maw Thein, who worked for the government as a teacher but secretly supported the democracy movement. "The military attacked the Triple Gems that the Myanmar people place above their heads," he said, referring to the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood. "How the people suffer from this won't disappear. What they see ahead of them is the fall of the military regime." \\\

“A Yangon businessman who joined the protests said some soldiers opposed the attacks on monks, which could lead to a split in the ruling military council followed by a change of regime —a view shared by some experts. Kar Kar Pancha, who said he once did business with junta leaders, said friends in the military told him of soldiers dropping their guns to worship protesting monks in Mandalay and of an army commander in Yangon who refused to shoot at demonstrators Sept. 19 unless they turned violent. \\\

“"There are the seeds of something different," Steinberg said. "Recent events have created great enmity. For the first time I heard the words, "We hate the military." This is a watershed, and things will have to change. How soon is the question and then in what form." Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at Australian National University, said there is "an enduring linkage among anti-government groups" that holds the promise of future action. These include monks, the 88 Generation, student activists, labor leaders and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. "I had times of depression, thinking that the military were the winners, that they controlled the country, that the memories of 1988 were growing dim," said Hlaing Moe Than. "But the recent demonstrations linked the two generations and now it won't take 20 years to prepare for another struggle." \\\

How the Monk Protests Evolved in Yangon

Jill Drew wrote in the Washington Post, “The monks had planned for the demonstrations to last nine days, from Sept. 18 -- nine being a special number in Buddhist tradition. And they had planned for their protests to be peaceful, according to 24-year-old Ashin Kovida, a monk, and U Pan Cha, a businessman who managed security for the Rangoon demonstrations. Pan Cha, who was seasoned in protest during Burma's student uprising in 1988, said in an interview here that when last month's protests began, he held a regular nightly meeting with a Rangoon government official to outline the next day's plans and guarantee security. Pan Cha said the official did not try to stop the demonstrations but told him only that the marches must remain peaceful. [Source: Jill Drew, Washington Post, October 26, 2007 <>]

“The Rangoon demonstrations were sparked by the government's violent reaction to a peaceful protest by monks in the central city of Pakokku. They were opposing a government-mandated fuel price increase in August that would be crippling to the poor. But when they began protesting in solidarity with the people, they were beaten by local officials; video of the beatings quickly appeared on the Internet. The monks and many laypeople were shocked by the government's actions. <>

“Pan Cha said he was asked by a monk friend to help with security for planned protests. He met the monks Sept. 17, the day before their first protest, and planned strategy. The monks insisted there be no violence, and Pan Cha agreed. On Sept. 18, the marches began. Thousands of monks emerged from Shwedagon Pagoda about 1 p.m., chanting a Buddhist mantra for peace and loving kindness. It was raining. Passersby stopped and prayed with the monks. Soon, many joined the march. Pan Cha asked them to join hands and walk outside the monks, forming a kind of protective chain. Ashin Kovida was one of the march organizers. He said he knew the people would join the monks, so he routed the marches from Shwedagon Pagoda to Sule Pagoda -- the two most prominent temples in Rangoon -- because their busy streets meant that many people would see what was happening.” <>

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “Ashin Kovida said he had been elected the leader of a group of 15 of his fellows and led daily protests in Yangon from Sept. 18 through Sept. 27, the day after the authorities began raiding monasteries. He said he was inspired by the popular uprisings in Yugoslavia against the government of Slobodan Milosevic, videos of which were circulated by dissident groups in Myanmar. Hlaing Moe Than, 37, a leading organizer of students in the September demonstrations who also fled to Thailand, confirmed his identity and said, ”He is one of the famous leaders among the Buddhist monks during the protests.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, October 26 2007 ><]

“Mr. Kovida’s group received financial help from three well-known Burmese dissidents — an actor, a comedian and a poet — but it did not receive foreign aid during the protests, he said. One of his main preoccupations, he said, was providing food for the thousands of monks who came to Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, to join the protests. He said he also worried about what he called ”fake monks,” whom he suspected the military government had planted. ><

“The spark for the demonstrations came on Sept. 5, when the police fired warning shots at protesting monks in Pakokku, in central Myanmar, Mr. Kovida said. ”The first time I heard the information, I was speechless,” he said. ”It was an unbelievable thing.” Older monks and abbots urged the monks to protest in the monasteries, but the younger monks thought protesting in their cloistered world would do no good, he said. He reached out to students he had met during alms collections and began to plan marches in Yangon. ”We realized that there was no leadership — a train must have a locomotive,” he said. He said he helped supervise the printing of hundreds of pamphlets, titled, ”The Monks Will Come Out Onto the Streets.” ”We delivered to all the monasteries.” in Yangon, he said. ”We tried to distribute to other regions as much as possible.” ><

“On Sept. 18, he led the first column of monks through the streets in Yangon, he said. On Sept. 19, about 2,000 protesters, including 500 monks, sat on the tiled floor in Sule Pagoda, a focal point of the protests. ”To continue demonstrations in a peaceful way we must have leadership,” Mr. Kovida said he told them. ”I call on 10 monks to come join me in the front.” Fifteen monks came forward, he said, to form what they called the Sangga Kosahlal Apahwe, the Monks Representative Group. ”In this country at present we are facing hardships,” he said he told the crowd, after he was elected chairman of the group. ”People are starving; prices are rising. Under this military government there are so many human rights abuses. I call on people to come to join together with us. We will continue these protests peacefully every day until we win. If there are no human rights, there is no value of a human.” He said that, for a week, he met with his group of organizers in the morning and led marches at noon. He said he heard reports on the Burmese-language service of the BBC about other monks who had organized themselves but he had never met them. ><

Myanmar Monks March past Suu Kyi's Home on September 22

Describing the beginning of the protest on September 22, Andrew Marshall wrote in Time, “They pour out of the Shwedagon, an immense golden pagoda that is Burma's most revered Buddhist monument, two miles north of downtown Rangoon. The monks form an unbroken, mile-long column--barefoot, chanting their haunting mantras, clutching pictures of the Buddha, their robes drenched with the late-monsoon rains. They walk briskly, stopping briefly to pray when they reach Sule Pagoda. Then they're off again, coursing through the city streets in a solid stream of red and orange, like blood vessels giving life to an oxygen-starved body. Their effect on Rangoon's residents is electrifying. At first, only a few brave onlookers applaud. Others clasp their hands together in respectful prayer or quietly weep. Then, as people grow bolder, the monks are joined by tens of thousands of Burmese, some chanting their own mantra, in English: "Democracy! Democracy!" ... A group of protesters walked past the crumbling lakeside home of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Standing behind barricades manned by riot police, Suu Kyi prayed with the crowd for 15 minutes before tearfully urging them to march on. [Source: Andrew Marshall, Time, October 11, 2007]

Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “Buddhist monks were allowed to march past police barricades to the home of detained Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Saturday as street protests intensified against the ruling military junta. A witness said armed police stepped aside as the monks approached Yangon's leafy University Avenue which has been blocked off during the past five days of street protests. "The monks just walked past chanting holy scriptures peacefully. I saw Aunty Suu inside the compound," a young man who followed the monks told Reuters. A Burmese exile group said 2,000 monks gathered outside Suu Ky’s home. "She came out from the house and gave respect," the exile group said in an e-mailed statement. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, September 22, 2007 ++]

Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “It was the first time she had been seen in public since her latest detention began in May 2003 and for many onlookers, already stunned by police allowing marching monks through the barricades sealing off her street, overwhelming. "Some of us could not control our tears," one witness told Reuters after 1 000 monks held a 15-minute prayer vigil at the house to which Suu Kyi is confined with no telephone and needing official permission, granted rarely, to receive visitors. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, September 24, 2007 **]

“Wearing an orange blouse and a light-brown traditional wraparound skirt, she emerged from a small door in the iron gate to the house, her hands held palm to palm in a gesture of Buddhist supplication. Soldiers carrying metal riot shields stood between the Nobel Peace laureate and the prayer-chanting monks. "Aunty Suu also prayed for the well-being of all," the witness said. News of the incident spread rapidly on a day when the monks marched despite Yangon being lashed by 29,31 centimeters of rain, the highest recorded in 39 years. "I give credit to both sides for the peaceful outcome of this incident," a retired government official said. "The monks showed their courage, strong determination and discipline while the regime showed flexibility," he said. "I think this incident has shown us that we can sort out any problem among us amicably." **

In their biggest march since launching the street campaign five days ago, Reuters reported, at least 5,000 Buddhist monks marched through Myanmar's second largest city, Mandalay, witnesses said. Other observers put the marchers at nearly 10,000. "There were several thousand onlookers on both sides of their route, giving water to the monks," one witness said. ++

A group calling itself the All Burma Monks Alliance also, for the first time, urged ordinary people to join the monks "to struggle peacefully against the evil military dictatorship till its complete downfall". Until now the monks have discouraged others from joining the marches, the most sustained protests since 1988 pro-democracy rallies were crushed by the regime, for fear of reprisals against civilians and to ensure the demonstrations remain peaceful. "We pronounce the evil military despotism, which is impoverishing and pauperizing our people of all walks including the clergy, as the 'common enemy' of all our citizens," said the alliance in a statement published on the Myanmar-focused news Web site "Therefore, in order to banish the common enemy evil regime from Burmese soil forever, united masses of people need to join hands with the united clergy forces." ++

Tensions Over the Protests Heat After Monks Pass by Aung San Suu Kyi’s House

Jill Drew wrote in the Washington Post, “ For several days, the marches met no government resistance. They grew in numbers. On Sept. 22, the monks and their supporters won a key symbolic victory. They were allowed to march past the home of Aung San Suu Kyi. Pan Cha had outlined the plan to march past her house in his regular nightly meeting with the government official. When the marchers arrived at University Avenue, where the Nobel Peace laureate's house is located, an army captain let them pass after conferring on the phone and with other officers and police on the scene. "I was so happy I cried," Pan Cha said, his voice rising as he recalled the moment. "All the world leaders who want to meet with her and are not allowed, but we are allowed to meet. We could make the world know the Burmese people showed unity in support of Suu Kyi." [Source: Jill Drew, Washington Post, October 26, 2007 <>]

“At this point, the marches were becoming more political. On Sept. 23, Pan Cha discussed with the monks a request by the All-Burma Federation of Student Unions, a government-banned group that had been marching with the monks but not officially declaring its presence. Now the students wanted to hold their banner when they marched. The monks decided to allow the students to hold the sign starting on Sept. 24, and members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party were also allowed to hold signs. The decision caused a subtle shift in the character of the demonstrations, Pan Cha said. "The main protesting before was for the country and for respecting religion, not for politics," he said. The next two days of marches were peaceful, but when Pan Cha went to meet his contact the night of Sept. 25, the government official did not show up. Pan Cha, suspicious, called a meeting of the monks. "I told them we have to be cautious tomorrow," he said. <>

By linking their cause to Suu Kyi's pro-democracy struggle, which has seen her detained for about 12 of the last 18 years, the monks increased the pressure on the junta to decide whether to crack down or compromise with the demonstrators. "This was a very important gesture," said David Steinberg, a Myanmar expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "It's significant because the military allowed them to pass (Suu Kyi's house)," said Steinberg, who was monitoring events from Singapore. "That and other images indicate the military is not prepared, unless things get worse, to directly confront the monks in their uniforms." [Source: AP, September 23, 2007 >>]

Steinberg said this was in contrast to 1990, when the military crushed a protest by hundreds of monks in Mandalay, arresting and defrocking some and closing monasteries linked with the demonstration. So far, the government has been handling the monks' disciplined but defiant protests gingerly, aware that forcibly breaking them up in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar would likely cause public outrage. But Steinberg said the military's lack of force should not be seen as a sign of weakness, given that it remains the country's largest and most powerful institution. "Any change (in the government) will have to be approved by elements of the military if there is to be change," he said. "They are far too powerful to be resisted if the military acts in unison." >>

Nuns Join Myanmar Protests as 20,000 Protesters Fill the Streets of Yangon on September 23

Demonstrations led by Buddhist monks against the military junta brought 20,000 people into the streets of Yangon on September 23 calling for national reconciliation and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Associated Press reported: “ About 20,000 people led by Buddhist monks demonstrated against Myanmar's military junta, in what has quickly become the country's largest anti-government demonstrations since the failed democratic uprising in 1988. Some 10,000 monks marched from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, to the nearby Sule Pagoda before passing the U.S. Embassy, witnesses said. The monks shouted support for detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while a crowd of about 10,000 people protected them by forming a human chain along the route. It was the sixth straight day monks have marched in Yangon, and came a day after they were allowed to walk past Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi's compound in a symbolic gesture of support. [Source: AP, September 23, 2007 >>]

Their defiant activities have given new life to a protest movement that began a month ago after the government raised fuel prices. A monk gave a speech Sunday calling for Suu Kyi's release and national reconciliation before the monks set off from the Shwedagon Pagoda, the witness said. Earlier, the government had deployed about 20 pro-junta thugs and 20 riot police on the road leading to Suu Kyi's compound, witnesses said. A fire truck was parked nearby. While authorities had not intervened in the march, plainclothes police trailed behind the marchers. Some, armed with shotguns, were posted at street corners along the route. >>

Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “Buddhist nuns joined the growing protests against Myanmar's ruling generals, a day after a dramatic appearance by detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to pray with monks now leading the marches. About 100 nuns joined more than 2 000 monks to pray at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, devoutly Buddhist Myanmar's holiest shrine, before marching to the center of the former capital. It was one of three protest marches by monks in the city and there were at least two in Mandalay, a major center of the monkhood, but there were no signs of trouble. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, September 24, 2007 <<]

“Plainclothed police kept watch, but there were no uniformed officers or soldiers in sight and people on the streets applauded as the marchers passed. The mood was cheerful, with many people in Yangon seeing the emergence of Suu Kyi from her lakeside villa as a sign the military, which has ruled the former Burma for 45 years and ruthlessly put down a 1988 uprising, was being flexible. <<

Over 100,000 Protesters Flood Yangon Streets on September 24

On the events on September 24, AFP reported: “More than 100,000 people flooded the streets of Myanmar's biggest city, joining Buddhist monks in the strongest show of dissent against the ruling generals in nearly two decades. The enormous show of strength drew a swift threat from the military government to "take action" against the monks, even as world leaders urged the junta to show restraint in dealing with the protests. Two major marches snaked their way through the nation's commercial capital led by robed monks chanting prayers of peace and compassion, witnesses said. Some of the people marched through the rain under a banner reading: "This is a peaceful mass movement." Others had tears in their eyes. [Source: AFP, September 24, 2007]

The protests lasted nearly five hours, ending with prayers at pagodas before the crowds returned to their homes. Political dissidents based in Thailand said major protests also took place in Myanmar's second city of Mandalay, the western oil town of Sittwe, and the religious center of Pakokk. In the first official reaction to a week of escalating protests led by the monks, state media reported that the religion minister, Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung, had issued a warning to senior clergy. "If the monks go against the rules and regulations in the authority of the Buddhist teachings, we will take action under the existing law," state television quoted the minister as saying.

The monks and supporters set off from holy Shwedagon Pagoda and walked past the offices of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). NLD officials came out to join the marchers, many of whom fixed small strips of the colored cloth of the monks' robes onto their own shirts, in a procession that quickly swelled to more than 30,000 people. "We are marching for the people," one monk told the crowd.

A second march estimated at up to 100,000 people headed north of the city, drawing in ever more as it marched past the now-shuttered campus of a university that was the scene of the 1988 uprising. It appeared to stretch for as long as a kilometre (more than half a mile), blocking traffic on one of the city's major thoroughfares.

The British ambassador in Yangon, Mark Canning, said the country's leaders were now in uncharted territory and doubted that the protests would fizzle out. "You could see a sharp reaction from the government, which is more likely," he told AFP. Analysts believe the junta has thus far held back because any violence against the monks in this devoutly Buddhist nation would spark a huge outcry.

In a surprise move two days before, armed police allowed about 2,000 monks and civilians to pray outside the home of Aung San Suu Kyi but riot police blocked the road to her house the next day. Prominent democracy activists initially led the rallies but the generals arrested more than 200 people, according to human rights groups.

Andrew Marshall wrote in Time: “At a Pagoda in the Shwedagon's shadow, some of the monks chew betel nut, which makes their mouths froth alarmingly with bloodred saliva. The oldest monk, who is 49 and holds a Burmese translation of Francis Fukuyama's The Great Disruption, says the monks have three demands: "Release Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners; begin a process of national reconciliation; lower the prices of daily commodities." The junta's response comes in the evening, when Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung, Minister of Religious Affairs, is quoted on state television as promising action against the monks. Within hours, trucks with loudspeakers are cruising Rangoon's dimly lit streets, announcing a curfew and threatening to arrest anyone who marches with the monks. [Source: Andrew Marshall, Time, October 11, 2007]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

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