Suddenly the media was reporting that thousands of protesters were marching in Rangoon, Burma (or Yangon, Myanmar, as it is officially called since the governing military junta renamed it in 1990). And the front ranks were led by Buddhist monks in brown robes holding banners that said, “Love and kindness must win over everything.” Nuns in their pink robes were also present in growing numbers.
The protests were sparked by a 500 percent price rise in fuel costs put in place on Aug. 19 (without announcement or explanation, not thought necessary by the dictatorial rulers). For a country mired in poverty and harsh repression, the resulting rise in prices of necessities caused mounting anger. Despite the fear of speaking out against the government, protests began to spread across the country. In the town of Bago, about 50 persons marched, though without signs or chants. They were arrested and jailed. As word spread, 2000 people turned out, linked arms around the jail, and refused to leave until the 50 persons were released. In another town, Cheuk, about 100 marched four abreast and keeping several meters apart (to circumvent the law of no gatherings of more than five). After a brutal Sept. 5 crackdown on monks demonstrating in central Burma, the armed forces refused to apologize as demanded by the monks.
Protests grew, and by the third week of September, thousands, then tens of thousands of monks marched, most dramatically in the two major cities of Yangon and Mandalay, with up to 100,000 monks and increasing numbers of civilians. The military even allowed hundreds of monks to march to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years. A revered leader in the tradition of Gandhian nonviolence, she has long called for a “revolution of the Spirit.” Her phone lines cut, her writings banned, photos and even the speaking of her name forbidden, she nonetheless has a mystical hold on the people. When she came out of her house, the monks chanted the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s words on loving kindness, and others called out, “be free very soon.”
To date, the government has responded with increasing brute force, even invading monasteries and dragging monks off to prison. Worldwide condemnation has come to the country except from its chief economic partners—mainly China, but also India and Russia.
I was in Yangon just before the largest marches began, having been invited there by Burmese activists to do a workshop on Gandhian nonviolence. We met in homes and out-of-the-way restaurants, hoping to be faithful to Suu Kyi’s admonition “to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.”
Richard Deats, is editor emeritus of Fellowship magazine, the International FOR governing committee, and author of Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Liberator. You can sign an emergency petition to China’s president Hu Jintao and the UN Security Council at Avaaz.org. Follow this story at Irrawaddy News, covering Burma and Southeast Asia.