Among the many inspiring photographs to come from Burma in this past week, perhaps one of the most compelling was not of rain-soaked monks wading through flooded Rangoon streets or teenagers and their grandmothers with hands locked together to form protective chains alongside them, but of a small assembly in the north of the country.
On Sept. 18, monks in Mogok, upper Burma, gathered together at the Aungchanthar Monastery to decide whether or not to overturn their alms bowls: to declare a formal boycott of the country’s military regime, together with the rest of the Buddhist order — the Sangha — in response to a brutal attack on a group of their peers early in the month.
The overturning of bowls is not done lightly. It is a last resort that must be carefully discussed and considered. There are only eight prescribed circumstances under which it may be invoked: one being that the offending party has put the lives of monks at risk. It also must be declared through a formal procedure.
The last time that the Sangha in Burma declared a boycott against the regime in response to a similar incident in 1990, it was violently suppressed. Thousands of monks were arrested and hundreds disrobed and detained. Monasteries were occupied; some were seized. New orders prohibited unofficial religious groupings, and disciplinary committees were later established to oversee behavior.
So the significance of declaring a boycott was not lost on the community in Mogok.
In the photo, they sit together in the manner of their predecessors over two-and-a-half millennia: a line of senior monks faced by a semicircle of pupils. Their faces are stern. One superior clutches a piece of paper: perhaps the formal pronouncement of the ban.
During the following days, in Mogok as throughout the country, the Sangha took to the streets, barefoot and formally garbed, to indicate publicly that the bowls were turned. The marches took hold quickly, in big towns and small, in the upper and lower regions. In Rangoon it rained heavily, but although umbrellas are prohibited under the boycott rules, the monks walked anyway. In Sittwe, on the western seaboard, a monk was assaulted and others harassed by government thugs, but they too kept at it.
Initially the monks discouraged ordinary citizens from joining them, in part to demonstrate that they alone had taken the drastic step, and in part out of fear for the security of the general public. Some were hostile to photographers, fearing that they might be government officials. A blogger posting pictures on his page wrote that not only did he have to contend with informers and spies but also with the monks themselves.
However, after a few days, it was impossible to keep the crowds away. And once they were out, they swelled with tremendous speed, from a few hundred, to a few thousand, to tens of thousands.
Their message also swelled, from the first silent walks of the monks, to their chanting of verses for loving kindness and protection, and then to the increasingly vocal and political demands to lower commodity prices, free political prisoners and open genuine dialogue for national reconciliation: the last co-opting a government propaganda slogan.
It all became a bit much for the junta, which appears to have been caught off-guard by the scale and spread of the rallies, and also perhaps by the intense interest that they have attracted abroad. On the night of Sept. 24 it warned that further protests would not be tolerated, and iterated the contents of the 1990 directives, that monks “stay away from forming, joining or supporting any illegal Sangha organization”; that is, any not under direct government control.
The threats had the opposite effect of what was intended: larger rallies followed, and monks and ordinary citizens alike said that they were determined to continue. A group of prominent actors and artists came to give alms to protesting monks at the Shwedagon Pagoda in the former capital. Lawyers set up a new union to support calls for political change.
As people were settling down to sleep on Sept. 25, a 60-day nighttime curfew was announced and further threats issued against continued dissent. This time they were backed with force. Marchers approaching Shwedagon Pagoda on Wednesday morning found it locked and surrounded by riot police, soldiers and assorted heavies. When some refused to back down, bullets and teargas were fired. Then the police moved in and began assaulting and shouting obscenities at everyone in range. Hundreds were taken away in trucks. Unknown numbers were injured, some seriously. At least one monk may have died.
But it will take much more than that to quell these protests. Even as the demonstrators in Rangoon were being beaten, thousands more were walking past army barricades on the streets of Mandalay. And back in the old capital, others met up at Sule Pagoda in the afternoon and exhorted non-violence, until they were beaten back.
While the failure of the military to deal with the protestors sooner remains the subject of conjecture — which abounds in talk about Burma — the cause of the rallies themselves are obvious. People have had enough. As an elderly woman told a group of monks in the ancient city of Amarapura, “We are sick and tired of being in the hands of these kings, these bad kings. We are destitute. We are miserable. We are depending upon you.”
The reference to kings in a country that lost its monarchy in 1885 is not accidental or archaic. It alludes to the preliminary verses that precede the chanting of certain Buddhist discourses in Burma, including those for loving kindness and safekeeping, mentioned above. These call for safekeeping from iniquitous kings, which are counted together with fire, flood, thieves and ungrateful heirs as one of the five traditional enemies.
In a sermon, the late renowned Mingun abbot explained that, “When the ruler regards the citizens as a child of his breast and reigns in accordance with the code of conduct of a ruler, then he is a parent of the people. But when he derives various schemes that are ill and persecutes the people, he belongs to the list of enemies.”
The Saffron Revolution, as it has become known, is the expression of decades upon decades of pent-up frustration at the ineptitude, inequity and indecency of a national leadership that is an archetypal enemy. Whatever else happens, it has brought the facade of national unity, peace and development that the army has worked for almost 20 years to build — and which its supporters and apologists have tried to sell — crashing down. There is only one national unity in Burma: that is, the unity of its people against its government. There is only one possibility for peace and development: that the regime ends, one way or the other.