The reports of car crashes, court cases and actresses’ haircuts that normally comprise the television broadcasts on Hong Kong’s aboveground trains last week gave way to the images seen all over the world of monks leading their people in prayer and protest at Burma’s military rulers.
In this city known for large and orderly public marches, people watched the inevitable bloodshed on Rangoon’s streets with both bewilderment and horror. A senior Buddhist leader, not known for his outspokenness, was moved to say that those responsible would surely go to hell — the killing of a monk being one of five sins from which there is no immediate redemption.
The facade of twinkling pagodas and tenacious development that the junta has tried to construct over the last two decades has come crashing down. No one inside the country, and no informed person outside, was fooled by that exterior; however, it had allowed the ruling council to go about its personal business with relatively little unwanted attention. No more.
To understand how and why things happened as they did, and why the monks have posed such a formidable challenge to the generals, it is necessary to go back at least as far as the last mass uprising of 1988, when the socialist state — which had been built to conceal the army’s presence in all areas of life — collapsed under the weight of protest.
Initially, the military council that took its place clung to its eponymous law and order mandate — although in Burmese its title suggested a state like an oversized paperweight, with everyone else pressed underneath. But after ignoring the results of the 1990 polls, which revealed to the council that it was almost universally disliked, it needed something more to stand upon.
Lacking the aptitude or taste for anything original, the generals took to imitating the ancient monarchs whose gaudy oversized statues now peer down on the parade ground at the new capital. Builders of towns and bridges, patrons of religion: the larger-than-life men in whose likenesses the army officers sought to mould themselves.
And like the kings of old, in exchange for their guidance they demanded obedience. “I gathered in the people and reorganized them,” the last dynasty builder, Alaungphaya, wrote over two centuries before. “Now let them fulfill their traditional obligations.” Upon such notions too a modern, developed state was supposedly going to be built.
So when monks began protesting against steep price rises this August, they kicked both legs straight out from underneath the regime. With the quiet turning of alms bowls in September they also upturned the twin frauds of religious merit and economic progress upon which it had made its grandiose claims.
The army’s bloody response, captured on film and replayed via Internet and satellite, will remain another permanent blot on its long record of uncompromising brutality.
The reports of arrests and killings of monks and invading of monasteries, photos of the country’s most significant religious sites looking like military encampments, and stories of soldiers trampling on Buddhist flags and smashing icons to remove gemstones — ironically, the sort of behavior that led monks into protest against the British colonial rulers, for which they are celebrated in schoolbooks and poems today — have spread throughout Burma and the world.
These accounts will only further harden people in Burma against their self-appointed rulers, making more conflict of one sort or another a certainty; the nightly ritual performances of generals prostrate before monks on state-run television constant reminders not of largesse and piety but of gross wrongdoing and moral bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, the poverty and inequity that caused the outpouring of discontent is worsening. The August price rises have not been reversed. Curfews and transport restrictions have caused extra hardship. Shopkeepers have kept their doors closed for fear of being raided by marauding troops and government thugs. The World Food Programme has complained that it has been blocked from moving desperately-needed supplies to hundreds of thousands of people in large parts of the country [see update].
The regime’s neighbors are also exhibiting growing intolerance. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which prides itself on non-interference in the internal affairs of members, expressed “revulsion” at the turn of events in Rangoon, cognizant perhaps that its decade of efforts to redeem the junta through a vaguely-defined policy of constructive engagement has quickly been reduced to naught. Even the government of China has made sounds indicating that it would have preferred for things to have been handled differently.
Citizens of many Asian countries have responded with shared outrage. From Colombo to Manila constant protests have during this week brought together monks and priests, parliamentarians and migrant workers, one person and the next, all sharing the sentiment that enough is enough.
Writing in 2004, Burma scholar David Steinberg remarked that the organized lethal assault on a convoy of democracy proponents — including Nobel Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi — the year before had “hurt what modest credibility the military regime could still claim” and had been unnecessarily inimical to its own interests.
That incident, isolated, at night, unrecorded, was nothing by comparison to what happened last week. By frontally attacking the monkhood while the world looked on, the regime has not just hurt its modest credibility: it has killed it off completely. It has lost the few shreds of legitimacy that it spent the last 20 years stitching together. It has lost all hope of reconciling itself to its society. And it has lost its religion.
Burma’s government is today more than ever at war on all fronts. But it is a war that it cannot win, because it is a war that it cannot end. Its survival depends upon forever treating its own people as its enemies. Their survival depends upon the opposite. The question remains, how much longer will they be forced to defend themselves?