Myanmar monks defy military threats

Monks and sympathisers stage fresh protests defying government warnings.

myanmar monks
The monks' protests have been the biggest challenge to Myanmar's rulers in two decades [Reuters]

The order cited a legal clause which would allow the protests “to be dispersed by military force”.


On Tuesday witnesses said military trucks had been seen near the Shwedagon pagoda, the focus of recent marches by thousands of monks and the country’s most important religious shrine.


Demonstrators warned


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The moves come after Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung, Myanmar’s religious affairs minister, told Buddhist leaders that “action will be taken” to prevent further protests.


“We warn the monks and the people not to participate in protest marches.  We will take action under the existing law,” he was quoted as saying.


Human rights groups reported on Monday that government agents had been preparing to infiltrate the protests in order to spark trouble and justify a crackdown.


The London-based Burma Campaign UK said it had a received reports of soldiers ordered to shave their heads, apparently to pose as monks and infiltrate the protests.


‘Pretext for crackdown’


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Video: Life under military rule

“They would start rioting or attacking police, providing the regime with a pretext for a brutal crackdown on protestors,” the group said.


An estimated 50-100,000 protesters marched through the streets of Yangon on Monday in the biggest demonstration yet against the military government.


Further protests have been called on Tuesday in Yangon and across the country, despite the government’s warnings.


“The protest is not merely for the well-being of people but also for monks struggling for democracy and for people to have an opportunity to determine their own future,” one monk told The Associated Press.


Monks have been carrying upturned alms
bowls as a symbol of protest [Reuters]

“People do not tolerate the military government any longer.”


The protests were initially triggered by a massive hike in the price of fuel on August 19, but have developed into a more deeply-rooted outpouring of dissent led by groups of monks.


In the space of a month the protests have become the biggest challenge to Myanmar‘s military government in almost two decades.


Charles Petrie of the United Nations’ Development Programme in Myanmar told Al Jazeera the demonstrations were an expression of the frustrations felt by many in the country after years of poverty and hardship.


“The monks have brought out into the open the issues that are of real concern to a significant portion of the population,” he said.


“There is an underlying suffering that is now being expressed.”


‘Restraint’ call


Myanmar’s monks

About 90 per cent of Myanmar‘s population is Buddhist.

At some point in their lives, every Buddhist male is expected to join the monk hood or ‘Sangha’. 

Every village or neighbourhood has its own pagoda and monastery, which traditionally serves as the focus for community life and the main centre for education.

In recent years rising levels of poverty have raised demand for the free education provided by the monasteries.

The growing tensions in Myanmar have sparked international calls for the country’s ruling generals to exercise restraint in responding to the protests.


Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ibrahim Gambari, the UN’s special adviser on Myanmar, said the international community needs to agree on its approach before it acts.


“When the UN speaks with one voice, when the international community acts with consensus, then the possibility of making an impact on even a government such as in Myanmar are very real,” he said.


Gambari said the best way to bring about change in Myanmar was through a “comprehensive approach”, combining offers of help “while also nudging them to move in the area of restoration of full respect for human rights and a greater pace for democratisation”.


The US is expected to introduce new sanctions against Myanmar‘s military rulers on Tuesday, intended to further step up pressure for change.


President Bush is set announce the new measures during a speech to the UN General Assembly in New York. 

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies