Although sweeping arrests and the attacks by USDA and Swan Arr Shin thugs had effectively contained protests in Rangoon by early September, the movement gained momentum in other parts of Burma, seemingly taking the government by surprise. On September 4, a group of 15 NLD members marched in Taunggok to demand the release of Se Thu and Than Lwin, two NLD members detained at a two-person protest on August 31, and were soon joined by a crowd of up to a thousand local residents.38 The same day, the Burmese authorities arrested Mya Mya San, an NLD member who had led a regular prayer vigil for the release of detained NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi at Rangoons Shwedagon Pagoda, dispersing the 15 NLD activists who had joined the prayer vigil.39
On September 5, NLD officials organized a protest rally in the Irrawaddy Delta town of Bogale, giving speeches to a crowd reportedly numbering in the hundreds for several hours before the authorities broke up the crowd and arrested Aung Khin Bo, the NLDs township chairman, who had organized the rally.40
Although the protests prior to September 5 were a significant event in Burmas historythey were the first sustained protests against military rule since the bloody crackdown on the August 1988 protests that left more than 3,000 people deada turning point occurred on September 5, when several hundred Buddhist monks marched down the streets of Pakokku, a religious center located close to the city of Mandalay.41 The monks reportedly held placards denouncing the price hikes, and were cheered on by thousands of residents lining the streets.42 The decision of the monks to join the protests was of deep significance, as monks have a unique moral standing in Burma and have since colonial times been at the core of political uprisings.43
The army intervened in the protests for the first time. After firing at least a dozen warning shots over the heads of the marching monks, the army reacted brutally, beating the monks and the bystanders with bamboo sticks.44 USDA and Swan Arr Shin militias joined in the crackdown, beating and apprehending monks and civilians. Rumors circulated, still unconfirmed, that one monk died from a beating received at the protest, and that several monks had been tied to a lamp post and publicly beaten.45 The armys abuse of revered monks in their initial appearance at protests caused revulsion and anger throughout the country.
The following day, September 6, a government delegation including the chairman of the Pakokku Peace and Development Council and a representative of Magwes religious affairs division visited the main Maha Visutarama Monastery, reportedly to apologize to the abbot for the violence of the previous day and to request that he order his monks to stop taking part in protests.46 The monastery was quickly surrounded by a crowd of angry monks and civilians numbering around a thousand, who proceeded to burn four cars of the government delegation, prevented the officials inside the monastery from leaving, and demanded the release of detained monks.47 After a tense six-hour standoff, the officials managed to leave the monastery through a backdoor exit.48
The monk protests in Pakokku were denounced on state-controlled television. Monks were blamed for inciting violence as state television said that attempts to incite violence would not be tolerated and that the people of Burma would not resort to violent means and will never accept attempts to incite unrest like the 88 uprising.49
In response to the violence against monks in Pakokku, a new organization calling itself the All Burma Monks Alliance50 issued a statement on September 9, 2007, giving the SPDC until September 17 to comply with four demands or face a religious boycott: 1) an apology by the SPDC to the monks for the Pakokku violence; 2) an immediate reduction in commodity prices including fuel, rice, and cooking oil prices; 3) the release of all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi and those detained during the current protests; and 4) an immediate dialogue with the democratic forces in order to resolve the crises and difficulties facing and suffering by the people.51 The deadline of September 17 was symbolic, as September 18 is the anniversary of the date the 1988 pro-democracy movement was decisively crushed and current military rule was established under the State Law and Order Restoration Committee, SLORC (later renamed SPDC).
The SPDC did not meet the demands of the monks. Instead, it tried to buy the loyalty of individual monasteries with financial gifts that the monks largely refused.52 The SPDC continued with its crackdown on the protests and vilification of the opposition. On September 9, the state New Light of Myanmar newspaper charged that internal and external pessimists and opposition groups are striving to create riots and internal disturbances with the aim to gain power by a short cut, and accused the protest organizers of planning terrorist attacks and undergoing training, sponsored by an unnamed US organization, in bomb-making.53 The SPDC also deactivated the landlines and mobile phone service of key activists, journalists, and at the NLD headquarters.54
On September 10, a military tribunal at Insein prison sentenced six labor activists to sentences of 20 to 28 years in prison for attempting to attend a May Day talk on labor rights at the American Center in Rangoon.55 In an apparent attempt to counteract the protest movement, the SPDC began organizing nationwide mass rallies to welcome the completion of the National Convention, with mandatory attendance required from the local population.
After the SPDC refused to meet the four demands of the All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA), the ABMA released a second statement on September 14 announcing that all monks would refuse to accept alms from SPDC officials and their supporters through a religious excommunication known as Patta Nikkujjana Kamma,56 or the overturning of the alms bowls. The statement claimed that senior abbots supported the ABMAs boycott, and called for the resumption of peaceful protests by the monks on September 18.57
The decision to formally invoke a Patta Nikkujjana Kamma religious boycott against the SPDC and its supporters and family members was a powerful gesture against the predominantly Buddhist SPDC leadership. In Buddhism, the giving and receiving of alms is a fundamental expression of religious piety, and considered among the most meritorious of acts. Buddhist religious life in Burma centers around gaining merit through ones actions, so the boycott effectively denied the SPDC and its supporters the ability to gain merit from the elements of the Buddhist community that supported the boycott (although the SPDC leadership could continue to count on the support of government-allied Buddhist abbots and their monasteries).
The boycott also affected the political legitimacy claimed by the SPDC and its supporters as devout Buddhists, a blow to the leadership. Since coming to power, the SPDC generals had sought to cultivate an image of themselves as protectors of the Sangha, conducting frequent public merit-making ceremonies at which they handed over gifts to monasteries, launching well-publicized pagoda restoration projects (including the Shwedagon in 1999), touring the country with a Buddha tooth relic borrowed from China, and holding a World Buddhist Congress in Burma.58 The ABMAs boycott call was a blatant challenge to the SPDCs carefully cultivated image as protectors of the Sangha and their right to rule a Buddhist nation, an open act of defiance rarely seen in Burma.
A September 21 statement by the ABMA went even further, denouncing the evil military dictatorship as the common enemy of all our citizens and vowing to banish the common enemy evil regime from Burmese soil forever.59
The monks knew the risks involved in boycotting the SPDC through Patta Nikkujjana Kamma. In 1990, the Sangha in Mandalay similarly decided to boycott the ruling SLORC under Senior General Saw Maung, refusing to accept alms from the government or attend state functions. The SLORC responded by issuing two orders on October 20, 1990: the first (Order 6/90) dissolved illegal monk organizations and unions, while the second (Order 7/90) declared that any monk who took part in non-religious activities would be expelled from the Sangha and prosecuted. The following day, the security forces raided at least 130 monasteries in Mandalay alone, and hundreds of monks were de-robed and arrested. Senior monks were sentenced to long prison terms for their actions, including Thu Mingala, one of Burmas greatest authorities on Buddhist literature, who was sentenced to eight years in prison. In the aftermath of the 1990 crackdown, the SLORC tried to reorganize the Sangha community into a pro-SLORC organization, with limited success.60
The Monks March in Rangoon
On September 14, the ABMA announced that the SPDC leaders failed to reply to their demands and said they would go ahead with their threatened action to excommunicate the SPDC leaders and refuse alms from them beginning on September 17. Monks and novices throughout Burma responded in large numbers to the ABMAs call to relaunch the protests.
Monasteries throughout Burma responded to the call by the ABMA to restart the protests on the expiry of the September 17 ultimatum issued to the SPDC. On September 17, a group of several hundred monks demonstrated peacefully in Chauk township, Magwe division, for about two hours, reciting traditional paritta sutta prayers for protection against evil. Similarly, in Kyaukpandaung, Mandalay division, several hundred monks recited metta sutta (loving kindness) prayers while walking in procession. The government apparently allowed both protests to occur without direct interference.61
At about 1 p.m., a group of 300 monks gathered at the southern stairway of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. The entrance of the pagoda was blocked by a cordon of men in civilian clothes who refused to let the monks enter, thus preventing them from carrying out religious ceremonies inside the pagoda.
According to an eyewitness account provided to Human Rights Watch, the monks then walked down to Sule Pagoda. At this stage, security forces did not intervene with the protesters, and traffic police even stopped traffic as they crossed the main roads. Hundreds of civilians followed the monk parade along the sidewalks. After reaching Sule pagoda, the monks continued to Bohtataung Pagoda, where they sat down in front of the pagoda and prayed for 10 minutes. The monks then stood and applauded, and the estimated thousand onlookers who had gathered applauded back. The monks then walked away from the pagoda and dispersed at about 2:30 p.m., going back to their respective monasteries in buses. No uniformed security forces attempted to interfere with the march, although plainclothes militia members and military intelligence officials openly photographed and videotaped the protest.62
According to several sources, the excommunicative boycott decree, presumably composed by the ABMA, was recited at a number of monasteries and religious sites on September 18, bringing the religious decree into effect. A translation of the excommunication decree states:
According to press reports, about a thousand monks also held a peaceful march in the city of Pegu, located 80 kilometers north of Rangoon.65
In the coastal city of Sittwe, about 400 monks protested with signs asking for the prices of commodities to be reduced and wishing for loving kindness (a traditional Buddhist prayer). The monks were allowed to march freely throughout Sittwe and were followed and greeted by lay people who applauded and paid respect to the monks. The district PDC chairman asked the monk who heads the township Sangha Nayaka to warn the protesting monks not to use violence and to protest peacefully. By evening, the number of the monks had increased and over 10,000 people had gathered to join the protests. When the monks reached the area where the Rakhine State General Administration Office, City Hall, and USDA offices are located, they demanded that the authorities release the two men who had been arrested on August 28. Some within the crowd threw stones at the police. Although the monks and police urged the lay people to go home peacefully, police shot tear gas canisters into the crowd. Clashes ensued and protesters and government officials were injured, including two officials from the Rakhine State Peace and Development Council, who were hospitalized. Several monks were detained.66 One of the detained monks, U Warathami, later told the Democratic Voice of Burma that was army troops kicked him with their boots at the protest, that police then took him to the Sittwe police station where he was beaten unconscious, and that, long after the protest had ended, he was dropped off at his Dhammathukha Monastery.67
Amid heavy monsoon rains, about 150 monks gathered again at Shwedagon Pagoda, and were again prevented from entering the pagoda by a cordon of plainclothes men. The monks first walked through Tamwe Township, and then turned towards the Sule Pagoda at about 2:30 p.m., by which time they had grown in strength to about 250 monks and a growing number of civilians walking closely alongside them, unlike the previous day when most civilians had kept their distance by staying on the sidewalk. Maung Maung Htun, a 43-year-old shopkeeper who walked with the monks that day, recalled his decision to join the monks on their march:
Uniformed security forces were absent from the area, but plainclothes officers videotaped the march, as on the previous day.69 According to press accounts, the monks briefly moved aside the security gates at the Sule Pagoda, and entered the pagoda to pray inside, before peacefully dispersing around 4 p.m.70 Separate smaller protests also happened in Ahlone, a western suburb of Rangoon, where about 100 monks marched, and South Okkalapa, a northern suburb of Rangoon, where a similar march occurred, both without reported violence.71
More than a thousand monks staged a peaceful protest in the religious center of Mandalay, again without incident. In Prome, some five hundred monks reportedly held a peaceful march.72 In Sittwe, the site of violent clashes the previous day, thousands of monks marched again, and again demanded the release of the two men arrested on August 28. Government officials promised to release the two detainees from Thandwe prison and return them to Sittwe within three days.73
Unlike the previous two days, when monks gathered at Shwedagon Pagoda at about 1 p.m. on September 20, no one prevented them from entering the pagoda, so the monks began their daily march by entering and praying there. The group of monks, now grown to about 400 to 500, then marched again to Sule Pagoda, where they were joined by a similar number of civilians who marched alongside them and joined hands to form a cordon around the marching monks. Others lined the streets and clapped in support of the marching monks. Uniformed traffic police facilitated the march by stopping traffic at major crossings, and plainclothes intelligence officers again videotaped the march, but did not interfere.74
It remains unclear why the authorities allowed the monk protests to proceed virtually without interference for the first few days following the announcement of the religious boycott of the SPDC. It is possible that the SPDC was taken by surprise, and was reluctant to use violence against Burmas revered monks, following the massive reaction to the earlier use of violence against monks in Pakokku on September 5 (see above). Perhaps the SPDC wanted to see if the monk protests would naturally disappear after a few days, although the opposite happened: as ordinary people saw the monks march in the streets without interference, they soon joined them in massive numbers.
At Sule Pagoda, the monks marching from Shwedagon Pagoda were met by a separate group of marching monks and civilian supporters, bringing the total number of monks marching in Rangoon that day to an estimated 1,300, supported by a larger number of civilians. A monk walking at the head of the protesters held up an overturned alms bowl, signaling the announced religious boycott of the SPDC.75 A neighborhood official confirmed to an international journalist that instructions had been issued by the authorities not to interfere with the protesting monks, saying We have been instructed to be patient and to even protect the monks.76
According to opposition news reports, hundreds of monks also staged a march in Monywa, Sagaing Division (north of Mandalay), and in Pakokku without interference from the authorities.77
As on previous days, some 800 monks gathered at about noon at Shwedagon Pagoda and marched a different route through Rangoon, ending up again at Sule Pagoda at around 3 p.m. They were joined by hundreds of civilian supporters, despite torrential rains that caused substantial flooding in Rangoon that day. There was no interference by the authorities with the march.78 U Theika, a monk who participated, told Human Rights Watch of the determination of the monks to continue despite the bad weather:
September 22 saw one of the most important and decisive events of the protests. A group of 500 monks marching down the streets of Rangoon was allowed to pass through the barriers around the house where NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest for 12 of the last 17 years. As the monks approached the house, Suu Kyi was allowed to open the steel gate of her courtyard, and greet the monks from behind a cordon of police guards with riot shields. The monks shouted Buddhist prayers for Suu Kyi, who was in tears, according to eyewitnesses. The picture of Suu Kyi was beamed around the world.
The sight of Suu Kyi invigorated the protesters: this was the first time in four years that she had been seen in public, and suddenly a stronger political dimension had been added to the protests. Some thought that change was finally within the realm of the possible.81U Pauk, a 30-year-old monk who was present at the meeting described to Human Rights Watch what happened that day, and the significance of the meeting:
The next day, September 23, the protests in Rangoon swelled to an estimated 20,000 protesters, including at least 3,000 monks, the largest anti-government demonstration seen in Burma since the bloody crackdown of 1988.83 The protesters included many ordinary citizens, such as mothers with their children, with monks in the center surrounded by a cordon of civilian supporters. The monks and their supporters walked from Shwedagon Pagoda to Sule Pagoda, and then passed the old US embassy in downtown Rangoon. The protests took on an even more political tone, with monks and their civilian supporters shouting slogans calling for the release of Suu Kyi, in addition to their previous excommunication of the SPDC and their demands that the SPDC relinquish power.84 Security forces armed with shotguns appeared along the route of the protest for the first time since the monks started marching. Together with militia forces, they prevented the monks and protesters from returning to Suu Kyis home.85
By September 24, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 monks joined by an equal number of civilians marched in Rangoon, cheered on by large crowds clapping and shouting encouragement from the sidewalks.86 The protesters walked almost the entire day, gaining supporters as the day went on. By 4 p.m., the procession, moving at a brisk pace, took some thirty minutes to pass. Members of banned political groups now marched on their own in the protests. A group of about 150 NLD members walked between two groups of monks holding NLD flags. One group of monks walked under the banner of the All Burma Buddhist Monks Union, an organization banned after the 1990 crackdown on the monks. Another group walked under the Elected Parliamentarians Group banner, representing the NLD members of parliament elected in the annulled 1990 elections. Large groups of Buddhist nuns also joined the protests for the first time.87 The civilian protesters again shouted openly political slogans such as Free Aung San Suu Kyi! and Free all political prisoners! That morning, before the monks set out on their protests from Shwedagon Pagoda, well-known public figures including the comedian Zagarna and the movie star Kyaw Thu publicly offered alms to the monks in open support for the protests.88 Similar large-scale protests reportedly took place in at least 25 cities and towns across Burma on September 24, with particularly large protests in Mandalay and Sittwe.89
38 Myanmar Protest March Attracts 1,000 People, Reuters, September 4, 2007.
39 Defiant Protesters Stage New Rally in Myanmar, Agence France Presse, September 5, 2007.
40 Defiant Protesters Stage New Rally in Myanmar, Agence France Presse, September 5, 2007; NLD leader arrested after Bogolay Protest, Democratic Voice of Burma, September 5, 2007.
41 About 200 monks also held a protest in Sittwe on August 28, 2007.
42 Myanmar Troops Fire Warning Shots at Monk Protest, Reuters, September 5, 2007.
43 See generally, Donald E. Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965).
44 Myanmar Troops Fire Warning Shots at Monk Protest, Reuters, September 5, 2007.
45 Monks Take Officials Hostage for Hours in Upper Burma Standoff, Irrawaddy , September 6, 2007.
46 Myanmar Monks Seize Government Officials, Reuters, September 6, 2007.
47 Myanmar Monks Seize Government Officials, Burn Cars, Reuters, September 6, 2007; Pakokku Monks Release Detained Officials, Democratic Voice of Burma, September 6, 2007; Monks Take Officials Hostage for Hours in Upper Burma Standoff, Irrawaddy , September 6, 2007.
48 Protesting Myanmar Monks Free Hostages, Associated Press, September 6, 2007.
49 Protesting Myanmar Monks Free Hostages, Associated Press, September 6, 2007.
50 According to its statement, the All Burma Monks Alliance is a federation representing the All Burma Young Monks Union, the Federation of All Burma Monks Union, the Young Monks Union (Rangoon), and the Monk Duta, and claimed to represent all monks living in Burma.
51 Announcement of All Burma Monks Alliance: 12th Waning Day of Wagaung, 1369BE, Letter No. (1/2007), September 10, 2007.
52 Military Officials in Mandalay Thrown Out by Monks, Independent Mon News Agency, September 14, 2007; Military Leader Behind Crackdown Tries to Placate Monks, Irrawaddy, September 13, 2007; Dignitaries Are Used to Approach Monks, BBC Burmese Service, September 12, 2007; Monks Offered Compensation by Government, Democratic Voice of Burma, September 11, 2007.
53 Kyaw Ye Min, Interference of US and Britain in Myanmars political affairs-III, New Light of Myanmar, September 9, 2007. On September 11, the New Light of Myanmar urged citizens to end the protests because protests are no longer fashionable, and should be ended lest the nation will be stepping towards the abyss, and suggested that the people should express their views through the soon to be held referendum. Maung Deh Doe, No need to protest: No means other than to express wish, New Light of Myanmar, September 11, 2007.
54 Phones Cut at Myanmar Opposition HQ, Associated Press, September 13, 2007. Mobile phone service is tightly controlled in Burma, and obtaining mobile phone service requires registering ones identity and costs several thousand US dollars.
55 Myanmar Generals Threaten Suu Kyis Political Party, Reuters, September 10, 2007; Six Burmese Labour Rights Activists Sentenced to over 20 Years in Prison, Mizzima News, September 10, 2007.
56 Under the Vinaya Pitaka, the Buddhist code of conduct, Patta Nikkujjana Kamma can only be invoked for eight listed offenses against Buddhism, including vilifying or making insidious comparisons between monks, inciting dissension between monks, defaming Buddha and Dhamma and the Sangha.
57 Monks ready to demonstrate Tuesday; Regime Ready to Crackdown, Irrawaddy, September 17, 2007; Monks Boycott Looms as Regime Withholds Apology, Irrawaddy, September 17, 2007; More than 600 Monks March in Peaceful Demonstrations in Burma, Irrawaddy, September 17, 2007.
58 Juliane Schober, Buddhist Just Rule and Burmese National Culture: State Patronage of the Chinese Tooth Relic in Myanmar, History of Religions, vol. 36 No. 3, February 1997.
59 All Burma Monks Alliance, Statement of Peoples Alliance Formation Committee to the Entire Clergy and the People of the Whole Country, September 21, 2007.
60 Janette Philp and David Mercer, Commodification of Buddhism in Contemporary Burma, Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 26 No. 1, 1999; Bruce Matthews, Buddhism under a Military Regime: The Iron Heel in Burma, Asian Survey, vol. 33 No. 4, April 1993; Stephen McCarthy, The Politics of Piety. Pageantry and the Struggle for Buddhism in Burma, Hong Kong University, Working Paper No.85, April 2007.
61 More than 500 monks hold a peaceful protest in central Myanmar town, Associated Press, September 17, 2007; More than 600 monks walk in peaceful demonstrations in Burma, Irrawaddy, September 17, 2007.
62 Eyewitness account from international observer, on file with Human Rights Watch.
63 The four material things traditionally given to monks are robes, medicine, shelter (monastery), and noble rice, considered the items essential for the monks survival. All donations to monks must be clean for instance, a monk cannot accept stolen items as donations.
64 Political Defiance Committee, Pattaneikkuzana (Excommunicative Boycott) Recital by Monks Succesfully Accomplished Today, Burma Update 181, September 18, 2007; The Alms Bowl and the Duty to Defy, Asian Human Rights Commission, September 19, 2007. Human Rights Watch has obtained a voice recording of the decree being read at a religious site in Rangoon, as well as the Burmese text of the decree.
65 Monks March in Myanmar Amid Tight Security at Temples, Associated Press, September 18, 2007.
66 What happened in Sittwe Yesterday? An Eyewitness Account, Mizzima News, September 19, 2009; Monks on March Again in Restive Myanmar City, Reuters, September 18, 2007; Buddhist Monks Stage More Anti-Government Protests in Burma, Voice of America, September 19, 2007.
67 Monk Bashed During September 18 Sittwe Protest, Democratic Voice of Burma, September 22, 2007. Human Rights Watch has no information about the fate of U Warathami after the crackdown.
68 Human Rights Watch interview with Maung Maung Htun, October 30, 2007.
69 Eyewitness account from international observer, on file with Human Rights Watch.
70 Buddhist Monks Occupy Myanmar Pagoda as Part of Protest, Associated Press, September 19, 2007.
71 Ibid; Human Rights Watch interview, (name and location withheld), October 27, 2007.
72 Myanmar Monks Defy Junta for Third Day with Protests, Agence France Presse, September 19, 2007.
73 Thousands Protest in Burma, Radio Free Asia, September 19, 2007.
74 Eyewitness account from international observer, on file with Human Rights Watch.
75 Public Joins Monks in Myanmar Protest, Associated Press, September 21, 2007; Seth Mydans, Monks in Myanmar march in protest for third day, New York Times, September 21, 2007.
76 Public Joins Monks in Myanmar Protest, Associated Press, September 21, 2007.
77 Monywa Monks Defy Official Warnings Over Protests, Democratic Voice of Burma, September 20, 2007; Monks Protest in Rangoon, Monywa, Mizzima News, September 20, 2007.
78 Eyewitness account of international observer, on file with Human Rights Watch.
79 Other sources told Human Rights Watch that the torrential rain caused participation to decline somewhat on September 21, 2007.
80 Human Rights Watch interview with U Theika, (location withheld), October 27-28, 2007.
81 Seth Mydans, Challenge to Myanmars Junta Gains Momentum, New York Times, September 23, 2007; Embolded Myanmar Monks Challenge Junta Rule, Agence France Presse, September 23, 2007.
82 Human Rights Watch interview with U Pauk, (location withheld), October 27 and 28, 2007.
83 Eyewitness account of international observer, on file with Human Rights Watch.
84 Eyewitness account of international observer, on file with Human Rights Watch; Seth Mydans, Challenge to Myanmars Junta Gains Momentum, New York Times, September 23, 2007; 20,000 March Against Myanmar Government, Associated Press, September 23, 2007.
86 Eyewitness account of international observer, on file with Human Rights Watch.
87 Richard Lloyd Parry, Nuns Join Saffron Revolution, The Times (London), September 24, 2007.
88 Eyewitness account by international observer, on file with Human Rights Watch.
89 Protests Grow, But So Do Fears of a Crackdown, Irrawaddy, September 24, 2007.