Burma Stands Up to the Generals

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Monks march through Yangon city center as bystanders join in an anti-government demonstration, September 24, 2007.

Their cinnamon-hued robes numbered in the tens of thousands. But for the first time since protests against Burma's military junta broke out last month, the columns of Buddhist monks who have taken over leadership of the demonstrations were often obscured by crowds of civilians. Overcoming their fear of the country's repressive regime, ordinary Burmese turned out by the thousands on Monday in the commercial capital of Rangoon, their sandal-shod feet slapping through the rain alongside the monks' bare feet. Participation by these citizens — many of whom are fed up with the economic hardships caused by the ruling generals' inept governance — has helped make this display of civil disobedience the largest mass movement in Burma in nearly two decades.

For a week now, thousands of Buddhist monks have taken to the streets across major towns in Burma, protesting both crippling fuel hikes ordered by the junta in August and the rough treatment by government security forces of clergy members who had dared to speak out earlier this month. So far, the country's top brass, an earlier generation of whom masterminded a brutal crackdown on protesters back in 1988 that resulted in hundreds of deaths, has not ordered its soldiers to fire.

That's a prudent move. In this Buddhist-majority nation, monks carry a moral authority that far outweighs that of the generals. But as the clergy's protests show no sign of abating and emboldened civilians join the movement in greater numbers, Burma's junta may feel forced to act. Already, its leaders have given signs that their patience may be wearing. On Monday evening, the nation's Religious Affairs Minister was quoted on state television ordering the monks to cease and desist. Meanwhile, a human rights group in London reported that some soldiers were being ordered to shave their heads, possibly to penetrate the crowds of marching monks and cause internal strife.

Most of the political dissidents and union activists who kick-started the protests on August 19 have been jailed or are in hiding. But detaining the religious clerics who have taken up their cause will be accepted with far less equanimity by the devout Burmese public. If shots are fired, the tenuous peace that has existed between a cowed populace and its oppressive leaders may finally be shattered. "A tiger is being unleashed," predicts Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based news magazine that covers Burma.

Meanwhile, some members of the international community are speaking up more loudly. The U.S., which has maintained sanctions against Burma for years, plans to institute further restrictions on members of the military junta and their families, including travel bans to the States. As the United Nations General Assembly unfolds in New York this week, Burma is sure to be a topic of discussion among senior statesmen. Among their concerns is the continuing detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for much of the past 18 years.

On Saturday, protesting monks made their way to Suu Kyi's house, where they prayed en masse. The veteran democracy advocate came to her gate to watch the rare display of dissent. Since then, however, the road to the resistance leader's home has been blocked by soldiers. But if the protests in Burma continue to swell, riot police may not be able to hold back the crowds any longer. If so, the world can only hope that the monks' burgundy robes will not be stained further by the color of blood.