RANGOON — Buddhist monks urged the Burmese government to apologize for its actions six years ago as they commemorated the Saffron Revolution on Wednesday in Rangoon, where street protests in September 2007 were led by the revered religious leaders and brutally crushed by the ruling military junta.
“For the sake of the citizens of the country, we are thinking of lifting the boycott on offerings and [performance of] Buddhist rituals for government officials. For this, the government must officially apologize for what they did,” said U Pyinnya Tayza, a Saffron Revolution participant, in a statement at a ceremony marking the pro-democracy protests.
The boycott by monks, who have refused to perform Buddhist rituals for government officials, military officers and their families, as well as rejecting any offerings from them, has been in place since Sept. 18, 2007.
“Lifting the boycott, however, must be decided by all the monks, depending on the reaction of the government,” the statement said.
At the same time, the monks urged the government to continue to work toward building back the trust of the people, saying it should prioritize national reconciliation, the freeing of all political prisoners, and full access to human rights and democracy for all of Burma’s citizens. The monks also urged the government to make an official overture to Burmese exiles, welcoming their return to the country.
“The current situation of our country, it can’t be said that we are on the path to democracy. Although the so-called new government has ruled for about 30 months, we can’t distinguish changes in the country yet,” said U Sandar Thiri, another monk who participated in the Saffron Revolution, explaining why Wednesday’s ceremony was held.
“Since trust between the government and its peoples has been broken for a long time, the government needs to work with a strong commitment to peace with the ethnic armed groups, as well as for national reconciliation and genuine democracy and improvements in the country,” he added.
The monks also urged the Burmese people to avoid further communal violence, referring to clashes over the last 15 months that have largely pitted the nation’s majority Buddhists against minority Muslims.
“Our country is just seeing the path to democracy so it is important to prevent the violence, because it may destroy our path to democracy,” U Sandar Thiri said.
Galone Ni Sayadaw, a well-known Buddhist monk from Mandalay, said some of the monks who participated in the Saffron Revolution were being stigmatized by people fearful of being associated with the monks’ pro-democracy reputation.
“There shouldn’t be these kinds of incidents facing the monks who participated in Saffron if we say the country is changing,” he said. “We can forgive but I want to see that justice is done for those who were responsible for the brutal crackdown.”
The ceremony was attended by monks from Rangoon, Mandalay and Pakokku, including famous Buddhist monks who led the peaceful marches six years ago. National League for Democracy (NLD) member and veteran journalist Win Tin, and members of other political parties were seen at the ceremony. Leaders of the 88 Generation Students’ group such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi were also present and gave remarks.
“The movements of the monks are very valuable for the country’s history,” Min Ko Naing said. “During that time, we were under interrogation and felt we were forgotten, but the movement of the monks encouraged us a lot. We can’t deny that the movements of the monks played a part in the changes we see today.”
Public dissatisfaction had started growing one month before the monks took to the streets en mass in 2007. A government reduction of fuel subsidies on Aug. 15, 2007, caused a rapid rise in commodity prices. During small demonstrations against the decision, 13 prominent activists including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Zeya and Ko Jimmy were arrested.
Monks in Pakokku, in Magwe Division of central Burma, kicked off what would be dubbed the Saffron Revolution when they marched through the streets and urged the government to reduce commodity prices and release the activists. Three monks involved in the Pakokku protest march were tied up and beaten by soldiers and government-backed thugs.
Word of the beatings spread among Burma’s approximately 400,000 monks and the Sangha demanded an official government apology by Sept. 17.
When the deadline passed without an apology, the monks began their boycott. At the same time, thousands of monks took to the streets in Rangoon, Mandalay and other cities and towns across Burma. The movement grew in the following days and laymen walked behind them in support.
But on Sept. 26, a crackdown on the demonstrations began and the army opened fire on the unarmed protesters. Many protesters, including monks, were beaten and arrested, while several monasteries were raided and forced to shut down.
Dozens of people are believed to have died in the crackdown, although there are no confirmed figures. The government put the death toll at 13, the UN human rights envoy on Burma at the time said 31 people had died, while Democratic Voice of Burma reported that 138 people had been killed.
Sanay Linn contributed to this story.