From the Archive

Remembering Saffron: Of Monks and Military Men

By Aung Zaw 24 September 2019

When thousands of monks took to the streets in September 2007 to protest the military government’s corrupt and repressive rule, the generals immediately perceived a significant threat and wasted no time sending troops onto the streets. As The Irrawaddy founding editor Aung Zaw recounted in this commentary first published in September 2014, those responsible for the resulting bloodshed remain largely unaccountable.

In 2007, thousands of monks marched in protest against one of the most repressive and corrupt regimes in the world. They were peaceful demonstrations, with the clergymen chanting the prayers of the Metta Sutta—the Buddha’s discourse on loving kindness. They took to the streets to show that monks shared a deep sympathy with the suffering Burmese people, who had lived under authoritarian rule for decades.

Military leaders saw a threat: the strongest movement of defiance against their iron grip on power since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

Troops joined the monks in the streets, not to take up their chants but to fire on them, and raid their monasteries. Seeing live footage and images of the brutality, the world condemned the regime. The UN said it deplored the crackdown, and regional neighbors that were usually passive in addressing Burma’s gross human rights violations openly condemned the killings. The United States tightened the noose of its sanctions regime.

The monk-led protests, known as the “Saffron Revolution,” were a turning point in Burma’s modern history. Unlike the 1988 uprising, during which hundreds if not thousands of peaceful demonstrators were gunned down, the uprising in 2007 was rather short-lived, but also had a lasting impact.

Social media played a key role, exiled media produced 24-hour coverage of the events, and campaign groups overseas reached out to key policymakers in the West and Asean to speak out against the regime’s brutality. Grassroots opposition was strong, both inside and outside the country. Burma headlines appeared everywhere, and the White House spoke out.

“Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma,” then US President George W. Bush said in an address to the UN General Assembly, as he announced even stricter sanctions on regime leaders and financial backers.

The images of thousands of monks pouring onto the streets in defiance of the regime no doubt shook the military leadership. Within three years, we saw the beginnings of a political opening in the country that continues—in fits and starts—to this day. However, many of the same people who have brutalized the nation and mismanaged its resources have continued to rule, albeit having swapped their military uniforms for civilian garb.

But today, while poverty and oppression persist in Burma and accountability for the Saffron Revolution crackdown remains elusive, the monks are not coming out as they did seven years ago. Over the last two years or so, some have instead shown a darker side of Buddhism, one in stark contrast to the teachings of the Metta Sutta.

Since mid-2012, we have seen the rise of an extremist fringe of Buddhism, featuring not peaceful street protests, but rather sword-wielding monks, hate-filled speeches and economic discrimination against Burma’s Muslim minority. The moderate voices, and many of the monks who once chanted for peace and loving kindness, have disappeared or been marginalized.

In the process, the country’s much-acclaimed “peaceful transition” to democracy has been stained by the blood of victims of the interreligious violence that has plagued many parts of Burma in recent years. It has also raised questions about the government’s ability and willingness to crackdown on extremists, and the most cynical allege that some powerful politicians had even conspired to stir up the hatred in the first place.

The Sangha community in Burma is under siege and divided. After the 2007 uprising, regime leaders have managed to carefully divide the monks’ community, estimated to be between 300,000 to 400,000 members. The politically active monks who are known to be anti-regime have been punished or marginalized. Monks who appear to take a neutral stance or promote nationalism and narrow-minded religious hatred are allowed to operate freely.

So far, it seems the strategy is working. Over the last two years, we saw the ascent of the anti-Muslim 969 movement, complete with proposals to limit interfaith marriage, boycotts on Muslim-owned businesses and an entire Muslim population denied its own existence in the country’s first census in more than 30 years.

All this at a time when officers who were involved in the Saffron uprising continue to live out their lives unpunished. Myint Swe, a former general who was then a powerful commander in Rangoon Division, was in charge of security affairs in 2007. Last year, when monks from the 2007 uprising sought a formal apology from the former regime leaders, Myint Swe (now chief minister for Rangoon Division) denied involvement in the violent crackdown.

“If you think I’m responsible, I am ready [to face justice],” he reportedly told businesspeople from the Myanmar Fisheries Federation at a meeting in Rangoon. He said that he was willing to be investigated and would even submit to the death penalty if found guilty of involvement. In a country where the concept of “rule of law” is laughable, and the justice system a farce, the words carried little weight.

Indeed, Myint Swe and many senior leaders and ministers who served in the previous regime are still serving in the current government or sitting in Parliament.

As the Saffron Revolution faltered in the face of seemingly insurmountable government brutality, the regime officially announced that 15 people were killed during the demonstrations. A press briefing held by then police chief Gen. Khin Yi had little credibility. He was on the ground and demonstrators watched as he commanded truncheon-wielding riot police to attack the monks and thousands of others who had joined the clergymen’s lead.

Then UN human rights special rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro countered by saying that at least 31 people were killed during the nationwide protests. Thousands of others were detained and monks were roughly tossed into temporary detention centers and full-fledged prisons.

As for Khin Yi, today he is one of the powerful Union ministers of this self-styled reformist government. If anyone can answer the question of how many people actually died or were tortured over those two months in 2007, it would be Khin Yi, Myint Swe or any of several other former generals who still hold positions of power. For a government that has in recent years trumpeted the virtues of transparency and accountability, however, the truth in Burma remains a surprisingly hard thing to come by.

 Aung Zaw is founder and editor of The Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]