Recalling Monk Beatings That Sparked the Saffron Revolution

By Saffron Revolution, Zarni Mann 6 September 2013

RANGOON — Six years ago, soldiers and government-backed thugs beat up and injured three Buddhist monks in the central Burmese town of Pakokku. The incident became a catalyst for the monk-led, nationwide protests in September 2007 that were later called the Saffron Revolution.

The popular gatherings were the largest pro-democracy demonstrations that Burma had seen in two decades. The movement lasted for weeks until the then military junta ordered a violent crackdown.

Several monks from Pakokku town, located in northern Magwe Division, recalled the events of Sept. 5-6, 2007, in interviews with The Irrawaddy on Friday.

Popular discontent had started growing the month before, after the government cut fuel subsidies on Aug. 15, 2007, causing 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.

U Latkhana, a monk from Pakkoku, said hundreds of monks in Pakokku organized a peaceful march in on Sept. 5, 2007 to show their support for the detained activists and demonstrators.

“On September 5, monks were coming out from their monasteries and began walking and chanting on the main road in Pakkoku. Then their way was blocked by the army. Soldiers shouted that we should not proceed,” he said.

“Some of the monks were trapped [between groups of soldiers]. Suddenly, monks at the front ran back and said that some monks were being beaten. Later we learned that three monks had been tied up and beaten with the butt of a rifle and by some thugs with bamboo rods,” U Latkhana recalled.

The beating of the three protesting monks, who were tied to lamppost while they were hit in the face, enraged the monks in Pakkoku, a town that functions as an important religious center where about a third of the population are monks.

The worst-injured victim, who suffered cuts to his face that required five stiches, said he was reluctant to discuss the painful incident. “It’s been a long time. I just do not want to talk about that. I only can say that I’ve forgiven them and trying to forget what I suffered,” said the monk, who declined to be named.

On Sept. 6, 2007, policemen and local officials came to Ashae Taike Monastery in Pakkoku urging the monks to end their protests — without offering an apology for the beating. Angered, dozens of young monks burned three cars in which the officials arrived, while others prevented the officials and policemen from leaving.

Soon, word of the beatings had 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 thousands of monks took to streets in Rangoon, Mandalay and other cities and town across Burma. The movement grew in the following days and laymen walked behind them in support. The monks also refused to perform any Buddhist rituals for government officials, army officers and their families.

On Sept. 26, a crackdown began on the demonstrations 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.

Only in the last two years have the Burmese people seen a government response to their demands for democracy, with the end of military rule, the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the introduction of a range of political reforms under President Thein Sein.

The monks who were involved in the Pakkoku protests and the Saffron Revolution say they remain angry about the state-sponsored violence against the demonstrating monks and laymen in 2007.

“I could not forget what happened back then. For me, I do not accept the offerings from the government until now,” said U Latkhana. “It is a bitter memory for us. But to look on the optimistic side, what was happened in 2007 September became one of the reasons for the changes in the country. Because of what we suffered, the international community get understand our situation better and began to apply pressure.”

One of the Saffron Revolution’s leading monks, Ashin Issariya, from Magwe Division’s Yenan Chaung town, said, “For me, I’m just looking forward but will never forget the past. There are things that we gained and we lost during the uprising. But I view it as a sacrifice to go forward towards democracy.”

The monks said they are critically following the democratic reforms introduced under President Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian government, which for the most part consists of former military officers. They said they are far from satisfied with the progress made so far.

“The changes in the government are just changes [by former junta leaders] from uniforms to civilian clothing. So, we have to move forward to get the genuine changes,” said U Latkhana.

Ashin Issariya said, “People need to emphasis on amending the 2008 Constitution because it plays the vital in forming democracy in the country.”