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Buddhadharma : Summer 2008
Now for the first time I was seeing Rangoon. Phra Pai- san, Top, and I taxied into Rangoon from the airport. Time seemed to have stopped here long ago. Even in rush hour, traffic was light throughout the city’s badly potholed streets. Vintage cars from the sixties spewed exhaust. Sidewalks were filled with people walking to work, and commuters jammed themselves into ramshackle buses and trucks. Nor- mally streets would be teeming with monks and nuns, but the only monks I saw were novice schoolboys and old men with their umbrellas and bowls. Our cab driver interrogated us. His questions went un- comfortably beyond ordinary curiosity, and, instinctively, we were careful about how we framed our responses. We knew we would be watched everywhere and that official scrutiny had begun the minute we stepped off the plane. This was confirmed when Jill flew in a few hours later and we met at our hotel. Her taxi driver had asked her the same kind ericlafforge The rooTs of the saffron revoluTion Burma’s population is 90 percent Theravada Buddhist, so the more than 400,000 monks and 75,000 nuns repre- sent the most stable, ongoing institution of national life. Historically, they have always played a role in society. Monks led the first anti-colonial activities in Burma when British officers entered temples with their shoes on. In the 1920s and ’30s, as the anti-colonial movements grew, articulate monks such as U Ottama and U Wissara spent long years in British prisons for their nationalist stance. U Wissara died in prison on the 167th day of a hunger strike. In 1988 and again in 1990, monks helped lead the democracy movement. Many were shot, and many more were imprisoned; over ninety of them were still in custody when the recent protests began. Theravada monastics live in close relationship to the wider community. Their response to Burma’s extreme economic hard- ship is, in a sense, logical. If the people cannot eat, monks and nuns cannot eat. The Orwellian military regime, established in 1962 by Gen- eral Ne Win, has transformed Burma. Despite its great wealth of natural resources, greedy and violent generals have reduced Burma from a prosperous, self-sufficient nation to its present status as one of the UN’s designated poorest twenty countries. In late 2006, basic commodity prices for rice, cooking oil, and other necessities rose sharply.Then on August 15, 2007, with no advance notice, the government cancelled fuel subsidies, and overnight gasoline and oil prices doubled at the pump, and natural gas, used extensively for fueling cars as well as for cooking, rose by 500 percent. At that point, public protest began. The regime’s immediate response was vio- lent. The military beat and arrested demonstra- tors and zeroed in on well-known dissidents. On September 5, several hundred monks in the city of Pakokku marched and chanted the Metta Sutta in solidarity with a suffering nation. Troops attacked, tying up and beat- ing three monks. The next day, young monks briefly took several government officials hos- tage. In a widely read leaflet, the All-Burma Monks’ Alliance demanded that the military apologize for their brutal actions against Pak- okku’s monks. There was no apology. The alliance urged all of Burma’s Buddhist monks to boycott alms. City by city, monks took to the streets. The Saffron Revolution had begun. — Alan Senauke ericlafforge