What Makes a Monk Mad?
By Seth Mydans
Published in the Week in Review on September 30, 2007
AS they marched through the streets of Myanmar's cities last week leading the biggest
antigovernment protests in two decades, some barefoot monks held their begging
bowls before them. But instead of asking for their daily donations of food, they held
the bowls upside down, the black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.
It was a shocking image in the devoutly
Buddhist nation. The monks were refusing
to receive alms from the military rulers and
excommunicating them from the religion
that is at the core of Burmese culture.
That gesture is a key to understanding the
power of the rebellion that shook Myanmar
The country — the former Burma — has
roughly as many monks as soldiers. The
military rules by force, but the monks retain
ultimate moral authority. The lowliest
soldier depends on them for spiritual
approval, and even the highest generals have
felt a need to honor the clerical
establishment. They claim to rule in its
Begging is a ritual that expresses a profound
bond between the ordinary Buddhist and the
monk. "The people are feeding the monks
and the monks are helping the people make
merit," said Josef Silverstein, an expert on
Myanmar at Rutgers University. "When you
refuse to accept, you have broken the bond that has tied them for centuries together."
Instead, the monks drew on a different and more fundamental bond with Myanmar's
population, leading huge demonstrations after the government tried to repress protests
that began a month ago over a rise in fuel prices.
By last week, the country's two largest and most established institutions were
confronting each other, the monkhood and the military, both about 400,000 strong,
both made up of young men, mostly from the poorer classes, who could well be
brothers. Rejected by both its spiritual and popular bases, the junta that has ruled for
19 years had little to fall back on but force.
It unleashed its troops to shoot, beat, arrest and humiliate the men in brick-red robes,
definitively alienating itself from the clergy whose support gives it legitimacy.
Soldiers surrounded monasteries, preventing monks from leading further
demonstrations — or from making their morning rounds to collect the alms that feed
In Myanmar and other Buddhist nations, many join the monkhood as a lifelong
vocation, but many other young men become monks for shorter periods, ranging from
a few months to a few years. These young monks remain closer to the lives and
concerns of the people whose alms they receive.
Burmese monks have taken part in protests in the past, against British colonial rule
and against a half-century of rule by military dictatorship. The most notable recent
occasion was in 1990.
Their militant resistance to the British produced the most prominent political martyr
of Burmese Buddhism, U Wisara, who died in prison in 1929 after a 166-day hunger
His statue stands near the tall, golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's holiest shrine,
which was a rallying point for the recent demonstrations and the scene of the first
violence against the monks last week.
That attack came as a shock to people who said the military would not turn violently
against the monks, and it had the predictable effect of arousing the fury of a devout
But monks have not always been in the political front lines. It was students, for
example, who led the mass demonstrations of 1988 that brought the current junta to
power in a military massacre.
The monks' power comes instead from their role in bestowing legitimacy on the
"Legitimacy in Burma is not about regime performance, it's not about human rights
like the West," said Ingrid Jordt, a professor of anthropology at the University of
Wisconsin at Milwaukee and an expert on Burmese Buddhism. "It is something that
comes from the potency and karma bestowed by the monks. That's why the sangha is
so important to the government," she said, referring to the Buddhist hierarchy and the
spiritual status that its monks can convey. "They are actually the source of power."
The junta has gone to great lengths to identify itself with Buddhism. Like their
predecessors through the centuries, the generals have been busy building temples,
supporting monasteries and carrying out religiously symbolic acts. In 1999, they
regilded the spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which now glitters with 53 tons of gold
and 4,341 diamonds on the crowning orb.
The gilding of the spire was a high-risk ploy for an unpopular regime, an act
permitted only to kings and legitimate rulers. When the two-ton, seven-tier finial was
added and the spire was complete, the nation held its breath, waiting for the earth to
send a signal of disapproval through lightning or thunder or floods, Ms. Jordt said.
But nature remained indifferent.
"Aung pyi!" the generals shouted. "We won!"
But their grip on power has never been secure. They have ruled through a security
service that keeps order through intimidation. They have arrested thousands of
political prisoners and have held the pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,
under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.
In that context, the huge street demonstrations were an act of courage and catharsis.
They started tentatively on Aug. 19 after a fuel price increase raised the costs of
transportation and basic goods. Veterans of the student demonstrations of 1988 staged
small protests, but most were quickly arrested or driven into hiding. The unrest was
fading when security officers beat monks and fired shots into the air during a
confrontation in the city of Pakokku on Sept. 5.
That became a spark that grew into a broad-based challenge to the government,
culminating last week in the breach between those who hold moral authority and
those who have the guns.
"This was not an accidental uprising," said Zin Linn, a former editor and political
prisoner who is now information minister for the National Coalition Government of
the Union of Burma, an exile opposition group based in Washington. The transition in
leadership in the protests — from militant former students to activist monks — was
well planned, he said, through secret meetings among young men sharing similar
grievances and aspirations for their country. For the most part, it was not the elders
who backed the protests. Over the years, the junta has worked to co-opt the Buddhist
hierarchy, placing chosen men in key positions just as they have done in every other
institution, angering and alienating the younger monks.
After the military clampdown on the monasteries last week, the streets of Yangon
were mostly empty of monks. But their gesture of rejection of the junta, and the
junta's violent response, had changed the dynamics of Burmese society in ways that
had only begun to play out.
The junta's action "shows how desperate they are," Ms. Jordt said. "It shows that they
are willing to do anything at this point in terms of violence. Once you've thrown your
lot in against the monks, I think it will be impossible for the regime to go back to
normal daily legitimacy."