Leading the pro-democracy protests in Myanmar has catapulted the country’s community of Buddhist monks to the forefront of world attention. They are the only section of the community who have the right to defy a government ban on demonstrations. They have taken to the streets in their thousands.
Officially they are apolitical, but over the course of the years of military rule the monks have gained a powerful influence. While others who spoke out found themselves arrested, Myanmar’s monasteries became known as places of sanctuary for its hard-pressed population.
But now, driven by ongoing economic hardship, the monks have taken matters into their own hands. Dependant on the dwindling donations of the community, many have found it impossible to continue practising their religion.
The monks – known as “Bhikku” – are not allowed to marry, earn a living or cook for themselves. Surviving on charity, their diet consists of whatever donations they receive from well-wishers.
“According to rules of Buddhism, monks have the right and obligation to demonstrate if the religion is threatened. That is what is happening here. The population which is supporting us is enduring hardship and the authorities are in the wrong,” said one monk.
Far from the fear of reprisals, one monk, who has taken refuge in Thailand, was prepared to openly criticise Myanmar’s military regime.
“We are asking the western powers to help us rapidly install democracy in Myanmar. The people need democracy. They have lived with the straightjacket of fear and oppression for too long.”
In numbers, they are equivalent to the country’s army. They play a pivotal role in Myanmar society yet their survival depends completely on the goodwill of others. This council of senior monks is nominated by the ruling regime and is chosen from a number of preferred candidates.
Younger monks have no choice but to follow the rules of behaviour laid down by the elders of the community. Their survival depends on it, a lifeline which can so easily be cut off.