Myanmar's monks, 1988 activists linked
( AP ) - It fell to Buddhist monks, normally nonpolitical advocates of loving kindness, to lead Myanmar's recent uprising, taking over from veteran activists who had secretly organized and planned to confront the ruling military.
"We had to stand up and lead," says U Kovida, a young monk who was a key protest organizer and fled to Thailand recently, joining members of a generation bloodied as young students in Myanmar's 1988 pro-democracy uprising.
The "88 Generation" decided this summer that the time had come to again take on their country's junta.
The uprising, which persisted for several weeks before being brutally put down by the military late last month, was portrayed at first as a protest against a government hike in fuel prices.
In fact, protest leaders say, the marches were orchestrated by longtime activist groups that feared progress on the government's so-called "road to democracy" would cement the military's power for generations more.
"The army was preparing to rule the country for a long time, through the lives of our sons and grandsons. We knew we had to act," said Hlaing Moe Than, 37, a 1988 protest leader who spent eight years in prison, where he says he was tortured.
Hlaing Moe Than is among a handful of leaders who, along with associates, have emerged recently on the Thai side of the 1,100-mile-long border with Myanmar. They fled their homeland during the recent government crackdown, often making harrowing escapes.
In interviews with The Associated Press, a half-dozen offered rare firsthand insights into the movement and its evolution since 1988. Some asked that their exact locations not be revealed, for fear Thai authorities might send them home.
Though the military has regained the upper hand in Myanmar, the leaders said the latest protests unleashed a new dynamic that one day will bring down the junta, a view shared by some experts. But no one expects the military regime to fall soon; some protest leaders and analysts speak of a long and possibly bloody march toward change.
Though welcoming pressure on the junta from the United Nations, the United States and others, the protest leaders say they cannot count on the outside world to end military rule that began in 1962 in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
"The struggle will have to be won from inside, but we need favorable international conditions," Hlaing Moe Than said.
In 1988, the military killed at least 3,000 protesters and arrested thousands. The leaders said that in prison, many schooled themselves in the ideology and tactics of Mohandas K. Gandhi and other advocates of nonviolent revolution, combining them with Buddhist teachings.
Once freed, they regrouped to organize and plan under the cover of weddings, funerals and Buddhist ceremonies. They also developed links with the All Burma Monks Alliance and other activist Buddhist groups.
The decision to take to the streets, even at the risk of being shot, was timed to the completion of a draft constitution that pro-democracy leaders say would institutionalize military control under the guise of democracy. The draft was finalized Sept. 3.
David Steinberg, a Georgetown University professor who returned from Myanmar last week, agrees the impetus for the uprising came from the pending constitution, which gives "the military effective power, with basic control over the executive and legislative process."
The 88 Generation activists had held small protests before the government doubled fuel oil prices Aug. 15. The increases ratcheted up the hardships - and anger - of the public in impoverished Myanmar.
Then, on Sept. 5, soldiers beat and insulted several Buddhist monks who were protesting in the northern town of Pakkoku. In a society where monks are highly revered, this set off widespread demonstrations - monks and their supporters poured into the streets across the country.
U Kovida, a 24-year-old monk who hid for three weeks before reaching Thailand, said leadership fell to the monks because the 1988 crackdown decimated the ranks of democracy activists and monks were exempt from restrictions such as a ban on gatherings of more than five people.
The monks also had an economic motive. The downward poverty spiral affected their livelihoods, as they depend on daily offerings of the faithful for food and other necessities, he said.
"Buddhism could not prosper and grow in Myanmar under the military, so the monks decided that this time we had to shoulder the burden of protecting our religion," said U Kovida, who the government accuses of hiding explosives in a monastery. He says that is a lie intended to discredit monks.
By striking back at the monks - monasteries were raided and some monks were killed - the military may have precipitated its eventual fall, said Min Maw Thein, who worked for the government as a teacher but secretly supported the democracy movement.
"The military attacked the Triple Gems that the Myanmar people place above their heads," he said, referring to the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood. "How the people suffer from this won't disappear. What they see ahead of them is the fall of the military regime."
A Yangon businessman who joined the protests said some soldiers opposed the attacks on monks, which could lead to a split in the ruling military council followed by a change of regime - a view shared by some experts.
Kar Kar Pancha, who said he once did business with junta leaders, said friends in the military told him of soldiers dropping their guns to worship protesting monks in Mandalay and of an army commander in Yangon who refused to shoot at demonstrators Sept. 19 unless they turned violent.
The specific incidents could not be independently confirmed, but a number of protesters reported similar reactions by soldiers.
"There are the seeds of something different," Steinberg said. "Recent events have created great enmity. For the first time I heard the words, "We hate the military." This is a watershed, and things will have to change. How soon is the question and then in what form."
Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at Australian National University, said there is "an enduring linkage among anti-government groups" that holds the promise of future action. These include monks, the 88 Generation, student activists, labor leaders and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.
"I had times of depression, thinking that the military were the winners, that they controlled the country, that the memories of 1988 were growing dim," said Hlaing Moe Than. "But the recent demonstrations linked the two generations and now it won't take 20 years to prepare for another struggle."