The Revolt of the Monks

Crackdown: Repression of the 2007 Popular Protests in Burma

a report by Human Rights Watch
131 pp., December 2007

"Burma/Myanmar: The Role of the Military in the Economy"

by David I. Steinberg
Burma Economic Watch, Vol. 1 (2005)

Downtown Rangoon is a largely British creation, built on an east–west grid after Burma was subjugated by Britain in the late nineteenth century. The Japanese occupation and the British counterattack during World War II, which devastated large parts of Burma, did relatively little damage to Rangoon, the country’s former capital and largest city. Not much new construction occurred after independence in 1948, a period in which the civilian government that had emerged from the war tried to build a united Burmese nation in the face of opposition from Communist insurgents and a variety of ethnic groups.

That government ended too quickly with a military coup in 1962. For more than four decades, Burma’s military rulers have occupied the extravagantly styled colonial buildings that were originally meant to intimidate the natives—Indian and Chinese immigrants as well as the Burmans, the country’s mainly Buddhist ethnic-linguistic majority, and the Shans, Kachin, Karens, Mons, and other minorities who make up the most diverse population in Southeast Asia.

The real center of Rangoon, however, is still the Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s holiest site, whose gilded spire is visible from much of the low-rise city. More than a millennium old, the Buddhist temple is not only an enduring symbol of the principal Burmese faith. Standing on a hill in the middle of the colonial city, it also appears to be a higher court of appeal than the modern government buildings that signify, to most Burmese, the state’s brutal and arbitrary power.

It was at the pagoda that university students gathered on December 4, 1920, the day subsequently celebrated as Burma’s National Day, to demand from the British rulers that education be reformed to produce a modern, independent nation. In 1936, anticolonial sentiment, which was then fiercer in Rangoon than in any other Asian city, provoked thousands of students to declare a strike at the pagoda. Burma’s first generation of leaders would emerge from among these students, who were inspired variously by Marx, Nietzsche, the Buddha, and Sinn Fein.

One of the student activists of 1936, General Aung San, who had collaborated with the Japanese occupiers before turning against them, stood at the pagoda in January 1946 to demand unconditional freedom from Britain. Aung San was assassinated in 1947, just months before his independence agreement with the British was put into effect. Forty-two years later, in 1988, his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi came to Rangoon to exhort over a half a million people to take part in a new freedom movement—this time aimed at the country’s own military rulers. In the crackdown that followed, over three thousand pro-democracy activists lost their lives. The military junta continued to rule the country; it allowed elections in 1990, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won with a landslide even though she had been put under house arrest in 1989, but then the junta ignored the results.

In September 2007, monks and civilian demonstrators gathered often at the pagoda, enlarging the protests that had erupted following…

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