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Ostracised by the West, Burmese jun
Subject: Ostracised by the West, Burmese junta to Buddhism for sustenance , (The Asian Age, 4/1/97.)
Ostracised by the West, Burmese junta turns to Buddhism for sustenance
The Asian Age, 4/1/97 (New Delhi)
BY SIMIRIN SINGH
Inter Press Service
Rangoon, Jan. 3: Widely ostracised by the West and opposed by its own
people for its human rights violations, Burma's military regime is
turning to Buddhism on the hope of winning over the country's thousands
of Buddhist monks.
But seven years after soldiers killed several dissident Buddhist monks
and arrested hundreds more while brutally putting down a pro-democracy
movement, Burma's clergy is still wary of the generals.
On the streets of Rangoon, the evidence of government tinkering with
religion is everywhere. An example is the glittering, golden 11th century
Shwedagon Pagoda in the heart of the Burmese capital, which is being
renovated at much cost and spruced up for both local and foreign visitors.
It was not too long ago that the same building was desecrated beyond the
expectations of this predominantly Theravada Buddhist nation. In July
1989, the regime, which is also known as the State Law and Order
Restoration Council, erected barricades in its premises in order to
search all pilgrims. The ensuing unrest resulted in the death of 11 monks
and 17 students and the five-day shutdown of the pagoda.
SLORC's more recent pampering of the clergy through increased donations
to temples, special privileges to monks and other favours, is seen to be
part of its "alternative strategy" aimed at weaning away the religious
order from wrong political influences.
Buddhist monks, through General Ne Win's military rule from the late
1960s to 1988, have supported democratic movements, and in- the 1990
elections, they openly supported the National League for Democracy, the
party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. SLORC is now trying
to ensure that this support base is finally' wiped out.
SLORC hopes that offering financial incentives will lure the estimated
300,000 to 500,000 monks and nuns in the country to their side. According
to critics, it is also trying to convince a highly devout Buddhist
population that it intends to protect its religious institutions and
leaders. Daily, the regime's state controlled television station beams
out broadcasts of senior generals and military leaders visiting and
praying in temples across the country, and meeting religious leaders.
Trying to improve its badly tarnished reputation is another reason for
this "new gentle face" to an otherwise repressive regime which has killed
and arrested scores of people since taking power in 1988.
"The only purpose of such activities," Zou Win, a university educated
taxi driver in Rangoon, "is trying to the people that the Tatmadaw (armed
forces) is very religious. No one believes in them. The people know that
the main purpose is to stop the monks' political leanings."
To those who refuse the carrot, there is always the stick. Since 1988, or
two years before the national elections where the NLD won an
overwhelming, majority but could not get SLORC to give up power, monks in
Burma have been systematically tortured and abused by the regime.
Thousands were believed to have died when the Army fired upon
pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988. They included hundreds of monks,
many of whom were disrobed by soldiers who secretly disposed of their
bodies. Hundreds of monks fled to border areas to escape further repression.
Although crackdown on monks, nuns and novices by the SLORC have been more
recent, it was General Ne win, who seized power from the elected Prime
Minister U Nu in 1962, who first organised the threat from the Buddhist
clergy and from students. This was not only because they were an
independent force, but also because Burmese monks have for centuries been
involved in the affairs of the country and in politics.