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Crackdown Against Buddhist Monks Shakes Burmese Society


In the months since Burmese troops crushed anti-government demonstrations, the military government has moved to detain the Buddhist monks who led the protesters. Soldiers have closed many monasteries and placed others under armed guard. Human rights activists, diplomats and ordinary Burmese say hundreds of monks and nuns remain in detention. Yet despite the clampdown, some monks vow to take to the streets again if talks between the government and the opposition do not bring political reform. Rory Byrne has this report for VOA from Rangoon.

Buddhist monks are revered in this profoundly devout nation.

They took the lead in anti-government protests in September, after authorities more than doubled the price of fuel, forcing millions deeper into poverty. And when troops crushed the demonstrations, leaving monks among the dead and wounded, many people were stunned and angry.

"Don't retreat - fight back! We will sacrifice our lives at their feet," says one citizen.

Oo Win Naing is a prominent opposition member living in Rangoon. He was jailed for giving rice to protesting monks.

He says the attack on the monks will not easily be forgotten.

"Nobody has dared to touch the monks before," he says. "Now this thing has happened - the monks were beaten, the monks were shot at, the monks are imprisoned. Well these things are very, very serious to us and nobody is going to forget the whole thing easily."

Since the protests, the government has closed many monasteries. Others are nearly empty. Many monks are missing - dead, imprisoned, hiding or back in their villages.

Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon is the most holy site in Burmese Buddhism. Before the protests, crowds of monks often gathered here. In September, it was a gathering point for monks who lead demonstrations.

Today, there are few monks here.

Security forces guard the temple, and razor-wire barricades and military vehicles are kept nearby in case of more demonstrations.

Since the crackdown, the food the monks used to give to the poor has largely dried up, threatening the lives of some of the most vulnerable here.

With their monasteries closed, some monks are themselves destitute.

U Zawana is a monk from Burma's second city Mandalay. Speaking at great personal risk, he says that he and other monks have decided to march again to try to get freedom from the military government. The only question is: when?

"This time we will demonstrate - the government dare not kill all the people," he says. "So maybe 10,000 people - if 10,000 people were killed - will be killed, we will get democracy. Surely, we hope so. If necessary I'm ready to sacrifice my life, really. Me, including other monks, same."

Similar sentiments are whispered widely in Burma today. Many monks and others appear determined to continue their struggle against the military government whatever the cost.

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