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Expert discusses history of Mayanmar protests

By Constance Yonashiro

A picture on the screen shows thousands of red-robed monks marching barefoot in the pouring rain while the government military — guns and shields in hand — watches from close by.

“The images of this protest have been incredibly moving and incredibly revealing,” said Juliane Schober, as she changed the PowerPoint slide show to another photo of the military forcefully breaking up the peaceful protesters in Myanmar. Another picture shows no protesters, just bloodied shoes and slippers lying in the street.

Schober, a religious studies professor at Arizona State University, presented a lecture at Carlson Hall on Thursday about the history behind the recent Saffron Revolt in modern day Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

“The events of this most recent uprising show the enduring struggle between political legitimacy and moral authority,” said Schober, who specializes in teaching Southeast Asian religion.

Thousands of pro-democracy students took to the streets of Burma to protest in 1988. The government military killed 3,000 of the protesters, and their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the democratic elections by a landslide, was placed under house arrest. The government subsequently shut down the pro-democracy movement for nearly two decades.

“These recent events came from the struggle in ’88,” Schober said. “Nevertheless, it’s a part of a larger resistance to the center. Monks have found time…to protest political power and have done so very effectively.”

Although students were the main protesters of the 1988 uprising, Buddhist monks led protests that started late this summer and continued for weeks until they were crushed by the military government.

The protests were formed in response to a hefty fuel- and energy-fee hike. The fuel hike pushed many to the brink, and in a preemptive gesture the military began arresting people associated with the original 1988 group in order to stop potential protests.

“It was for the monks to take on the risks for the lay person,” Schober said. “It was (for) the monks to shoulder the responsibility of the protests. At the beginning, mostly monks took to the streets to protest and it was after police began to beat them…that the protest began to surge.”

Myanmar’s junta, which is a government committee of military leaders, reports that only 10 people were killed in the clashes between the military and the protesters, but independent sources report much higher, Schober said.

“We don’t know how many were victims — some think up to 200 were killed, and 3,000 to 6,000 have been arrested,” she said. “Monasteries are still under tight control.”

As people joined the monks, she said, they carried their own reports to the media of what was happening during the protests. That led the junta to cut off Internet access for the entire country for a few days.

“Monasteries are suddenly empty,” Schober said. “People are asking, ‘where are the monks?’ There are rumors of mass arrests, monks being disrobed (and) mistreated and rumors that the government has been disrespectful of the monks, but we don’t know what happened.”

Schober mentioned only 50 monks marched in the streets last week, compared to the thousands that marched in the late summer.

“The struggle is at best a stalemate, if not all subdued,” Schober said. “It’s not clear (that) changes will be made to change the power structure.”

Cory Richardson, a graduate student in American history who attended the lecture, said one of the most interesting aspects of the protest was the way the military ruled amid respected monks.

“It’s an oppressive regime, and when you have revered figures such as the monks opposing the regime, it’s very hard for the junta to attack them because people won’t tolerate it,” Richardson said.

In her lecture, Schober said because of their culture, the military and politicians have an interest in donating to the monks because they receive public approval from doing so. But during the protests, the monks refused to let the military donate to the monasteries because they viewed the donations like the current government: not legitimate.

“I doubt foreign nationals will try to intervene,” Richardson said. “Maybe human rights groups will, but when you have outside interventions come in, it can really hurt a country’s structure. All they can really do is support the opposition within the country and support sanctions against the government.”

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