Felonious monks

September 25, 2007

Tens of thousands joined a demonstration by Buddhist monks through the streets of the city formerly known as Rangoon yesterday, in a stirring show of dissent against the generals' regime that has turned the once placid Burma into the authoritarian nightmare now called Myanmar.

Last night, the government issued a warning to the monks' superiors that they must desist from further agitation, but it's unlikely to have much effect. The security forces have been conspicuously absent so far, which may be an ominous sign in a country where the last big demonstrations, in 1988, were brutally suppressed - or it may be a sign of uncertainty at the top.

China appears to hold the key. It has been the regime's biggest supporter, and is clearly intent on exploiting Myanmar's significant gas and oil resources. But China is also host to the coming Olympics, and - dealing at the same time with its own crisis of corruption and tainted exports - it ought to be eager to show the world a more responsible face. Some reports suggest that Beijing has been counseling the regime to hold its fire; if true, that's a good sign.

The U.S., which has minimal influence over the Myanmar regime, should let China know how interested it is in a positive outcome for the Burmese.

There are said to be 300,000 monks in Rangoon (dubbed Yangon by the generals). Their protests began over a sharp rise in the price of fuel instituted by the government in August, and they escalated all last week. By tradition, the monks are highly regarded in Myanmar, and it was telling when they marched Saturday to the home of the liberal democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Under house arrest, she came out to pray with them. Just as the communist regime in Poland had to treat the Roman Catholic clergy carefully in the 1980s, so Myanmar's generals have to be cautious in dealing with the monks - probably, in fact, more so.

Is Myanmar on the doorstep of a Yellow Revolution? There's no doubt the country would be better off if it happened. Sometimes people's revolutions go sour after a while - just look at Ukraine, in a political muddle three years after its Orange Revolution, with barely heralded elections coming this Sunday.

But that's no reason for the monks to hold back. Myanmar, so backward and unhappy, could just get it right.

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