Human Rights Watch (2009): The Resistance of the Monks | Buddhism and Activism in Burma | III – The Role of the Sangha in the 1988 Uprising and After the 1990 Election

On August 8, 1988, massive demonstrations shook Rangoon and almost every town across the country. Millions of people from all walks of life—including monks—took to the streets to vent decades of pent-up frustrations with a regime that had turned what once was one of Asia’s most prosperous countries into an economic and political wreck. The ruling BSPP government responded as it had always done: by sending out the military. But this time the military’s brutality was more intense than ever—an estimated 3,000 protesters were gunned down in Rangoon and elsewhere after the army went into action.

According to a medical volunteer who at that time was at Rangoon General Hospital (RGH):

The worst day was Wednesday the 10th. Army trucks dumped both dead and wounded from all over Rangoon outside the hospital. Some kids had a bullet-wound in their arms or legs—and then a bayonet gash in their throats or chests. Some were also totally disfigured by bayonet cuts. Several corpses were male and stark naked with shaven heads. Those were the monks whom the soldiers had stripped of their robes before dumping their corpses outside the RGH.[1]

But the killings did not stop the demonstrations. A general strike was proclaimed by the protesters and the military withdrew from the streets, at least temporarily. General Sein Lwin, who had been appointed president on July 26—and who had ordered and overseen the killings—stepped down on August 12. He had by then earned the nickname “The Butcher,” while his successor, Dr. Maung Maung, became known as “The Puppet.” Maung Maung had some army background, but was basically an academic and writer who had remained immensely loyal to Ne Win and the military.

On August 26, Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, appeared in public for the first time at a mass rally outside the Shwedagon Pagoda. She became the leader of the pro-democracy movement. But in the absence of any functioning administration, strike committees, which had been set up all over the country, took over local governments. Local citizen committees were also formed in almost every neighborhood in major towns, usually consisting of monks, community elders and students.

In Mandalay, the Yahanpyu movement, which Sein Lwin had forced underground in the 1970s, resurfaced. Its monks organized day-to-day affairs like rubbish collection, made sure the water supply was working and, according to some reports, even acted as traffic police. The maintenance of law and order was also in the hands of the monks—and the criminals who were caught were often given rather unorthodox sentences. One visitor to Mandalay in August 1988 saw a man chained to a lamppost outside the railway station who shouted all day: “I’m a thief! I’m a thief! I’m a thief!”[2] In South Okkalapa, Rangoon, the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery was transformed into a virtual fortress and a bastion of the pro-democracy struggle.

The Mandalay monks played an especially important role in the 1988 uprising. According to Ward Keeler, an American anthropologist who was in Mandalay at the time:

It’s the monks’ role in all this that’s truly remarkable. They have taken it upon themselves to fill the void created by the removal of all other forms of authority in the city. The government simply doesn’t exist anymore here: every township office in the city is shut tight, and a fair number of big wigs of the Party-cum-government (the BSPP) are probably in hiding. What one sees instead is sometimes quite hilarious. I would love to take a picture of one of the traffic police gazebos full of monks standing there with long sticks in their hands and whistles in their mouths. The cross road at the clock tower [a Mandalay landmark, located in front of the central market, Zeigyo] is now controlled by monks who brook far fewer infractions of traffic laws than the traffic police used to: no right turn on red in Mandalay’s traffic theocracy. More improbably still are the monk commandos careening around town. Jeeps, trucks, private cars all are filled with monks traveling about town looking important, and usually with a couple of monks hanging on the side or sitting on the roof blowing their whistles furiously so that everyone will get out of their way. Demonstrations are usually policed in part by monks, who stride alongside the demonstrators maintaining the lines. Public security has also been taken up as the monks’ charge. That means that the equivalent of police stations have been set up in different parts of the city.[3]

Finally, on September 18, after more than a month of daily protests, the army stepped in again. Trucks full of troops and armored cars with machine-guns rolled into Rangoon. This time, the forces were impeccably organized and the operation was carried out with cold-blooded efficiency. Any crowd in sight was mowed down systematically as the army vehicles rumbled down the streets in perfect formation.

The carnage continued for two days, while the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a new junta headed by army chief General Saw Maung, announced that it had to “prevent the disintegration of the Union”—and that no more than 15 demonstrators were killed. Diplomatic sources in Rangoon thought otherwise: they reported back to their capitals that at least 1,000 people had been killed. According to eyewitness accounts, even some of the wounded were carted away in trucks to be disposed of and buried in mass graves or cremated while they were still alive.[4]

However, to the surprise of many, the SLORC abolished the old one-party system and promised to hold general elections once “order had been restored.” Subsequently, scores of political parties were formed. The biggest party was the National League for Democracy (NLD), which was established on September 24 by Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues, among them Tin U, a former army chief who had been purged by Ne Win in the mid-1970s.

Suu Kyi traveled across the country. Tens of thousands of people showed up wherever she went. The military apparently could not tolerate the attention she was receiving, and on July 20, 1989, she and Tin U were placed under house arrest in their respective homes in Rangoon. Hundreds of NLD activists were jailed as the army moved to consolidate its grip on the nation.

But the monks continued their opposition to the military government, and on November 16, 1989, a group called the Radical Buddhist Monks United Front (RBMUF) was set up in Mandalay, led by U Zawana from the town’s Phayagyi monastery. The leadership included other monks from Mandalay, and from Moulmein and Tavoy in the southeast. According to a statement issued at the time, the aims of the RBMUF were to establish a democratic order, to “wipe out political and religious persecution, and build a prosperous Burma.”[5]

It is impossible to say how much impact the RBMUF had, but it nevertheless kept resistance alive in some monasteries in Burma even after the July 1989 crackdown. The NLD was also able to function, but under severe restrictions—which proved to be futile and perhaps even counterproductive.

When the election was eventually held on May 27, 1990, the outcome was an unexpectedly decisive victory for the NLD. It captured 61 percent of the popular vote and 392 of the 485 seats in the 492-member assembly. Elections were not held in seven constituencies for security reasons. The rest went to NLD allies from the various minority areas, while the military-backed National Unity Party (NUP), the new name for the BSPP after September 26, 1988, captured a mere 10 seats.

The SLORC was totally unprepared for an NLD victory of this magnitude. The NLD won even in Rangoon’s Dagon township, which includes the capital’s cantonment area and the SLORC’s headquarters. The leader of the NUP, Tha Kyaw, a former BSPP minister, was also defeated by the NLD in his constituency in Hmawbi, near a major army camp and air force base.

Then, on July 27, came a surprising announcement by Major-General Khin Nyunt, the chief of Burma’s intelligence apparatus. In a speech to the nation, he claimed, contrary to everything that had been said or understood about the election previously:

It should not be necessary to explain that a political organization does not automatically obtain the three sovereign powers of the legislative, administrative and judicial powers by the emergence of a Pyithu Hluttaw [Parliament]…only the SLORC has the right to legislative power…drafting an interim constitution to obtain state power and to form a government will not be accepted in any way, and if it is done effective action will be taken according to law.[6]

The statement was a clear retraction of earlier promises made by Khin Nyunt and others such as General Saw Maung. At a meeting with foreign military attachés in Rangoon on July 22, 1988, shortly after the formation of the SLORC, he had declared that “elections will be held as soon as law and order have been restored and the tatmadaw will then hand over state power to the party which wins.”[7] On January 9, 1990, General Saw Maung had stated: “We have spoken about the matter of State Power. As soon as the election is held, form a government according to law and then take power. An election has to be held to bring forth a government. That is our responsibility. But the actual work of forming a legal government after the election is not the duty of the tatmadaw. We are saying it very clearly and candidly right now.”[8] In a speech on May 10—two weeks prior to the election—General Saw Maung went on to explain what the political process was all about: “A dignitary who was once an attorney-general talked about the importance of the constitution. As our current aim is to hold the election as scheduled we cannot as yet concern ourselves with the constitution as mentioned by that person. Furthermore it is not our concern. A new constitution can be drafted. An old constitution can also be used after some amendments.”[9]

When it became clear that those promises had been broken, NLD members met on July 28 at the Gandhi Hall in Rangoon’s Kyauktada township and adopted a resolution calling on the SLORC to stand down and hand over power to a democratically elected government. Predictably, the SLORC ignored the request and when it became obvious that it was not going to respect the outcome of the election—and that the NLD and the ordinary people were in no position to alter the military’s stance—the Sangha took the initiative.

The Mandalay Monks Uprising of 1990

On August 8, 1990, the second anniversary of the 1988 uprising, thousands of monks marched through the streets of Mandalay. It was not officially a demonstration—the monks were out on their morning alms round—but the choice of the date and the vast number of monks who took part in the ceremony made their intentions obvious enough. Tens of thousands of people showed up in the streets to offer food to the monks, while nervous soldiers looked on. At one point along the route, some students hoisted a peacock flag, the symbol of Burmese nationalism, and now also of the NLD and the pro-democracy movement.

Some soldiers apparently overreacted. They opened fire with their automatic G-3 rifles and bullets ripped through the crowd. Shi Ah Sein Na, a 17-year-old novice from Mogaung monastery in Mandalay, was wounded and bullets punctured one of his lungs and shattered his shoulder. He fell to the ground, bleeding profusely.

Nine more monks and at least two onlookers were also hit. Alms bowls broken by bullets lay in the street while the soldiers charged the crowd. Fourteen monks were badly beaten and at least five were arrested. Several of the wounded went missing after the incident. Some were presumed dead.

Box: Monks Who Were Wounded on August 8, 1990, in Mandalay

Shin Ah Sein Na from Mogaung monastery; wounded on left shoulder with punctured lung and shattered shoulder
U San Di Mar from Phayagyi monastery; wounded on right knee
Shin Zawana from Phayagyi monastery; wounded on right shoulder
U Tay Za Ni Ya from Taung Taman monastery; gunshot wound on head
Bhin Kay Tha Wa from Taung Taman monastery; gunshot wound below knee
U Thuriya from Pagan monastery; gunshot wound on shin
No name given from Nyaung Kan monastery; gunshot wound
Shin Thuriya from Pagan monastery; gunshot wound on arm
No name given from Phayagyi monastery, alms bowl broken by bullets
Shin Thondara from South Htilin monastery, gunshot wound on arm, arrested but later released
Monks Who Were Beaten
Shin Wizaya from Nandi Thaynar Rama monastery; beaten on shin and calves
U Kawithara from Phayagyi monastery; beaten on arms and head
U Pyin Nya Wara from Phayagyi monastery; beaten and arrested
Shin Sarana from Phayagyi monastery; serious injuries on arms and head
Shin Theik Kha from Phayagyi monastery; beaten while on then ground
U Zanaka from Nyaung Kan monastery; beaten
Shin Egga from Nyaung Kan monastery; beaten
U Kay Thaya from New Ma Soe Yein monastery; beaten
U Nan Taw Batha from New Ma Soe Yein monastery; beaten twice on cheek
Shin Pyin Nya Thiri monastery unknown; beaten on head
U Kokkhana from New Ma Soe Yein monastery; beaten on left arm
U Thiri Kinzana from Padetha monastery; beaten on head
No name given from Myin Wun monastery; beaten on arms
U Kuthala from New Ma Soe Yein monastery; kneed on chest and stamped with boots
Monks Who Were Arrested
Shin Weseiktha from Old Ma Soe Yein monastery
Shin Yarzeinda from Old Ma Soe Yein monastery
U Kokkana from New Ma Soe Yein monastery
U Pyin Nya Wuntha from West Htilin monastery
Shin Thondara from South Htilin monastery

Source: List compiled by Mandalay monks after the incident, on file with Human Rights Watch.

The brutality against the monks appalled everyone. The government’s response was to flatly deny that any shooting had occurred in Mandalay on August 8. The state-run radio claimed that the students and the monks had attacked the security forces and that one novice had been slightly injured in the commotion.[10]

The official whitewash of the incident was not accepted by the monks in Mandalay. On August 27, more than 7,000 monks gathered in the city. They decided to refuse to accept offerings from soldiers and their families, or to perform religious rites for them, in effect excommunicating anyone associated with the military. The boycott soon spread all over Mandalay, the home of some 80,000 monks, and to other towns in upper Burma, including Sagaing, Monywa, Pakokku, Myingyan, Meiktila, Shwebo, and Ye-U.

In Rangoon, 2,000 monks met at the Buddhist study center of Ngar Htat Gyi to join the campaign against the military. On September 27, an open letter was sent to General Saw Maung, “to inform that the Sanghas within Rangoon City Development Area boycott the military government and support the decision taken by the Sanghas of Mandalay to undertake a pahtani kozana-kan (excommunication, in proper Pali “patta nikkujjana kamma”) on the military government.”[11] According to this practice, the monks turn their bowls upside down to show that they are on strike. The Sangha had only invoked this act once in modern history: against the Burmese Communist Party in 1950.

The significance of this act cannot be underestimated. The Vinaya, the monastic code of conduct, expressly prohibits monks from engaging in worldly affairs, including political acts such as marching in protest against government policies or actions. According to Buddhism scholar Ingrid Jordt, writing of the significance of the 2007 patta nikkujjana kamma protest:

One exception is allowed however. This can occur when some person or persons are seen as acting in ways that threaten the Sasana—the teachings of the Buddha, or for our purposes, the Buddhist religion. In such a case the sangha is permitted to issue what is regarded as the ultimate moral rebuke: refusing to accept donations…To refuse to accept someone’s donation is to deny that person the opportunity to earn merit. By refusing to function as the “merit fields” in which the military can sow their future prosperity, the monks effectively removed the spiritual condition sustaining the regime’s power.[12]

The SLORC decided to use force to quell the opposition. More than 65 MPs-elect were arrested. On October 20, General Saw Maung ordered the dissolution of all Buddhist organizations involved in anti-government activities. “Those who refuse will not be allowed to remain monks,” he stated.[13] Local military commanders were also vested with martial law powers, enabling them to disrobe monks and have them imprisoned or executed if they did not comply with the government order.

Two days later, leaflets ordering the monks to give up the boycott were dropped from army helicopters over several Mandalay monasteries. The army moved into action. Heavily armed troops raided 133 monasteries and arrested scores of monks. General Saw Maung, who had traveled to Mandalay to direct the action against the monks, returned to Rangoon on October 24 after the end of the operation. Among those arrested were some of Burma’s most-respected senior abbots, including U Thumingala, head of a renowned teaching monastery in Rangoon.

In many ways, the last hope for the democratic opposition had been pinned on the monks. When the army demonstrated that it would not hesitate to move against even the most respected segment of Burmese society, most people lost heart. The pro-democracy movement crumbled and all overt opposition to the SLORC ceased.

On October 31, the government enacted a new law relating to the Sangha, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) Declaration 20/90, which stipulated that, “there shall be only one Sangha Organization in the Union of Myanmar …[and] no one shall organize, agitate, deliver speeches or distribute writings in order to disintegrate the Sangha Organizations at different levels.” Any monk or novice found violating the new law would be subject to imprisonment from a minimum of six months to a maximum of three years.[14]

The exact number of monks who were arrested during the sweeps in late 1990 and early 1991 is not known, but it is believed to be in the hundreds. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) reported that it was as many as 3,115, although this figure has not been independently confirmed. The organization stated, “These monks were forced to disrobe, sent to hard labor camps and used as porters at the front-lines of the civil war in the ethnic border states.”[15]

Ashin Pyinnya Jota was a 30-year-old monk caught up in these events in 1990. He wrote:

The first time I was arrested, soldiers raided my monastery. They took me to a detention center in downtown Rangoon.[16]

The officials tried to get a senior abbot to formally disrobe the young monk, but the abbot refused:

In Buddhism, a monk cannot simply be disrobed by the authorities. Unless a monk chooses to leave the monastic order or is found guilty of a serious offense against his precepts, he should remain in his robes.[17]

The military intelligence agents then took him to an interrogation facility where they punched him repeatedly:

I did not believe that monks could be beaten like this in Burma, a Buddhist country. Everyone in Burma respects monks, I thought. But I was wrong to expect our country’s evil rulers to treat monks with respect. It saddened me to learn that this was possible in a Buddhist land.[18]

A government booklet, published in June 1991, has pictures and bio-data of 77 monks and novices who had been arrested, ranging in age from 15 to 63. They were accused of “causing disturbances,” and “anti-government leaflets” had been found on some of them. One, U Zotika, was arrested because he had written “two anti-government poems” in his diary.[19]

During the months following the crushing of the monks’ uprising, the state-controlled media showed SLORC leaders and other senior army officers visiting monasteries, donating cars and television sets to abbots. A cartoon in the government paper the Working People’s Daily promoted the military as the true upholders of the Buddhist faith. Unruly civilian politicians were depicted arguing over “this-ism” and “that-ism,” while a soldier said, “I have only one ‘ism,’ and that’s Buddhism.”[20]

The ruling junta was clearly realizing the political potential of Buddhism and did its utmost to control the Sangha and its followers. On January 3, 1991, the then commander of the Rangoon military division, Major-General Myo Nyunt, addressed school headmasters “to discuss measures for conducting Buddhist culture courses at schools beginning from [the] 1991-92 academic year.”[21]

At the same time, the SLORC handed out Agga Maha Pandita titles to 49 Burmese and 14 foreign Buddhist monks. That title had until then been used sparingly with only a few very senior monks being so honored annually. A number of leading clergy were also replaced by monks believed to be more favorable to the SLORC, leading to the expression “SLORC monks” by their critics. International Buddhist figures reacted badly, according to Martin Smith:

In early 1991 the SLORC invited a number of leading international Buddhist dignitaries, including the Thai Supreme Patriarch, Bhannanta Nanasamvara, to Rangoon to receive Burma’s highest Buddhist awards (the Agga Maha Pandita), apparently to curry favor—and hence legitimacy from abroad. Most of these invitations were turned down and in September 1991, amid considerable diplomatic embarrassment, Lieutenant-General Phone Myint, the Home and Religious Affairs Minister, was rebuffed after he flew to Bangkok to try to personally confer the titles in Thailand. In Buddhist communities around the world deep unease has persisted over reports of the alleged ill-treatment of monks in jail, and these fears were confirmed by a number of monks who, on their release, complained that they had been forcibly disrobed in prison and prevented from performing their religious offices.[22]

Since August 1991, the Working People’s Daily (which was renamed TheNew Light of Myanmar in 1993) has run a Buddhist slogan across the top of each front page, such as “Nibbanasacchikiriya ca, to realize the Nibbana [Nirvana]; this is the way to auspiciousness,” or “Virati papa, to refrain from sin; this is the way to auspiciousness.”


[1]  Interview by Bertil Lintner, Bangkok, September 1988. See Bertil Lintner, Outrage: Burma’sStruggle for Democracy, (London and Bangkok: White Lotus, 1990), p. 103.
[2]  Ibid., pp. 119-120.
[3] Ward Keeler, “Fighting for Democracy on a Heap of Jewels,” Working Paper No. 102, Center of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia, 1997, p. 14.
[4]  Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948, (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1999), p. 352. The quote from Saw Maung comes from an interview with him in Asiaweek, January 27, 1989.
[5]  Statement issued by the RBMUF on November 16, 1989. On file with Human Rights Watch.
[6]  British Broadcasting Corporation, Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), Rangoon Home Service, July 27, 1990 (FE/0829B/July 30, 1990).
[7]  BBC, Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), Rangoon Home Service, September 22, 1988 (FE/0265B/September 24, 1988).
[8] State Law and Order Restoration Council Chairman Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services General Saw Maung’s Addresses (Rangoon: Government Publishing, 1990), p. 323.
[9] Working People’s Daily, May 11, 1990. “That person” was former Attorney-General U Hla Aung, who was close to the NLD and, at the time, researching constitutional issues for the pro-democracy movement. The same speech was published in full in Address Delivered by State Law and Order Restoration Council Council, Chairman Commander-in-Chief of The Defense Services Senior General Saw Maung at the Meeting held between the SLORC and State/Division LORC, May 9-10, 1990, (Rangoon: Government Publishing, 1990), pp. 87-91.
[10]  BBC, Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB), Rangoon Home Service, August 8, 1990 (FE/0839B/1, August 10, 1990).
[11]  Copy of the letter on file with Human Rights Watch.
[12]  Ingrid Jordt, “Turning Over the Bowl in Burma,” Religion in the News, vol.10, no.3, Winter 2008.
[13]  “Burmese anti-government monks told to disband,” Bangkok Post, October 21, 1990.
[14] Working People’s Daily, November 1, 1990, Martin Smith, State of Fear. Censorship in Burma (Myanmar), (London: Article 19, December 1991), pp.62-66.
[15]  Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), Burma: A Land Where Buddhist Monks Are Disrobed and Detained in Dungeons, Mae Sot, November 2004, p. 42.
[16]  Wai Moe, “A Monks Tale,” The Irrawaddy, vol.16, no.4, April 2008, pp.14-15.
[17]  Ibid.
[18]  Ibid.
[19] Web of Complicated Stories of Treacherous Machinations and Intrigues of BCP UG, DAB, And Some NLD Leaders to Seize State Power, Rangoon: Ministry of Information, June 1991.
[20]  Martin Smith, State of Fear: Censorship in Burma (Myanmar), (London: Article 19, December 1991), p. 65.
[21] Working People’s Daily, January 4, 1991.
[22]  Ibid., pp. 65-66.

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