Given their historical ability to foment dissent, the military has been cautious, preferring to use gentle persuasion – and material enticements – to mollify the monks. Last week, high-ranking junta officials made donations of cooking oil and other food items to Buddhist monasteries, according to the New Light of Myanmar, the state-run newspaper. Despite several stern warnings, the military has yet to arrest any of the protesting monks.
On Wednesday, about 500 monks found the gates locked at the Shwedagon pagoda, the country's most revered temple, which sits on a hill dominating the country's largest city and former capital, Rangoon. The monks then proceeded to temporarily take over Sule pagoda before dispersing peacefully.
The holy men's participation in the protests began during the first week of September, when authorities in the northern town of Pakokku beat up hundreds of monks as they protested peacefully against the fuel price hikes. Burmese monks gave the junta until Monday to apologize for the violence. The military remained silent, prompting the monks to boycott the military's alms and take to the streets Tuesday, when four of them were arrested. Many of the clerics who were marching Wednesday were demanding the four monks' release.
Since the protests began Aug. 19, the junta's crackdown on protesters has been harsh. At protest rallies in Rangoon, toughs hired by the junta were seen beating up protesters, and herding them into waiting trucks. Security forces arrested 13 prominent leaders of the 1988 generation – a group of activists involved in Burma's 1988 pro-democracy movement – and nearly 100 other activists.
The interim leader of the '88 generation – a close aide of their chief, Min Ko Naing – who has so far managed to evade arrest, says that pro-democracy agitators have for weeks been urging senior Buddhist clergy to join the protests.
"The participation of monks will encourage ordinary Burmese to come out on the streets to express their pent-up anger against the regime," he says.
He says that despite the low level of participation, the public is sympathetic to the activists' cause, and many are surreptitiously helping the protesters.