RANGOON, Burma — Buddhist monks have begun taking part in a month-old series of protests over increased fuel prices, giving new life to a simmering movement that until now did not seem likely to threaten the military government.
Early this month, several hundred monks were beaten up by authorities in the northern town of Pakokku while peacefully protesting against the fuel price increases.
A group of monks retaliated by holding about 20 security officials captive for several hours, and others have vandalized shops of those supporting the military dictatorship.
This week the monks — who number almost half a million across Burma — threaten to cut off communications with the military leaders and their families and seek to humiliate them by refusing alms unless they receive an apology for the beatings.
The Buddhist clergy has tremendous influence over the public in this religiously devout nation, where nearly 90 percent of the populace is Buddhist.
“These actions can embolden Burmese people who’ve so far feared taking part in protests to come out on the streets in large numbers,” said a Burmese analyst in Rangoon who asked that he not be identified for fear of retaliation.
Since the protests began Aug. 19, the junta’s crackdown on protesters has been harsh. At protest rallies in Rangoon, men hired by the junta were seen beating protestors and tossing them into waiting trucks.
The government arrested 13 prominent leaders of the so-called 1988 Generation — activists who were involved in Burma’s 1988 democracy movement — and nearly 100 other protest leaders. Others are still being hunted down.
But the junta has been much more gentle in its handling of the monks, seeking to mollify them with gentle persuasion and financial favors. Last week, high-ranking junta officials donated cooking oil and other food products to Buddhist monasteries, according to the New Light of Myanmar, the state-run newspaper.
While fear of the government keeps most Burmese out of the protests, the interim leader of the 1988 Generation said the group receives widespread public sympathy and surreptitious help.
“You knock on a door late at night and whisper, ‘Let me in, brother.’ People willingly help us, even though they’re well aware of the dire consequences,” said the leader, whose name is withheld for his protection.
He acknowledged that the 1988 Generation is in close contact with senior Buddhist clergy, and said he is optimistic that the participation of Buddhist monks will encourage ordinary Burmese to come into the streets.
While many analysts doubt that will happen, there is little doubt about the depth of the anger generated by the price increases.
Acting without warning, the junta in mid-August nearly doubled the prices of gasoline and diesel, and raised the price of compressed natural gas nearly five times. Food prices and bus fares have risen in proportion, exacerbating the economic woes of an already impoverished people.
The rise in bus fares has been particularly painful. Rangoon’s estimated 2.4 million bus commuters are forced to pay up to three times more for fares.
Daw May Oo, an emaciated 30-year-old woman, lives with her 10-year-old son in a satellite township on the outskirts of the city, surviving on less than $1 a day. Bus fare to work and back now consumes 60 percent of her salary. “At this rate, even getting a meal per day might become a luxury,” she said.
The fuel price increases are part of a broader inflationary spiral, which touched a whopping 60 percent annual rate in April.
While Burma was once so productive that it was known as Asia’s rice bowl, today nearly a third of Burmese are chronically malnourished or physically underdeveloped, according to the World Food Program. The per capita income in Burma is around $175, among the lowest in Asia.
Yet the security-obsessed junta spends some 40 percent of its budget on its 450,000-strong army and defense.