MANDALAY, Myanmar — As the lunch gong chimed through a tree-shaded monastery, several hundred monks in burgundy robes lined up on a mid-October day, all holding alms bowls.
It is a common scene in Myanmar, formerly Burma, where one out of every 100 people, many of them children, are monks. But the lunch line at the Mahagandhayon Monastery, the country’s largest, used to be much longer.
“We usually have 1,400 monks here,” said a senior monk. “Because of the situation, parents took 1,000 of them home.”
For decades, two powerful institutions have shaped Burmese life: the 500,000-member Buddhist clergy, which commands a moral authority over the population, and Senior Gen. Than Shwe’s junta, whose 450,000-strong military controls the population through intimidation.
Their uneasy coexistence has shattered. After scattered demonstrations erupted against sharp increases in fuel prices in August, thousands of monks protested the junta’s economic mismanagement and political repression. The military responded with batons and bullets.
The guns have prevailed over mantras, at least for now.
As of Oct. 6, the government said it had detained 533 monks, of whom 398 were released after sorting out what it called “real monks” from “bogus ones.” Monks and dissidents contend that many more were detained.
“They took away truckloads of monks and laypeople,” said the deputy leader of a monastery in Yangon, the country’s most populous city. “They had the monks kneel down, with their hands on the back of their heads. Anyone who raised his head was beaten.”
He said at Ngwe Kyayan, Yangon’s largest monastery, soldiers took food and donation boxes, and beat the abbot and vandalized images of Buddha, as some of its 300 monks fought back.
The monks, he said, began demonstrating against the economic deprivation of the Burmese. “It’s a terrible situation,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, like others interviewed, because he feared government reprisals. “Monks took to the streets to draw attention to this problem, pleading for loving kindness. But our government is worse than Hitler’s Nazis. They have no respect for religion.” When it was over, The New Light of Myanmar, a state-run English-language newspaper, said, monks had been “defrocked” during interrogation so that they could be questioned as laypeople, then “ordained” and sent “back to their monasteries.” Monks denounced the process.
The junta also used divide-and-rule tactics, by persuading the state-sanctioned Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, which oversees the clergy, to take its donations and to order monks to stop protesting or face punishment.
“Some of these senior monks are bribed by the regime,” said an editor at a Yangon magazine. “They have accepted so many good things in life — cars, televisions, big houses, telephones and mobile phones — that they simply have to listen to the regime.”
At the Mahagandhayon Monastery here in Mandalay, soldiers had pulled back by mid-October after cordoning off the temple for weeks. But their trucks continued to lurk in alleys nearby, as rumors circulated that, if the monks rose up again, it would probably be in this city, the nation’s second most populous. About 20,000 of its million residents are monks, one of the highest concentrations in the country.
Young men from across the country train here as monks, and they have grown more passionate about the poverty and injustice their nation has suffered under the military government.
The fear was still palpable at Mahagandhayon, where monks chanted mantras over their last meal of the day, a late-morning lunch of vegetable soup, eggplants, rice and a treat from a donor — instant noodles. But they were still reluctant to discuss the military’s crushing of the demonstrations in late September.
“They are afraid of guns!” a senior monk said before vanishing into the dining hall.
Long before the protests, monks were aware of people’s suffering. When they went to receive alms, said the senior monk in Yangon, they saw “no happiness in people’s faces, people whose minds are preoccupied with finding food and surviving one day at a time.”
But the military’s use of force against the monks has unsettled fundamental Burmese values.
“To Burmese, monks are like sons of the Buddha,” said Maung Aye, a taxi driver, as he drove around Yangon’s Sule Pagoda, which is said to enshrine a hair of the Buddha and was a focal point of the protests.