Aung Zaw: 'Sons of Buddha' have little choice but to march

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The wave of protests led by thousands of monks, which turned into a mass uprising, has shaken a once-confident regime that hijacked Burma's political legitimacy and took control of the country at gunpoint. Now Burma is clearly a political time bomb that can explode anytime.

However, this is not the first time monks and Burma's generals have embarked on such a collision course. The monks, considered to be "sons of Buddha", are the strongest institution in Burma after the armed forces. Over the past two decades, Burma's young and active Sangha Buddhist community of about 300,000, has had an uneasy relationship with the ruling generals, who have imprisoned several prominent, politically active monks.

It is not surprising to hear that many young monks from different parts of Burma have expressed simmering discontent and disappointment with the regime for years. Since last week, underground monk unions in Burma have called for a mass uprising and asked the public to join in. Until then, the monks had decided to observe a religious boycott, or patam nikkujjana kamma – meaning a boycott of alms from the military regime, or simply overturning their bowls instead of collecting food, donations and robes.

The peaceful marches by the determined monks have shaken the regime's confidence and injected energy into the fragile democracy movement. Reports from Rangoon suggest that the monks are well organised and well connected among the Sangha community. It seems they are determined to push through for change.

The regime reportedly brought in troops and security forces but still refrained from applying brute force.

What about the international community, however? The Burmese can see their selfish, opportunistic and ill-informed neighbours who are quick to exploit Burma's resources but who are reluctant to support moves towards political change and democracy.

The UN and the West continue to adopt a policy of "closely watching" events in Burma. UN special envoys continue to fly in and out of the country, with no tangible results. By mixing small doses of good news with a bounty of bad they are only doing the Burmese people a disfavour by equating one with the other. China, the regime's staunch political ally, reportedly told Burmese leaders to be careful with the monks. Meanwhile, Burmese and foreign activists outside Burma are holding up the threat of a boycott of Beijing's 2008 Olympic Games.

Back home, the monks, activists and their supporters are heroes. It seems they are also realists – there is no quick fix to cure Burma's ills. But they were left with little choice but to march on. The message from Burma is loud and clear: the country cannot afford to lose many more years.

The writer is the founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine based in Thailand.