The Saffron Battle: The Monastic Revolution for Democracy
by Ka Yan Hui


In the fall of 2007, Burmese monks led a nation in defiance against a military junta that has illegitimately ruled over a people for almost half a century. Named the “Saffron Revolution” by media outlets, the Burmese social movement gave hope to the Burmese people that they would finally have a democratic nation. The optimism was short-lived, however, and the junta had scarce any mercy when it put a violent end to the movement. Nonetheless, the Saffron Revolution imparts an important lesson, showing how a particular religion can reach out and stir people to act, and how it can inspire a message that resonates with an international body that has the ability to act on behalf of the silenced.

Pattam  nikkujjana kamma  : Turning over the alms bowl

It is in the Vinaya Pitaka, the Theravada Buddhist canonical texts, that Buddha instructed the sangha, his community of monks and nuns, to follow the precept of pattam nikkujjana kamma in Pali, literally, ‘turning over of the alms bowl’. The ancient phrase instructs a religious boycott of alms against those who engage in the eight wrong factors of character and conduct in the vinaya (AASP 2004). The overturned alms bowl has become a symbol of defiance in Buddhist nations, signifying the monks’ refusal to accept donations from wrongdoers in exchange for punna, or merit - a crux of the Buddhist faith. In late September 2007, the streets of Yangon (Rangoon), and elsewhere in Burma were flushed by the deep saffron-coloured robes worn by protesting monks, who carried the flags of the National League for Democracy (NLD)[1] in one hand and their overturned bowls in the other (Taylor 2009). Across the country, as Burmese monks mobilised, they were eventually joined by civilians in a loud cry against the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the military regime that has ruled since its armed takeover in 1962. Both within and outside the nation, hope for a democratic Burma swelled as protests in the cities grew with each passing day. Yet the demonstrations -- which the media later branded as the “Saffron Revolution” after the coloured robes donned by the monks -- were brought to a halt after the military junta enforced a crackdown upon the country. Gunshots fired into crowds of protestors and evening raids of monasteries put an immediate end to the Saffron Revolution, and it became but a memory of momentary hope for the Burmese people.

Still, not since the teahouse incident of 1988 had the SPDC been met with resistance in vast numbers, and not since then had the monkhood been involved in any direct confrontation with the state. If anything is to be learned from this failed movement, however, it is that religion played an essential role as a tool to mobilise, and ultimately inspire, a people towards defiance. Here, I consider how the interaction between religion and the actors and targets involved were significant throughout the entire movement. How Buddhist values were wielded as a political and spiritual tool on both sides poses an interesting paradox, and one that can be explored through examining the tactics and frames of each side. And certainly, the international context of the Saffron Revolution deserves some discussion. Questions remain in the aftermath of the movement, such as: did the frames, or messages, of the Saffron Revolution coincide with prevailing attitudes of our integrated, globalized community circa 2007? Do the messages projected by the actors belong to the master frames that formed the bases for other movements in the start of the 21st century? Furthermore, what did the Saffron Revolution mean for outsiders, and what roles or responsibilities did they adopt?

Burma: “A country of slaves and prisoners”

Burma, or the Union of Myanmar as it is formally recognized, is nestled in Southeast Asia, between the emerging powers of India and China, along with Bangladesh and Thailand. It is home to 56 million, of which nearly 90 percent are of Buddhist faith (Central Intelligence Agency 2009). The nation is plagued by a list of ailments: the continued despotism of single-party rule since 1962, a mismanaged economy stifled by high inflation costs, an ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic that has already claimed the lives of over 25,000 and put another 240,000 at risk, and the remnants of the Cyclone Nargis tragedy in 2008, which left 130,000 dead and only exacerbated the junta’s failure to provide the necessary humanitarian aid for its people (Beyrer 2007).

1948 marked the end of nearly a hundred years of British colonial rule, and Burma’s newly founded independence would be ensured by the British parliamentary democratic system to be adopted. The short stint of democracy ended on March 2, 1962, when military commander General Ne Win, forcibly removed elected Prime Minister U Nu and his ministers from office. Five months after the coup d’etat, General Ne Win turned his back from parliament all together, banning all existing parties but his own, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). The “Burmese Road to Socialism” lasted until 1988, during which Ne Win’s Soviet-style policies led the Asian “tiger” economy to collapse entirely (Skidmore 2005).

1988 was a tumultuous year in Burma, marked by protest, bloodshed, and the creation of the pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).The 8888 Uprising was the largest anti-government demonstration for the country in the 20th century, but it was suppressed by the newly formed SPDC(Clements 2008)[2]. In the 1990 multiparty elections called by SPDC, the NLD, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the majority of votes after a representative turnout, regardless of the fact that many of its leaders had been arrested and imprisoned. Yet, still today, the military has blatantly refused to recognize the legitimacy of the NLD (Ibid). Aung San Suu Kyi, during a brief release from house arrest between 1995 and 1996, reflected: “The regime has made Burma into a country of slaves and prisoners. Yet our message remains the same: change through compassion, not killing” (Ibid).

The precipitating event of the Revolution could be traced back to mid-August 2007, after the government’s erratic decision to remove state subsidies on petrol prices led to fuel prices soaring five times its value and transportation costs doubling overnight (Taylor op. Cit). Compounded by an already stifled economy, the drastic move, which was intended to cover the increased budget for civil servant wages, was the driving force for students – not the Burmese monks – to mobilize under the 88 Generation of Students, a pre-existing pro-democracy organization, on August 19, 2007. Demonstrations against the economic inflation were held in the capital city of Yangon (Rangoon) and in other cities scattered across the country; yet, student participation was insufficient for the protests to gain any momentum and for immediate goals to be addressed by the state (Ibid). In hindsight, however, the student protests were the early risers in the protest cycle, fostering the grounds for which the Saffron Revolution would be launched, paralleling Tarrow’s belief that movements create opportunities for both themselves and other movements (Staggenborg 2008).

Protestors were not large in numbers, but relentless in their cause nonetheless. On 5 September, several Buddhist monks demonstrating in the town of Pakokku were beaten, leading to younger monks in the country to hold three officials captive in return for an apology. The absence of any reconciliation from the junta set the stage for large-scale demonstrations organised by the sangha. The protests escalated over the next two weeks, during which frames of the movement were being broadened all the while the government was constricting details of the movement from leaving the nation. On September 24, at the height of the Saffron Revolution, the protest crowds of Yangon had grown to proportions of 50,000 and demonstrations across the country had too become an alarming threat to the military’s rule. On September 26, the same day authorities closed down all Internet cafés in Rangoon and disconnected mobile phone lines, the military regime installed a violent crackdown on protestors, firing shots into crowds and arresting, oftentimes torturing dissidents. That evening, the military proceeded to raid numerous Buddhist monasteries and leaders and their families were detained. The number of deaths is still uncertain, with the regime reporting that ten had been killed and another 3,000 detained, while witnesses believed that that closer to 200 were killed  during the crackdown (Clements ob. Cit). The crackdown effectively ended the protests and many leading monks were forced into hiding in neighbouring countries.

The Challengers of the Saffron Revolution: Frames, Tactics, and their Targets
“Give me whereon to stand and I will move the earth.” -- Archimedes (c. 287-212 BC)

In a nation where its institutions, moral culture and identity and are so deeply entrenched in a sole religion, the actors of the Saffron Revolution had to tread carefully when considering how to frame their movement and what tactics would be used. The challengers were members of the sangha, the community of monks and nuns in Burma. The community monkhood was the main mobilizing structure for recruitment and organization. Numbering close to 400,000, the Buddhist monks are highly respected by the Burmese people and their influence extends beyond religious practice, finding its way into education, health care, and the Burmese moral culture (Rogers 2008). Their high social standing of the monks in Burma is an important factor when considering what led to massive mobilisation of protestors coming from all walks of life. True, the grievances that underlay the movement were shared by a population deprived of its rights, and truer still, class homogeneity did nullify possibilities for inter-class conflict, yet it was the authority of the Burmese monks, coupled with the frames and tactics they chose, that explain why their protests were not met with apathy by the general public, as it the student protests in August had been.

Initially, the frames of the movement concerned the economic crisis after subsidies had been removed from the petrol prices. The frame was narrow yet it had affected everyone. The monks bore witness to the Burmese people suffering under the crippling economy, and at the same time their livelihood was being threatened as they depended on the citizenry for their alms. As the protests progressed, the government attempted to quash any communication from Burma to the outside world. Paradoxically, repression by the state was a proviso for a renewed political opportunity. Their efforts only highlighted the limits of human freedoms under tyrannical rule, and frames were adjusted accordingly, embodying the long-standing and widespread dissatisfaction with the state rule and subsequently demanding that the Burmese people be reconciled with the rights of a democratic nation. The broadened frames also played a role in mobilising the population; affiliates of the NLD, the 88’ Generation group, and members of the older generation (under the Veteran Politicians Organisation) joined the monks in the first time since the 8888 Uprising (Taylor op. Cit). Additionally, during the protests, the All-Burma Monks Alliance was founded to help coordinate the monks, and is an accommodating resource for future mobilisation (Clements op. Cit). The foundations of the frames of the Saffron Revolution could be interpreted as “socially engaged Buddhism”, what Aung San Suu Kyi described as an “intersection of traditional religious values and Western post-Enlightenment thought that empathizes universal human rights and a participatory political process” (Schober 2005). To become part of the movement was not un-Buddhist, as the targets would argue in their campaigns against the monks, but was in fact connecting to one’s religion in a definable way. Finally, the frames were not marked by a distinct dichotomy between the challengers and the targets. The aim was to implement democracy and not to seek retributive justice, remaining fluid with Buddhist beliefs. “The future of Burma rests in our power of forgiveness and our commitment to unity. We must reconcile even with our enemies. Trust that compassion is a more powerful weapon than guns,” said U Gambira, one of the monks that organized the protests (Clements op. Cit).

Tactics were firmly anchored along principles of Buddhism, such as ahimsa, or non-harming. Though hardly a new tactic, the overturned alms bowl symbolized the sangha’s refusal of alms from military forces. It had strong resonance or believers of the Buddhist faith, for it “[denied] these lay people religious support not only in this life, but also in the next”; furthermore, from a political perspective, the tactic was an explicit, visual form of questioning the regime’s claim to strong ties with Buddhist values and the sangha (Selth 2008). The tactic is consistent with their other forms of nonviolent protest used, which altogether aroused sympathies on the home front and abroad, but failed to bring necessary change, and any attempt to do so was halted by the state through violence. In this way, the religious context with which the protests took place indeed could have hampered the cause as much as it helped it; extreme, violent measures were by no means considered by organizers. Weighing between radical, aggressive forms of protest and the peaceful forms used, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “…I’m afraid that if we achieve democracy [through violence] we will never be able to get rid of the idea that you bring about necessary changes through violence. […] For me it is as much a political tactic as a spiritual belief, that violence is not the right way. It would simply not assist us in building up a strong democracy (Clements op. Cit.)".

Her sentiments were echoed in the tactics employed by the primary actors of the protests: protestors marched in an orderly fashion along the sheets, chanting prayers of kindness and protection from the Pali scripts (Ibid). In the monk-led protests, self-immolation was forbidden as a tactic, as it was far too extreme of a tactic and did not align with both political tactics and spiritual belief.

The targets of the Saffron Revolution were the military junta, which has governed the state under one-party rule, limiting the freedoms of its Burmese citizenry. For SPDC, religion plays an equally crucial role in asserting its authority; since 1962, the state has “sought to reshape Buddhist piety and social morality in the image of political ideologies in order to legitimate its rule” (Schober op Cit.). Using the dominant religion as a political tool, the SPDC has put its efforts into “[instilling] among its citizens and within the sangha is own brand of Buddhist nationalism” by associating Buddhist ritual and celebration along with nationalistic identity (Ibid). The rituals, patronage of relics, and public merit-making by government officials are part of the efforts to subscribe citizens with the military’s vision of Buddhism. Meanwhile, the SPDC has tried to bring closer the associations between the sangha and the junta to further legitimize their rule (Ibid). Within the administration of the SPDC, positions and activities are specifically designated towards extending the state’s control over religious thought and the religious order; in 1980, the National Sangha Mahanayaka Council was implemented to supervise the activities of the monastic society (Ibid). To return to the familiar image of an overturned alms bowl, the tactic was a direct challenge to the state and a threat to its stability. The perceived close relations that the state forcibly established between itself and the sangha through its own institutions were severed by the silent show of protest. Furthermore, the state was criticized by its challengers on grounds that their actions deviated from Buddhist beliefs.

Contradiction ebbs and flows through the movement and its constituents: the powerless hold power and those who instill fear do so out of fear itself. Religion helped to strengthen and at the same time weaken both sides of the Saffron Revolution and it was and continues to play an important feature to constructing the Burmese identity and at the same time to question the mechanisms within Burmese culture and institutions.

The International Context

Nothing can erase what was witnessed in the late summer of 2007, despite the efforts of the SPDC to sever all forms of communication from Burma to the outside world. Visions of the 2007 demonstrations in Burma were not just vividly pronounced in the memories of the Burmese people, but were too engrained into those of outsiders – those outside the movement and the nation – granted, likely not to the same extent. Perhaps what most distinguishes the demonstrations of the Saffron Revolution from those in 1988 is the degree of international exposure they both experienced; in less than two decades, communications technology has advanced exponentially, helping to overcome hurdles of massive censorship and restrictions on foreign press. The frames that were to be constructed by the actors in 2007 and the transforming role of the international body were in large part a result of that exposure.

It cannot be ignored that a growing awareness of an international audience likely factored in at some point. Interaction with the international body was beneficial for the challengers, as “multilateralism creates new arenas to question state agendas, to draw international attention to domestic practices, and to cultivate alliances with powerful actors” (Smith 2002). The global network of a shared religion provided a multitude of resources, including human and experiential, and that exiled activists were scattered around other countries helped to spread information and engage outsiders. The protests changed the cultural opportunity structure on a global level, as outside groups used this time of heightened awareness to mobilise old and new members into campaigns. On 30 September 2007, an estimated 3,000 people participated in a march in London, according to organisers Burma Campaign UK (BBC News 2007). Socially-engaged Buddhism provided a frame not wholly specific to Buddhist religion but encompassing universal ideas that would appeal to the global community (Schober op. Cit.). Human liberties and fair political practices are but elements of the master frames in the Global Justice Movement, which can take important meaning in the cultural opportunity structure along with the changing role of the international body considered.

The world watched in disbelief as peaceful protest was met with an iron fist, which spurned international outrage. Actors took steps beyond the limits of the Burmese boundaries to appeal to that outrage; days after the demonstrations were quieted, U Gambira, one of the chief organizers of the protests, acknowledged the sympathies of the rest of the world in a message addressed to the United Nations Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, former US president George Bush, and to the world, when he made his plea for help to “liberate the people of Burma from this oppressive and wicked system” (Clements op. Cit.). International response was, at least for democratic states, in favour of the Burmese monks, and was illustrated by an outpour of support. Canada, US, UK, Japan and the EU all took immediate steps against the regime, although countries in ASEAN were and still are resistant to imposing tougher economic sanctions (Selth op. Cit.). The United Nations, reacted to the monks’ protests in presidential statement released by the UN Security Council in October 2007, deploring the SPDC’s violent crackdown (UNSC 2007). What the Saffron Revolution demonstrated is the transforming role of the international community in state politics, and that, whether by the insistence of small activist organizations or by a general recognition of global integration, the community has had to account for new responsibilities.

The movement as part of the human rights master frame and the increasing importance of international influence on state affairs can imply a strong correlation with the Global Justice Movement. The economic crisis in 2007 has strong ties to neo-liberal policies implemented by the WTO, and thus from a very broad outlook the Saffron Revolution should be considered a part of the ongoing Global Justice Movement. Finally, internationalism played a vital role in providing opportunities for actors to “engage in collective action at different levels” (Staggenborg op. Cit.); for example, trans-national bodies like ASEAN were pressured to reform their economic policies and attitudes towards the Burmese regime (Selth op. Cit.).


The problem with remaining optimistic of Burma’s future is that there is little basis for such kind of thinking; as invested as outsiders were in the weeks of August and September 2007, outside engagement to their cause majorly dissipated once immediate problems hit home. The fight against terrorism, the environmental movement, and the global economic crisis are just some of the issues that have left little room for meddling in the affairs of a collapsing nation. Perhaps some consolation could be found when considering that the Burma movement fits into the all-encompassing global justice movement, and that it has not disappeared completely from activist agenda. Yet, that movement alone is composed of large-scale grievances that will likely be addressed before specificities are even given a chance to compete for attention. The voice for struggling nations such as Burma need to be heard on the international domain so that any action the global body need take can be done so swiftly; otherwise, the opportunities that the actors of the Saffron Revolution afforded, often by sacrifice, will have only been in vain. It was U Gambira, who has since been arrested and imprisoned, who said: “Freedom for the people of Burma is near. The cost of that freedom is the only question. We are at a critical moment in history” (Clements op. Cit).


[1] The National League for Democracy is Burma’s elected political party since the 1990 parliamentary elections; however, the ruling military junta has yet to recognize the party’s legitimacy.
[2] SPDC was initially named the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1989 but was eventually renamed in 1997 to its existing



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