MIDWAY : Monks on the march

The sight of young monks leading Burma’s anti-government protests jars with the western stereotype of Buddhists as peace-loving ascetics. But they follow in a long tradition of political activism in Asia. From the “dobdob” warriors of Tibet to the kung fu masters of China’s Shaolin temple, several monasteries have historically been centres of martial training, and many wielded considerable political influence.

In Burma, monks organised to form Young Men’s Buddhist Associations early in the 20th century. Many played roles in the anti-colonial protests that helped the country win independence in 1948. Forty years later, they accounted for many of the thousands killed by the military after the last mass demonstrations in Rangoon. About 90 monks are still in jail for their involvement.

Although some observers have compared the monks’ activism to that of university students, the contrasts are striking: while students tend to be middle-class, monks are more likely to come from poor families, who cannot afford to feed and educate them.

According to local media, there are around 100,000 pupils at the nation’s 1,200 monastery schools, which offer bed, board and classes for children aged eight to 16.

Buddhist teaching emphasises pacifism and respect for all living creatures. Yet with hundreds of millions of followers in Asia, it is also linked with politics. In Tibet, the Dalai Lama is traditionally a king, as well as a god and religious leader, and the Chinese authorities have arrested many monks and nuns for displaying the exiled figurehead’s photograph.

Other Asian nations are home to powerful political organisations associated with Buddhist groups. In Sri Lanka in 2004, nine monks opposing conciliation with Tamil Tiger rebels won seats in parliament. In Thailand this year, a parade of monks and elephants descended on parliament to demand that the new constitution recognises Buddhism as the national religion.

However, most headlines about monks in Asia emphasise their pacifism. One Malaysian newspaper this year reported the problems faced by a temple that was struggling to move a nest of angry red ants without killing a single one.