Myanmar junta scared of monks' cold shoulder

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YANGON, Sep 20 (Reuters) In a growing campaign against decades of military rule in Myanmar, thousands of Buddhist monks are doing nothing -- literally -- and the generals are getting worried.

In more and more monasteries across the former Burma, maroon-robed monks are invoking a 2,500-year-old Buddhist rite and refusing to accept alms from members of the military and their families or perform any religious duties for them.

The boycott is taken very seriously in the deeply devout Buddhist country, as the spurned alms-giver is denied one of the main routes to the merit that will eventually help him or her to achieve nirvana, or release from the cycle of rebirth.

Known as ''patam nikkuijana kamma'' in Pali, the ancient language of the Theravada Buddhist priesthood, it means ''turning over of the alms bowl''.

Politically, it is also extremely significant as the monks were major players in a nationwide uprising against decades of military rule in 1988. Then, the army was sent in to crush the unrest with the loss of an estimated 3,000 lives.

Two years later, during a similar boycott sparked by the junta's refusal to honour the results of elections it lost by a landslide, some soldiers had to welcome the birth of children or bury loved ones without the blessing of priests.

The boycott is similar to the Christian notion of excommunication, although can be reversed at any point if the perceived wrong-doers mend their ways.

''Only under the most compelling moral circumstances will a monk refuse the alms that have been offered, as to do so is to refuse to acknowledge the alms-giver as a part of the religious community,'' the Asian Human Rights Commission said.

''However, the view of monks in Burma today is that such an extraordinary moment has arrived.'' The boycott has gathered momentum since its launch on Tuesday in response to the junta's refusal to apologise publicly for soldiers firing warning shots over the heads of monks -- and beating some of them up -- in the town of Pakokku two weeks ago.

The ban is thought to have originated in Mandalay, home to 300,000 monks and the epicentre of the monastic tradition, despite heavy pressure on abbots in the central city.

Word has quickly spread from town to town.

''According to our code of practices and ethics, every monk is supposed to take part in this kind of boycott once they learn that some other monks have imposed it,'' one young monk in Yangon, the commercial capital, told Reuters this week. ''We can expect similar marches in the remaining monasteries and cities.'' The junta has countered the boycott, which has been broadcast on Myanmar-language foreign radio stations, with front-page coverage in official media of men in uniform giving alms to -- and having them accepted by -- senior monks.

One middle-aged cleric said the priesthood was simply catching up with something he had been doing for 17 years.

''I have imposed it on them since 1990, and I'll keep it on,'' he said.

REUTERS SKB KP1515

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