I was in Bangkok a several months before the Thai military launched a coup d’tat against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. During my time there, I witnessed processions at various parts of the city where individuals wore yellow colored attire, signaling support for the monarch and more loudly, expressing strong discontent against the former Prime Minister. The protests were not at full steam yet then but like a rolling snowball, it gained momentum and the rest is history. The same trend is happening in Myanmar except that the color is orange: Buddhist monks are marching across Myanmar protesting against the Myanmar junta. The gravity of this development cannot be understated and I wish for it to develop into something bigger, in the name of self-interest.
The protests by monks have been going on for weeks now. It all started with fuel price hike announced by the junta in August 19. That protests were forcefully broken up by the authority and a number of participants of another protest on September 5, including monks and civilians, were beaten up. This enrages the monks and that further prompted larger protests against the junta.
The size of the protests have been increasing and it is gaining support from the public. From a group of hundreds of monks, the size swelled to over 1,000 at various places and on Saturday, 10,000 people took part, with almost half of the participants are from the general public. The protests show no sign of relenting and the military has been quiet, seeking refuge within the new capital of Myanmar. The new capital is isolating the junta government from public protest, perhaps, much like the Malaysian administrative center of Putrajaya is detached from common Malaysians.
From protest against fuel hike, it is slowly turning into protests by the monkshood and at the moment, demand for democracy. This is proven when the monks visited Aung San Suu Kyi, an strong advocate of democracy in Myanmar, whom is currently placed under house arrest by the junta.
In the Buddhist Myanmar, monks stand on a special position within the society: monks are the path toward better reincarnation in the next life. If the monks refuse to perform their tasks, opportunities for better reincarnation for common religious Buddhists diminished. The social implication is huge. Furthermore, with monks and advocates of democracy joining hand in hand, sometimes by voicing clear ambition for a democratic Myanmar, it is hard to dismiss the latest protest as a non-event.
I do hope that this development continues with its amplification. It may lead to a larger crackdown by the junta, which could be ugly but it may also lead to democratic change. The main reason for my support for the protest however is more about self-interest rather than love for democracy. I have a love-hate relationship with democracy but for Myanmar, I recognize democracy as something better than the current autocratic military rule for Malaysia. But could Malaysia gain from a democratic Myanmar?
In a list of countries with the most illegal migrants in Southeast Asia, Malaysia probably sits close to the top if the number one does not belong to us yet. There are approximately 27 million Malaysians in this country and there are close to 3 millions aliens of which approximately a quarter of them are illegal immigrants. Immigrants which many Malaysians find faults wit originate from among others Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The flow from Myanmar results from the country’s poor economic performance and a number of political issues. In Malaysia, the issue of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar remains unsolved and has caused Malaysians to irrationally become hateful or at least distrustful of the Rohingya. This is proven by the hostility shown when a Rohingya couple was accused by many Malaysians, including by the mainstream media of kidnapping a Malay child regardless of proof, perhaps resorting to racism. Furthermore, Malaysians including the authority are quick to attribute the increase in crime rate to lower class immigrants — not necessarily the Rohingya or any other ethnic groups from Myanmar — despite the fact that most crimes are proportionately committed by the locals themselves. Even the legislature had contemplated to restrict foreign laborers’ liberty in hope to control crime, showing a hint of xenophobia, making foreign laborers as scapegoat.
A democratic, peaceful and stable Myanmar could lay a path towards economic prosperity. That could reduces the push factors for Myanmar immigrants and if I may, limit attraction differential between Malaysia and Myanmar and thus, lower the number of immigrants from Myanmar looking for better safety and better opportunity in Malaysia. For any government that wishes to solve the social and economic issues presented by the Rohingyas and other Myanmar economic or political refugees in Malaysia, or simply not fully committed to free flow of labor, the act of encouraging meaningful stability in Myanmar is crucial. In my humble opinion, ASEAN has a role to play towards that end.
As the protests grow in size and number, rumors are running around that the junta is preparing to act against the protesters. ASEAN must be prepared to moral condemn any harsh action done against peaceful protests. In fact, this preparedness must be made known to the junta now as a stiff stick. This preparedness will go a long way in solving the immigration problem originating from Myanmar that Malaysia has to face. Indeed, Malaysia is no the only country that has to solve this issue. Thailand which lays immediately to the east of Myanmar is another country that shares Malaysian concern.
Alas, believing that ASEAN is act for the peaceful protestors, in the name democracy, is probably a joke that I unwittingly made. Governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore themselves, are not known to be defenders of freedom of expression. Add Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam into the equation, we could reasonable expect ASEAN to keep its mouth shut.
 — The monk’s activities have given new life to a protest movement that began a month ago after the government raised fuel prices, sparking demonstrations against policies that are causing economic hardship. [10,000 protest against Myanmar gov’t. AP via Yahoo! News. September 22 2007]
 — The campaign was launched after the Pokkaku incident on September 6, in which monks were beaten and humiliated by security officials and pro-regime thugs. Until an apology is received, the monks say they will refuse to accept alms, donations or robes from anyone associated with the regime. [Burma’s Regime Should Apologize to the Monks. The Irrawaddy. September 19 2007]
 — YANGON: Over 300 monks on Tuesday marched peacefully in Yangon, chanting Buddhist prayers in protest at Myanmar’s military regime, in a major sign of defiance against the junta. [Over 300 monks march through Myanmar’s main city. AFP via Channelnewsasia. September 18 2007]
 — Radio Free Asia reported police fired teargas and warning shots to disperse 1,000 monks in the port city of Sittwe, 350 miles west of the capital of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. [Myanmar monks defy government with marches. UPI via ScienceDaily. September 19 2007]
 — In the central city of Mandalay, a crowd of 10,000 people, including some 4,000 Buddhist monks, marched , witnesses said, in one of the largest demonstrations against the country’s repressive military regime since a democratic uprising in 1988. [10,000 protest against Myanmar gov’t. AP via Yahoo! News. September 22 2007]
 — YANGON, Myanmar – The wave of anti-government demonstrations sweeping Myanmar touched the doorstep of democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi Saturday as Buddhist monks marched past her home and said they were greeted by the detained political leader.
The encounter, described by a monk to a crowd of anti-government protesters and confirmed by several witnesses, ties together a month-long movement of protest against the ruling military’s economic policies with the country’s decades-old uphill struggle for democracy.
Suu Kyi, 62, has been under detention for more than 11 of the last 18 years, and continuously since May 2003. She is the leader of the National League for Democracy party, which won a 1990 general election but was not allowed to take power by the military. [Monks allowed past Suu Kyi’s house. AP via Yahoo News! September 23 2007]
 — The boycott, in which monks refuse to accept alms and offerings from well-wishers, is taken extremely seriously in the deeply devout country.
Without such rites, a Buddhist loses all chance of attaining nirvana, or release from the cycle of rebirth. [Buddhist monks stage protest in Myanmar. Aung Hla Tun. Reuters via The Scotman. September 17 2007]
 — Malaysia is home to 2.7 million foreign workers, including 700,000 there illegally. Caning of criminals is under scrutiny after a video of a prison caning was put on the internet. [Fury at Malaysia’s caning of immigrants. The Scotsman. August 8 2007]