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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's explosive new book. We'll talk with two people who know him well. That's coming up. But first, we want to talk about the ongoing turmoil in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Today, a United Nations special envoy met with Myanmar's top military leader. Hours later, he also met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been under house arrest for years. Their meetings were an effort to end the ruling military's violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters - among them, thousands of Buddhist monks who have led some of the demonstrations.

We want to better understand the situation in Burma, as well as the role of the monks in organizing the protests. So we're going to speak to one of this country's foremost scholars of Buddhism, a former monk himself, Robert Thurman.

But first, we're going to talk with Aung Din. He is a former political prisoner of the Burmese junta. He is now policy director and co-founder at the U.S. Campaign for Burma. He joins us by phone from his home outside of Washington, D.C.

Aung Din, welcome.

Mr. AUNG DIN (United States Campaign for Burma): Yeah. Hi, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm fine, thank you. Forgive my voice. I am working on a little bit of a cold here, so I apologize for that.

Mr. DIN: Yeah, I understand.

MARTIN: I want to start by saying ordinarily we think of monks as people who withdraw from society, as contemplative, to sort of transcend ordinary existence. So why are they at the forefront of these protests in Burma?

Mr. DIN: Yeah. Today, Burma has about 54 million population and (unintelligible) about 80-85 percent of the population are Buddhists, Buddhists. So let's say it is about 43 million people. And we also have about 400,000 Buddhist monks who are living in society (unintelligible) Buddhism, teaching (unintelligible) to people and maintaining a culture in the society. So they are very, very powerful.

Yeah. They doesn't hold the actual power, but they are our moral leader. They hold a moral authority. They are our teachers, so we pay respect to them as we pay respect to our Lord Buddha, and also our parents.

MARTIN: Have they - have the monks been active in any past movements in Burmese society?

Mr. DIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They did - they did participate in every struggle, even in the independence struggle in the 1940s and also in the 1988 popular uprising. And also in 1991, they hold a similar protest (unintelligible) against a Burmese military junta. So they had joined activity with the people of Burma in every struggle against the dictatorship.

MARTIN: So why now? Why this, why this - what catalyzed this particular protest now?

Mr. DIN: Actually, actually, the people of Burma came to the streets to challenge the military junta about its sudden increase of fuel prices, which (unintelligible) increase other basic commodities, prices higher and higher, which made the people of Burma (unintelligible).

So there is some people who call for the regime to reduce all the prices and they came to the streets. But when the military junta responded by brutally attacking with the - of these protesters, the Buddhist monks came to the streets, but they came to the streets, not, none - with a very, very disciplined manner.

You know, they came to the streets reciting their metta sutra(ph), which is a Buddhist teaching of the loving and kindness, loving and kindness. They marched in the street very peacefully and this - their intention is (unintelligible) metta, which is loving and kindness, to all over the country, all over the people. Because (unintelligible), the people are now fighting each other. That is why they would like to deliver the metta to all over the country.

But instead, here we are, confronted with the brutal force by the military junta (unintelligible) military junta fired a warning shot above the sky to disperse the Buddhist monks' peaceful march and they also arrested a Buddhist monk brutally and they even arrested two monks and put in a detention center.

MARTIN: I understand that. Aung Din, if I could ask you to stay with us, because I want to bring in Robert Thurman and that the three of us can speak together.

I'd like to bring Robert Thurman in now. He was the first American ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He's no longer a monk, but he is now holding the first endowed chair in Buddhist studies in the West. He teaches at Columbia University.

Professor Thurman, welcome. Thank you for speaking with us.

Professor ROBERT THURMAN (Columbia University): Oh, hi, Michel. How are you? I'm happy to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. And I'd like to ask you the same question I asked Aung Din. We generally think of monks as contemplative. So is this unusual for monks to be so prominent as leaders of political and peaceful protest?

Prof. THURMAN: No, I don't think it's unusual, Michel. I think our concept of Buddhist monks as just seeking nirvana and running away from the world is incorrect and is a product of, you know, various stereotypes that Western people have about Asian people.

And Buddhist monks in all the countries where they are, are quite active. They are, as Mr. Aung said, Aung Din said, they are the teachers of the people. They are often doctors. They teach the children, not just religion, but also language and basic manners and ethics.

And they have a special relationship always with the rulers of a country in that the rulers are supposed to follow the ethic of the dharma, which is to be kind and nonviolent and to support the people and to support the study of the dharma.

And so when rulers become highly separate from the people and are oppressive, then it's very common that Buddhist monks will protest in various ways. Always peacefully. And the main way, there's a famous thing where they take their bowl, which is where they receive alms for their sustenance from the kingdom and from the society, and they turn it upside down, meaning that they refuse to accept the offerings of the ruler, meaning the ruler is no longer legitimate.

And this has a very powerful impact in a Buddhist society. And when they do not bless the ruler, then that means the rulers have really gone too far as far as the people go and then this really means an end of a regime…

MARTIN: If you're just…

Prof. THURMAN: …in a Buddhist country, normally.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Columbia University Professor Robert Thurman, and also Aung Din, who is the co-founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

Professor Thurman, as you know, religious leaders have often played a large role in acts of civil disobedience here in the United States and other countries. There's often have a very price to pay for this in terms of physical abuse.

Aren't they - are the military leaders inclined to show any restraint at all in their treatment of the monks. As we understand there are, perhaps thousands have been imprisoned as a result of the crackdown. Is any restraint likely?

Prof. THURMAN: I actually saw it in the British papers that perhaps several thousand have been killed, actually, which I'm not surprised at all by this military junta which has been relentlessly brutal from before…

MARTIN: Well, I do have to clarify…

Prof. THURMAN: I think there's a general…

MARTIN: Forgive me, I have to clarify that those numbers are very much in dispute. There have been wide-ranging casualties…

Prof. THURMAN: They could be, they could be. But in the last 15 years, they have killed a lot of people - the Burmese military junta, there's no question about that, as Mr. Aung Din I'm sure will verify. And the point is that if that ruler - those rulers, if that military junta was concerned with having a decent base in the country, they would of course negotiate with the people and they would deal with them reasonably.

But this particular regime has support from outside, particularly by the government of China, which extracts a lot of resources from Burma and where the wealth of that military regime is based in this support by China all along.

And so that is why they are ruthless with their own people. They don't actually - they are divorced, in other words, from the support of their people. They feel that they don't need that support, so therefore they feel free to crush them as much as possible.

MARTIN: Aung…

Prof. THURMAN: That's why they've had Aung San Suu Kyi in prison for so long.

MARTIN: And speaking of Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung Din, how do you interpret the fact that the U.N. envoy was able to meet with her?

Mr. DIN: Yeah (unintelligible) that the regime will allow him to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. But I don't think that this special envoy will bring any fruitful results, because as professor mentioned, the Burmese military junta is a very arrogant and it has support from the Chinese government. So unless (unintelligible) doesn't have the power from the U.N. Security Council. He went there as a special envoy to the secretary general who is mandated by the general assembly, which doesn't have the power. So that is what - even though he was there, he was allowed to meet with (unintelligible) also meet with (unintelligible), I don't think he would be able to bring any successful success.

MARTIN: Have you been able to speak with anyone back home in Myanmar? And what is the mood of the people there?

Mr. DIN: Yeah. Yeah. I spoke to my people all the time, even though communications are quite difficult. But now they are telling me that - they want the United States, United Kingdom and France (unintelligible) Security Council call for the stronger security council binding resolution, calling that region to stop violence, killing, arresting in Burma, release all the detainees and engage in a political dialogue with the (unintelligible) for democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi (unintelligible) representatives.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. DIN: They knew that China and Russia might be - might use the (unintelligible) kill the resolution, but they would like to put China and Russia on (unintelligible) how they stand for the military dictatorship.

MARTIN: Robert Thurman, I wanted to ask you. You said that - you said earlier that having this level of kind of - having this many monks repudiate the regime…

Mr. THURMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: …is a very strong signal to the regime that they've lost the support of the people. But even if thousands have been arrested; even if thousands have been killed, there are still half a million people remaining and the junta has total control.

Mr. THURMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: So what would be next? How can the - what would the monks be likely to do now?

Mr. THURMAN: Well, it's very surprising really, because the junta has been doing this crackdown ever since they lost the election to Aung San Suu Kyi like 15 years ago. And she's been in prison or even more, I think, perhaps a bit more. And they are just sitting pretty, so to speak, and having like diamond weddings and living it up, and they're building a different capital for themselves, a separate city surrounded by lakes and gardens. And so they pretty much have enslaved their country. It's a very bad dictatorship. And so it was very surprising to me and I think many observers of different Buddhist countries that the monks and the people did completely sort of go out on the street. It means that they're kind of desparate and they completely have no control and no respect from their government. And they are willing to put their lives out there because they know that this government has been very lethal over a long period of time.

MARTIN: Is there a world…

Mr. THURMAN: They have a sort of security force that they pay off that is willing to beat up a lot of people.

MARTIN: Is there a worldwide community of Buddhists or of monks who might be able to join them in this effort? Does that ever happen?

Mr. THURMAN: Well, I think a worldwide community of people do join them in the sense of support them as best they can, but there's really nothing they can do as long as the other governments will not really punish them in the sense of stop their wealth, the flow of wealth. And that's what the Chinese won't allow anyone to do.'

MARTIN: Aung Din, final word to you, very briefly if you would.

Mr. DIN: Yeah. Yeah. (Unintelligible) everywhere, the people of Burma needs your help because they are taking heavy risks for their freedom. They went for a long time. Many of their colleagues were brutally killed. Many of their family members and people are now being arrested in the jail. They will continue their protest. They will continue the challenges despite the heavy brutal crackdown of the Burmese military junta…

MARTIN: Thank you, sir. We need to leave it there. Thank you so much. Aung Din is a co-founder and a policy director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma here in Washington, D.C. He joined us by phone. Robert Thurman is the department chairman of religion at Columbia University. He joined us today from NPR New York.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. DIN: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. THURMAN: Thank you.

Mr. DIN: Pleasure.

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