Burma's Buddhist monks are both an integral part of daily life and yet also separate from it. As such, the country's clerics hold a uniquely revered position – honoured and respected by the communities from which they come.
Such respect could help explain reports that ordinary people have been organising themselves to defend the monasteries that have come under attack from the police and troops. The Asian Human Rights Commission said it had learnt that people had set up early warning systems with look-outs who banging saucepans and pots when soldiers approached.
The commission said: "They have also armed themselves with sticks, knives, slingshots and jingalee – nails or sharp bicycle spokes fired from catapults – with which to fight government personnel trying to enter local temples." It listed several monasteries in Rangoon where in the past few days troops had been repelled by such efforts.
There are an estimated 500,000 monks in Burma, and a similar number estimated to be in the Burmese army. But the playing field is anything but level.
Though the demonstrations were initially started by civilian pro-democracy activists who marched in Rangoon on 19 August, the uprising drew unprecedented vigour when the monks joined in the demonstrations and started organising. A statement issued by a previously unknown alliance of monks said they were refusing to receive alms from anyone associated with the regime, in effect excommunicating them. And since the monks have been beaten or carted off by the military and their temples sealed off with barbed wire and chunks of concrete, the protesting momentum has waned.
Some families will send a son to the monasteries from the age of five. In the past 10 years or so the number of young people entering the monasteries has increased as economic hardship persuades more families to take up the chance of a free education for their children. At the age of 20 they have to decide whether to become fully ordained – around half do so. The monasteries also take in adults, who wear the maroon robes for a few years, not surprising in a society that expects every person to renounce material ways for at least a week of their life.