Alan Senauke reports from Burma on the ongoing repression following the military regime’s brutal crackdown last fall and the unbreakable spirit of the monks who refuse to be silenced.
Courage that comes from refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions could be described as “grace under pressure”—grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure. —Aung San Suu Kyi
The rains of late September fell on a hundred thousand monks in saffron robes as they marched through the streets of Burma chanting the Metta Sutta, the sutra of loving-kindness, turning their minds and prayers toward democracy and the nonviolent transformation of the military regime that has ruled Burma for forty-five years. Once again Burmese monks had taken up the practice of patam nikkujjana kamma, or “overturning the bowl,” boycotting alms from the military junta and their families, ritually denying the junta leaders refuge from the destructive karma of their own greed and brutality. In Burma, where monks and nuns are so deeply trained in meditation, Buddhist scholarship, and the peaceful acceptance of life’s sufferings, this was an extraordinary act. It was “grace under pressure,” to borrow novelist Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage, a sentiment echoed by Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
On September 22, monks surged through barriers blocking off Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Rangoon. Still under house arrest, Suu came outside to receive their blessings. They stood before her and chanted:
May we be completely free from all danger
May we be completely free from all grief
May we be completely free from poverty
May we have peace in heart and mind
As monks took to the streets in greater numbers, they were flanked by thousands of ordinary Burmese. This was more than the junta could stand. On September 26, protest leaders—ordained and lay—were arrested. Burmese troops and the paramilitary Union Solidarity and Development Association blockaded the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and began beating hundreds of people trapped on the temple grounds. Meanwhile, monks and nuns continued to march through Rangoon’s downtown, where they were attacked with bamboo canes. The following day troops fired on nearly fifty thousand people protesting in Rangoon.
How many were killed in this crackdown? We will never know. The beaten body of a monk was found floating in the Rangoon River, and this image was broadcast around the world. Visiting Burma after the crackdown, the UN’s Special Rapporteur, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, made an effort to investigate Rangoon’s Ye Way crematorium, where, he explains,
…credible sources report a large number of bodies (wrapped in plastic and rice bags) were burned during the night, between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., on 27–30 September. Sources indicate…that normal employees were instructed to keep away, and that the facility was operated on those nights by State security personnel or State-supported groups. At least one report indicates that some of the deceased being cremated had shaved heads and some had signs of serious injuries.
In the days that followed in the wake of murder, beatings, and confusion, monasteries were emptied, locked, and barricaded. Some monks were arrested, some were forcibly disrobed, some were dismissed to their home villages, and some fled. This was not the first time in Burma’s history that monks had led protests, nor was it the first time they had been attacked by the military junta. But the junta’s systematic violence against the Burmese sangha—revered as sons of the Buddha—was unprecedented. The whole world could see it at last.
By early December the rains had passed and an uneasy silence fell across Burma. I flew into Yangon International Airport on December 4, as part of a witness delegation sponsored by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF). Four of us had come to see firsthand how things were, to listen to the stories of monks and laypeople and to convey the international Buddhist community’s solidarity with the people of Burma. We also wanted to open lines of communication and support for future work. Our group included Phra Paisan Visalo, a Thai forest monk and founder of Buddhika, Thailand’s engaged Buddhist network; Nupphanat Anuphongphat (aka Top), also from Buddhika; Jill Jameson, a human rights activist and trainer from Melbourne’s BPF chapter in Australia; and myself, from BPF’s U.S. national office.
I’d been involved with Burma since 1991, when I began working at BPF. That year I traveled with a delegation from the International Network of Engaged Buddhists to Manerplaw, a large encampment of opposition armed forces and refugees on the Burmese side of the Moie River, across from Thailand. Manerplaw was later overrun by Burmese troops, but in the years since, I had visited the border areas numerous times, sleeping with monks in jungle monasteries, visiting refugee camps down long, muddy roads, bringing food and medicine to clinics and schools. I’d walked through the smoking ashes of settlements, sat with monks shivering from malaria in the midst of an April heat wave, and wept to see the swollen bellies of hungry children in Burma’s ethnic areas.
Now for the first time I was seeing Rangoon. Phra Paisan, Top, and I taxied into Rangoon from the airport. Time seemed to have stopped here long ago. Even in rush hour, traffic was light throughout the city’s badly potholed streets. Vintage cars from the sixties spewed exhaust. Sidewalks were filled with people walking to work, and commuters jammed themselves into ramshackle buses and trucks. Normally streets would be teeming with monks and nuns, but the only monks I saw were novice schoolboys and old men with their umbrellas and bowls.
Our cab driver interrogated us. His questions went uncomfortably beyond ordinary curiosity, and, instinctively, we were careful about how we framed our responses. We knew we would be watched everywhere and that official scrutiny had begun the minute we stepped off the plane. This was confirmed when Jill flew in a few hours later and we met at our hotel. Her taxi driver had asked her the same kind of questions. Then he remarked that three men had arrived on an earlier flight—an American, a Thai monk, and another Thai—and asked if she was connected with them. We could only wonder what other connections had already been made. It set me on edge.
Over the next week, we met with Burmese activists, monks, teachers, students, orphans, diplomats, and ordinary people in streets, homes, tea shops, and restaurants. We visited monasteries, schools, and bustling markets. We woke up before dawn to circumambulate the Shwedagon Pagoda as the sun kindled its golden flanks.
A cloud of fear encircled everything. Beneath people’s smiles, fear seemed close to the surface. But wherever we went, people were anxious to talk, to tell their stories about the long, painful months just past. All we could do was listen, that simple and essential dharma practice. We heard tales of violence and loss, and yet there was a remarkable lightness too—a laugh, a look, or the touch of a hand would sometimes cut through the almost unbearable words and memories.
Around the public temples, monks usually avoided engaging with us for fear of reprisal. We too feared for the safety of those who might be seen talking with Westerners. An activist friend explained, “We have a saying: If you have died once, you know how much the coffin costs.” The price of Burmese resistance is high, not just in blood but in the arising of trauma manifesting as anger, mistrust, and depression. Aung San Suu Kyi writes in Freedom from Fear, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Where are the monks? We asked this wherever we went. In late September and the weeks that followed, Burmese security forces raided dozens of monasteries. They often came late at night, beating monks, tearing the robes from their bodies, shooting some, and stealing and destroying religious objects. A local activist friend, Stephen, said that intelligence agents had scanned photographs and videos looking for monks and nuns who were involved in the protests. The protesters were slotted into one of four incriminating categories: those who watched; those who clapped; those who offered water, and those who actually marched. These actions were met with a corresponding range of punishments and prison terms. Stephen also told us that a college friend, an officer in the military, said that officers and soldiers under his command raided a monastery while drunk, and that he had been under orders to beat monks while questioning them.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than fifty monasteries were raided in Rangoon alone. In most cases, resident monks either fled or were sent to their home villages. Those identified as leaders of the All-Burma Monks Alliance were arrested and tortured. Many remain in prison. According to the Burmese opposition blog “Vimutti,” 348 monasteries in and around Rangoon had a population of 29,658 monks and novices. As of February 7, only 6,391 could be accounted for in these monasteries.
In the aftermath of the repression, we found many large monasteries empty and locked. Some had military vehicles and barbed wire blocking access. (A recent news story from Agence-France Press confirms this is still the case in late March.) At one monastery we were told that all of the local nuns had fled after the crackdown and that local people missed their morning chanting. Each of the centers we were able to visit—and these were places ostensibly not involved in the demonstrations—had government security officers at the gate. One morning, while we gave out packages of noodles to five hundred young children at a desperately poor monastic orphanage, we learned that military intelligence agents had followed us in and questioned the young abbot about our presence. They left—evidently feeding children was not illegal that day—but their presence had left the school staff badly shaken.
Buddhist monastic schools and orphanages play a key role in the educational system. In the Rangoon Division alone there are 162 monastic schools. Across Burma there are hundreds of thousands of orphans, children who have lost a parent or whose families cannot afford even the small expense of government schools. There are some fine monastic schools, but the ones we saw on the outskirts of Rangoon were disturbing places. Hundreds of young children had to make do with thin rice gruel, sometimes mixed with a touch of fish paste. They had no textbooks and writing materials were scarce. Children learned by rote memorization. Dormitories—home to dozens of students per room—were crowded and dirty. We saw a health worker checking the children for scabies and ringworm, conditions that were almost universal. Malnutrition, overcrowding, and limited staff mean that children are neglected, despite the teachers’ and monks’ best intentions.
The school we visited had previously been home to nearly forty monks and was now staffed by just four or five, the rest having fled in October. That was not unique to one temple but rather common in monasteries across Burma. We asked the abbot where they had gone. He didn’t know. Looking down, he said he did not know if he would hear from any of them again.
Leaving Burma, we flew back to Bangkok and traveled by van to Mae Sot along the Thai-Burma border, where we heard there was a cluster of Burmese monks who had fled Burma for the relative safety of Thailand.
Mae Sot is deep in the mountains of Thailand, just across the Moie River from Myawaddy on the Burmese side. It is a kind of Wild West place with dusty streets and teeming markets full of cheap goods. Illegal Burmese refugees account for roughly 80,000 of the town’s population of 100,000. Another 75,000 refugees live in three large makeshift camps set up by Thai authorities in the nearby hills, cut off from opportunities for work and liberty. Around Mae Sot’s garbage dump children comb through mounds of refuse daily, salvaging anything that might be sold or bartered for food.
On the outskirts of town, two hundred prison-like factories are staffed by these illegals. They manufacture clothing and other bargain items for the world market, working for half the Thai minimum wage of about $4.50/day. Most of these workers are from the neighboring Karen state inside Burma, a region that has seen much repression by the Burmese army and where there are no jobs to speak of. They are grateful for any employment at all, but working behind barbed wire for such wages is exploitation nonetheless.
Mae Sot is also home to an astonishing number of Burmese opposition groups—local, national, and international. Each has its own mission and constituency, and it is often difficult for them to work together across ethnic and political lines. Despite Mae Sot’s proximity to Burma, and a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward these displaced Burmese (Thai businesses need their cheap labor), sources told us that only a few hundred refugees have made the difficult journey from central Burma to the border, and of those, perhaps only twenty or thirty were monks. The number is hard to pin down.
Through contacts with the local National League for Democracy and other activist organizations, we were invited to talk with monks from Rangoon, Mandalay, and Bago at several Mae Sot safe houses. The houses themselves were inconspicuous, but hardly safe. Like many of the offices and residences of Burmese activists, they were subject to random raids by Thai immigration officers, who line their own pockets with bribes and remind the Burmese of their undocumented vulnerability in Thailand. Dr. Cynthia Maung’s Mae Tao Clinic, the main medical resource for Burmese migrants and refugees along the border, has been raided countless times. Since Thailand never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has blocked the United Nations High Commission for Refugees from registering and screening new arrivals, who are constantly subject to deportation and exploitation.
Talking with monks over cups of tea, their sense of insecurity was the first matter of conversation. Many of them are living alongside laypeople, a highly unusual and uncomfortable situation for Burmese monastics. The Thai sangha does not welcome or include them in their temple life, and Burmese monks are not permitted to go on alms rounds for food. Their red robes also make them dangerously conspicuous to immigration police. Even the established Burmese-style temples in Mae Sot are hesitant to have them in residence for more than a few days. Although a handful of escaped monks have just been granted asylum in the United States, without UNHCR refugee status, financial support, and the sustaining regimen of practicing dharma together, most of the monks have left the street battles of Burma and entered a twilight zone of displacement on the Thai border. They deserve much better than this.
Some of the eleven monks we met had been religious leaders in their communities. They had varying degrees of political awareness along with their advanced study of suttas and abhidhamma. Several had been to university before ordination and were familiar with social theory. Some were activist monks. Ashin K, who had fled Burma in 2006 at the urging of his abbot, wore a tattooed portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi on his chest, just under his robes. Other monks seemed traumatized. They had followed their brothers and their conscience into the streets but had not anticipated the risks. What they saw in September at the hands of military and pro-junta vigilantes had left deep shadows on their minds. Each of them had to disrobe temporarily to escape from the cities, using false papers and disguises to make their way across Burma. Crossing the border to presumptive safety, a sayadaw in this group was arrested by Thai police, and friends had to pay a bribe of $80 to save him from threatened repatriation. Understandably, some monks have given up their robes, melting into the larger community of Burmese in Mae Sot.
There is no end to this story, but there are many beginnings. I believe the Burmese sangha will survive, because I believe that dharma itself cannot be harmed. Also, I have seen the courage of monks, nuns, and laypeople whose training is so thorough that, with or without robes, they were able to sustain their practice of mindfulness and metta in the depths of prison. Even torture was not able to break their practice. And in the months since our return, I have seen fearlessness flowering in the Burmese sangha.
In a New Year’s statement, the All-Burmese Monks Alliance called on the people of Burma to continue their struggle against the regime but stressed the necessity of nonviolence. They urged monks to continue with their boycott of the Burmese regime until all monks and political prisoners have been released. In addition, the new International Burmese Monks Organization (Sasana Moli) has set up branches in fourteen countries—including the United States, Europe, Canada, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India—to respond to the Burmese junta’s violent suppression of the sangha. Sasana Moli’s patron, the eighty-one-year-old Sayadaw U Kovida, recently spoke about the monks’ actions and their alms boycott:
I am convinced that Burma will get democracy very soon and that this boycott will end successfully. The monks inside Burma want to remind us time and again that the boycott is still on. It does not matter that they are having food forced on them. What’s more important is to realize that in their minds the struggle is still on. If they have the courage and vision and continue the fight, with support of the world, then Burma will see the light in the near future.
On March 27, Burma’s Armed Forces Day, thirty demonstrators staged a rare public protest in Rangoon, outside the National League for Democracy offices. Wearing bright T-shirts printed with the word “NO,” they urged their fellow citizens to vote against the junta’s proposed constitution that would legalize the military’s already sweeping illegal powers. Similar demonstrations have been quietly mounted in other Burmese cities, with some protestors wearing “NO” T-shirts and others donning blue prison uniforms and shackles.
Still, the repression persists. In January, U Gambira, a leading young monk in September’s demonstrations, who has been held and tortured by the junta since early November, was charged with violating the Unlawful Assembly Act and now faces at least three years in prison. In late March, he was placed in solitary confinement at Insein Prison, and supporters fear for his health. The Democratic Voice of Burma reports that U Gambira and fellow monks have begun a vocal campaign of chanting metta, which has reportedly spread to other prison wards.
I feel a debt of gratitude for the Burmese teachers who have preserved the dharma and helped carry it to the West. And as a matter of practice, I turn toward their suffering. I hope others will do so as well. But as Thich Nhat Hanh says, suffering is not enough. There is the necessary activity of a bodhisattva, pointing the way for sentient beings to liberate ourselves from our own personal prisons and from places like Burma, where the whole of society has become a prison.
We can support our Burmese brothers and sisters by offering material aid, dharma teachings, and the example of fearlessness itself. The work is endless. In return, the monks and nuns of Burma offer us the possibility of a nation and a world that truly courses in liberation.
For information on how you can support the people of Burma, visit the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website at www.bpf.org.