Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-BURMA: Two Years After, Monks Remain Closely Watched

Joel Chong

BANGKOK, Sep 22 2009 (IPS) - "I'm being watched all the time. I am considered an organiser. Between noon and 2 p.m., I am allowed to go out of the monastery. But then I'm followed," Buddhist monk U Manita said. "I'm prepared to march again when the opportunity arises. We don't want this junta. And that's what everyone at my monastery thinks as well."

"Traditionally, we monks are not supposed to be politically active. The military has ruled our country for more than 40 years, and they don’t care about the welfare of the people; they care only for themselves and their relatives, and how to remain in power forever. That was why the people rose up against them," said U Pannacara, a 27-year-old monk.

"There are three powerful groups in Burma: the ‘sit-tha’ (sons of war), that’s the military, the ‘kyaung-tha’ (sons of the school), the students, and the ‘paya-tha’ (sons of the Buddha). That’s us, the monks," he added.

These are but two of the monks whose voices are heard in ‘The Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Protests in Burma’, a report by the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch that was launched here today on the eve of the second anniversary of the 2007 uprising in Burma.

Two years ago this month, crimson robes flooded the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay as thousands of monks marched defiantly against Burma’s military junta. Bystanders formed a human shield to protect the venerated monks from attacks.

But at the end of the weeks-long protests that started in August 2007, more than 1,000 monks had been arrested and detained, according to the HRW report. Some reports said some detained monks were tortured after the military launched a crackdown on the protests on Sep. 26, 2007.

Today, Burma’s monks continue to be the subject of suspicion, restrictions and infiltration by a military wary of their organisation and clout in this mainly Buddhist country of 54 million people.

A total of 237 monks remain imprisoned across Burma’s 43 prisons and 50 labour camps, sentenced to decades of prison terms and hard labour, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which assists political prisoners and their families. Many were arrested protesting on the streets or during violent night-time raids on monasteries across the country.

"It was quite a pivotal moment in modern Burmese history when the monks started marching on the streets," David Mathieson, Burmese consultant for HRW, said at the launch at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. "Buddhist monks in Burma are not just one of the key institutions in the country. They are in some senses a barometer of social ideals. They take to the streets, they become public actors, when things get so bad that they can’t stay silent."

In a country where monks are revered and wield huge influence, the history of the Burmese ‘Sangha’ or community has been marked by revolutionary and radical movements that catalysed events of national importance, such as Burma’s struggle for independence from the British and anti-military protests in the ‘70s to the ‘90s.

"They are probably the most powerful institution after the military in the country," Mathieson said.

The 2007 protests were sparked mainly by a decision by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially called, to remove fuel subsidies that sent prices of diesel and petrol, bus fares and other items soaring, adding to the already hard times from the previous year that saw prices of basic goods rising by 40 percent.

There are about 400,000 monks in 45,000 registered monasteries across Burma, according to HRW. But Bertil Lintner, the author of the HRW report and a Burma expert, says that "exactly how many (monks) went home (after the September 2007 protests), we don’t know". He added, "Many of the monks fled… they disrobed themselves to disguise the fact that they were monks on the run."

Dressed in plain civilian clothes, a number were reported to have escaped either by fleeing east toward the Thai border or west toward India.

While compiling the HRW report, Lintner, who has three decades of experience reporting on Burma, interviewed monks near the Thai border, who managed to escape from prison.

One monk who he interviewed, he recalls, managed to get away and got on a bus. "At the checkpoint before the border he jumped out and pretended to be a busboy, tearing tickets and changing gears. The bus driver (was) fully aware of what was going on but he played along… . They don’t check the drivers and the busboys and he managed to get through, and he finally crosses the border and lived there."

The military junta has also tightened its watch these days. Exiled Burmese media report that on Aug. 22, the Sangha League issued a statement saying it was working with 14 other political groups to plan a third boycott against the military, similar to the 2007 uprising.

Meantime, talk about the junta planting monks in monasteries in order to gather information about monks’ sentiments and plans is common knowledge. "They want to show that ‘look, we are here and keeping an eye on you’,’’ added Lintner. "It’s intimidation. The monasteries are heavily infiltrated by informants."

Since the September 2007 protests, attempts to register monks have also intensified. "There’s just more and more background checks on whether the monks have any affiliations or ties with political organisations," said Mathieson. "That is by its nature an intimidating process, basically warning monks not to get involved to get in any kind of political activities."

Sermons of abbots and senior monks are also coming under more scrutiny, and monks returning to Burma from overseas are arrested and spotchecked, he added.

Monasteries have also been warned not to be so visible and many have been shut down in different parts of the country, according to Linter.

Only three of the 7,114 prisoners that the SPDC last week said it was granting amnesty to are monks, according to Bo Kyi of AAPP. In fact, only 122 of those eventually released were political prisoners, the others being hardened criminals, exiled Burmese organisations say.

Monks released from detention will find life to be far from back to normal. "Some monks find it very difficult to return to their monastery as some of the monasteries are reluctant to accept those who have been released from prison," Bo Kyi told IPS. "They have to find out themselves where they can stay."

The latest amnesty announcement is seen as a move coordinated with Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein’s trip to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly, which he is expected to address on Sep. 28.

Where the monks’ involvement in taking action against the military regime will go remains unclear, but analysts say that dissent certainly continues to simmer as the country prepares for elections in 2010.

"The monks can never be the leaders of a political/social movement, (but) they can be the catalyst. What is lacking is organised political opposition. . . they can only do that much. They showed that very clearly in September (2007) when they showed up at (democracy leader) Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and showed her ‘we’re here, but you are the leader’," said Lintner.

Added Lintner: "It doesn’t matter what the military do to the monks. They are still monks in their hearts, and they will continue being that."

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  • tian ng

    great report! a good overview on the influence of monks and what they went through in the democracy process of Burma.