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Uneasy Days for Monks in Myanmar

By CHOE SANG-HUN, The New York Times, October 24, 2007

MANDALAY, Myanmar --  As the lunch gong chimed through a tree-shaded monastery, several hundred monks in burgundy robes lined up on a mid-October day, all holding alms bowls.

<< One of the few monks left at Chaukhtatgyi Temple in Yangon meditated recently. Many fled monasteries there after military raids.

Monks carrying alms bowls returned to Mahagandhayon Monastery in Mandalay recently after seeking donations.

It is a common scene in Myanmar, formerly Burma, where one out of every 100 people, many of them children, are monks. But the lunch line at the Mahagandhayon Monastery, the country’s largest, used to be much longer.

“We usually have 1,400 monks here,” said a senior monk. “Because of the situation, parents took 1,000 of them home.”

For decades, two powerful institutions have shaped Burmese life: the 500,000-member Buddhist clergy, which commands a moral authority over the population, and Senior Gen. Than Shwe’s junta, whose 450,000-strong military controls the population through intimidation.

Their uneasy coexistence has shattered. After scattered demonstrations erupted against sharp increases in fuel prices in August, thousands of monks protested the junta’s economic mismanagement and political repression. The military responded with batons and bullets.

The guns have prevailed over mantras, at least for now.

As of Oct. 6, the government said it had detained 533 monks, of whom 398 were released after sorting out what it called “real monks” from “bogus ones.” Monks and dissidents contend that many more were detained.

“They took away truckloads of monks and laypeople,” said the deputy leader of a monastery in Yangon, the country’s most populous city. “They had the monks kneel down, with their hands on the back of their heads. Anyone who raised his head was beaten.”

He said at Ngwe Kyayan, Yangon’s largest monastery, soldiers took food and donation boxes, and beat the abbot and vandalized images of Buddha, as some of its 300 monks fought back.

The monks, he said, began demonstrating against the economic deprivation of the Burmese. “It’s a terrible situation,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity, like others interviewed, because he feared government reprisals. “Monks took to the streets to draw attention to this problem, pleading for loving kindness. But our government is worse than Hitler’s Nazis. They have no respect for religion.” When it was over, The New Light of Myanmar, a state-run English-language newspaper, said, monks had been “defrocked” during interrogation so that they could be questioned as laypeople, then “ordained” and sent “back to their monasteries.” Monks denounced the process.

The junta also used divide-and-rule tactics, by persuading the state-sanctioned Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, which oversees the clergy, to take its donations and to order monks to stop protesting or face punishment.

“Some of these senior monks are bribed by the regime,” said an editor at a Yangon magazine. “They have accepted so many good things in life — cars, televisions, big houses, telephones and mobile phones — that they simply have to listen to the regime.”

At the Mahagandhayon Monastery here in Mandalay, soldiers had pulled back by mid-October after cordoning off the temple for weeks. But their trucks continued to lurk in alleys nearby, as rumors circulated that, if the monks rose up again, it would probably be in this city, the nation’s second most populous. About 20,000 of its million residents are monks, one of the highest concentrations in the country.

Young men from across the country train here as monks, and they have grown more passionate about the poverty and injustice their nation has suffered under the military government.

The fear was still palpable at Mahagandhayon, where monks chanted mantras over their last meal of the day, a late-morning lunch of vegetable soup, eggplants, rice and a treat from a donor — instant noodles. But they were still reluctant to discuss the military’s crushing of the demonstrations in late September.

“They are afraid of guns!” a senior monk said before vanishing into the dining hall.

Long before the protests, monks were aware of people’s suffering. When they went to receive alms, said the senior monk in Yangon, they saw “no happiness in people’s faces, people whose minds are preoccupied with finding food and surviving one day at a time.”

But the military’s use of force against the monks has unsettled fundamental Burmese values.

“To Burmese, monks are like sons of the Buddha,” said Maung Aye, a taxi driver, as he drove around Yangon’s Sule Pagoda, which is said to enshrine a hair of the Buddha and was a focal point of the protests.

A shop owner in Yangon said his 5-year-old son, who had been reared with Buddhist beliefs in karma, had cried out: “I don’t want to become a soldier. If I have to kill a monk, the worst thing will happen to me in my next life.”
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At a Yangon temple, sitting before a golden Buddha figure, two middle-aged monks spoke with resignation and anger.

“We learned a lesson from 1988,” one monk said of the large pro-democracy uprising that the military put down, leaving hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead. “If it changes nothing and only gets worse, why risk our lives?” The other monk said: “We would like to love our government. We tried but couldn’t. We want to like to go out and demonstrate again, but we know they are out there with their guns.”

During the Buddhist Lent, which lasts three months, into late October, monks focus on studying scripture and refrain from leaving their monasteries, except for early outings to collect alms. The fact that monks ventured out in protest during this period was widely seen here as a sign of just how angry they were. But by mid-October, many monasteries in Yangon were deserted, after military raids had driven thousands of monks to flee.

In towns across Myanmar, monks have traditionally filed down streets at dawn seeking alms, and laypeople have gained merit by donating rice and other food. Families take pride in what is often seen as adopting monks, providing them with food, clothing, books and other goods for a few months or years.

As poverty has worsened in Myanmar, however, the alms processions have increasingly turned into a sad exchange of apologies for having to beg and for being unable to give. Now, with the monks scattered, the alms lines have dwindled in big cities like Yangon and Mandalay.

For centuries, whoever seized power in this country sought legitimacy by lavishing money on pagodas and monasteries. When the democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi called for a “second struggle for national independence” in 1988, she chose Yangon’s gold-spired Shwedagon Pagoda as the site to deliver her watershed speech. So when monks marched in September to the home where she is under house arrest, the act was a moral reproof to the government.

But the monks are not immune to criticism. Although senior clerics are elected by monks and revered by laypeople, “they form a small, closed society which doesn’t know anything about the community at large,” the magazine editor said. “Some of them do not know how poor people live in a small village.”

Other laypeople defended the aging clerics who have taken gifts from the government. Those monks, they said, are under a moral obligation to accept donations, and fear that confrontation could cost more lives.

Still, witnesses said piles of rice donated by the government were left uncollected at the gates of some monasteries, a rebuff of the government’s effort to placate the clergy.

In mid-October at Mahagandhayon, the monks were going about their daily routine. The senior monk said he hoped that the rest of the students would return in a month or so. One young monk who had remained said, “Please go out and tell the world exactly what really has happened in this country.”

He added, “I am scared just talking to you about this.”



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