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Burma monks not ready to forgive

by Reena Sethi, BBC, Nov 14, 2007

Burma's ruling generals have targeted Buddhist monks as they seek to silence dissent following September's protests. On a recent trip to the city of Mandalay, reporter Reena Sethi was given rare access to a monastery.

Rangoon, Burma -- A small door in the wood-carved panelled wall creaks open to reveal a startled monk, his maroon robe hanging loose around his waist. The door closes again.

<< A nun collection alms
Giving alms to monks and nuns is a vital part of Burmese life

A minute later, the monk reappears fully dressed and gestures us to squat on the smooth teak floor of the ancient temple. He seats himself on a stool.

For any casual visitor it looked as if he was teaching - but he had other things on his mind.

"As monks, we see everything. When we beg for our food we see how the rich live and the poor... we see how everything is getting worse and worse," he says.

It is hard to meet a monk who is prepared to talk to foreign journalists. Many have gone into hiding or are under guard - either in their monasteries or in detention centres.

"More and more people struggle to give us rice. They want to, but they have to spare it for their own mouths."

To protest against the worsening hardship, monks took to the streets during September in Mandalay, as they did in other towns across Burma.

When asked if the protests were over, the monk's eyes sparkled and around his lips flickered a mischievous smile.

"We are half-way - if nothing changes we will go on the streets again," he says.

Although his monastery did not join the thousands of young monks in their street protests, he says they supported the movement, which "was very well organised".

'Empty monasteries'

In contrast with Rangoon, the soldiers and government thugs in Mandalay did not kill any monks or raid the monasteries.

"The soldiers didn't shoot us because it is still more a community here. We all know each other and in every family there is a monk, a soldier, a government worker and a dissident," the monk says.

When the security forces threatened to arrest the young monks, the abbots gave them permission to travel, despite a religious prohibition on travelling during Buddhist Lent.

"Of the 2,800 monks in one of the main monasteries, only 200 remain," he adds.

As one Rangoon-based intellectual puts it: "Never in our history have the monasteries been so empty."

The sense of desolation is especially acute in Mandalay, Burma's cultural and religious heartland, and the centre of the monastic community, or sangha, of monks and nuns.

The most influential Buddhist universities are in and around the city and in nearby Sagaing, across the Irrawaddy river.

The young monks from these training institutes took part in the marches.

"They are sophisticated, well informed young men - partly because of access to the internet, partly because of foreign teachers, many of whom are Japanese," according to a journalist who met some of them a year ago.

They had been working for some time on a strategy to get rid of the regime in co-operation with veterans of the abortive uprising of 1988.

The monks had been studying Mahatma Gandhi's civil disobedience philosophy and the Buddhist scriptures.

One triumphantly points to a passage giving monks the obligation to intervene when Buddhism is under threat or when rulers breach moral laws and the people suffer too much.

In Burma's case, as one young monk who fled to the border with Thailand argues, all of those conditions apply.

The Buddhist clergy in Burma have served as a counter-weight to oppressive government throughout history - a point conspicuously ignored by the Burmese state media, which labelled the protesting clergy "bogus monks".

Banishment call

Aware of the power of the sangha, successive military regimes have courted the clergy, yet have attempted to diminish its influence.

The current regime, lead by Gen Than Shwe, has taken both policies to new heights.

It has developed a role for itself, in mimicry of ancient kings, as a religious patron.

The generals queue almost daily to offer donations and oversee openings of new religious institutions.

In a country with as many monks as soldiers, people in the teashops joke: "In Burma we have only two colours on our televisions - orange and green."

Simultaneously, the government exercises control through its own council of carefully groomed senior monks - or Sangha Nayaka.

Despite this, resistance continues to emerge. Last month, a new group, the All Burma Monks Alliance, called for nationwide protests.

It described the junta as a "common enemy of all our citizens" that needed to be banished from Burmese soil forever.

The ultimate sanction - the most powerful weapon the sangha has against the regime - is to deny it merit.

The monk in the Mandalay monastery says he refuses to accept alms from the anyone serving in the army, the police or their families.

As elsewhere, soldiers and police officers come to the monastery begging for forgiveness for hurting the monks.

"But we can not forgive them," the monk says.

"They have committed a capital sin and that is unforgivable."



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