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Generals sure to suffer living hell, says Burmese monk

by Pavel Vondra, Czechnews, March 16, 2009

Prague, Czech Republic -- Burmese monk Ashin Sopaka recently came to Prague on the invitation of the One World film festival to introduce one of the strongest human rights documentaries to be shown here in recent years.

<< Ashin Sopaka in Prague: Pavel Vondra

The story of Danish film "Burma VJ" revolves around the work of a group of undercover video-journalists from Burma who cover the anti-government street demonstrations that rocked Rangoon and a few other cities in this military-ruled South East Asian country in August and September 2007.

The revered Buddhist monks took the leading role in the protests, which became known as the Saffron Revolution for the colour of their robes, and they also bore the brunt of the crackdown that the junta eventually unleashed against the demonstrating crowds.

In the interview he gave to Aktuálne.cz, Ashin Sopaka explains what made his fellow monks take on one of the most brutal regimes in the world and how the junta eventually lost its face in front of the Buddhist community:

Aktuálne.cz: Many people around the world were really surprised by the sheer size of the anti-government protests that took place in Burma in September 2007 as well as by the prominent role the Buddhist monks played in those events. Were you surprised too, given that you had been away from the country for several years when it all started?

Ashin Sopaka: Of course, when I first saw the pictures of monks marching in the streets, and how many they were - especially on September 24 and 25 - I could not stop crying because I was so happy. I never imagined that so many monks would take to the streets and would lead the demonstrations. I really could not hold back the tears, I was so moved and so happy.

Later, when the regime started shooting at the protesters and the crackdown began, I became so sad that when my German friends tried to visit me I had to tell them to leave me alone. I just closed the door and started crying again. It took me about a week to recover. But then I came to realize that this is like a battle for peace. Its goal was to achieve peace, but it was battle all the same. And I started thinking in another way: in every battle, soldiers die. And the monks who were killed by the regime, they were the real, extraordinary soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the benefit of people. And therefore we had to take responsibility, forget about the pain and move on.

But it was not easy because some people, for example my journalist friends from The Radio Free Asia, were so depressed by what happened that they could not even sleep. I had to encourage them and make them share my vision of the inevitable losses on the side of our "soldiers" for peace to help them recover.

Though I was not directly involved in the events of September 2007 in Burma, I had already done my own peace marches in Germany (from Cologne to Berlin), Thailand (from Bangkok to Mae Sot) and the US (from New York to Washington, DC). And while I was doing it I was imagining what it would be like to do these marches inside Burma. So when the monks really started marching in September and their ranks grew to so many, I was the happiest man on Earth.

There is one thing that many people can't get their heads around. Why is it, they ask, that the Buddhist monks must meddle in politics like they did when they were leading the anti-government demonstrations? How do you justify this as a monk?

What we are doing is helping the people who have no voice. We do not expect any positions from this - to be a president or a prime minister, nothing like that. We are not really interested in politics, what we are doing has everything to do with the teachings of Buddha to practice compassion, or Garuna, a very important teaching, and of course also loving kindness, or Metta.

The monks and the people in Burma have always had a good relationship, after all the monks get offerings of food from them. And since we always keep in touch, we know what the situation is and how hard the life is for the people. That's why we understand much better than the generals what ails the people. The monks decided to take the front row in the protests to help bring the justice and peace in the country as well as freedom. So we are just helping the others and that, I believe, is not against the Buddhist teachings.

Talking about killing - there is still some confusion about the number of victims of the military crackdown in September 2007. How many people died, according to the information you get?

Well, the UN said it was at least 31, while the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) put the number at one hundred. I would trust the DVB, because they have had journalists inside.

And as for the number of monks who are still in custody among the estimated minimum of 2100 political prisoners - do you have a precise number?

We got a list from the government that has some 220 names of monks on it, but many other monks are still missing, some having been disrobed and having possibly returned to their hometowns and some probably having been killed. We don't know precisely.

Regarding the disrobing - is that done forcefully by the state or is it a voluntary act?

Some are forced, but some decided themselves to disrobe because of the insecure situation that comes with being a monk in the post-Saffron Revolution Burma.

So is the situation in Burma actually threatening the monastic life in the country and the Buddhism itself? One of your colleagues from the International Burmese Monks Organization, Ashin Nayaka, has recently claimed precisely that, in a paper delivered at an international Buddhist conference in Japan.

Yes, you can definitely trust his knowledge and judgment in these matters as well as his sources of which he has many. And I would also add that by extension, it is destroying peace as such, because what we monks are trying to do in our daily efforts is to bring peace to the world. In our prayers that we recite - and these also featured prominently in the September 2007 demonstrations - we are saying: May all the beings live in peace… and that doesn't mean only Burmese, but everybody, in fact all the creatures, not only people. So when someone is attacking the monks, he is also destroying the peace in the world.

So what does it says of the generals as Buddhists, which they all claim to be? Can they ever be redeemed for what they have done to the monks - beating them, jailing them, even killing them, when it is absolutely prohibited, traditionally, for any follower of Buddha's teaching in Burma to lay a hand on a monk?

Well, before the events of September 2007, the regime was really trying to present itself to the public as being devoutly Buddhist to make the generals' rule seemingly more acceptable to the people and also to steer the monks away from any anti-government activity. But after the bloodshed people could see right through this lie, they realized they have been cheated. Besides, the generals didn't even try to ask for forgiveness for all the mistakes and wrongdoings they have done.

But I am sure that in their minds they suffer a lot. Imagine - it is enough for a Buddhist with a conscience to kill an animal for him to suffer. What then if he kills a man? And now they are killing monks. Such sickness of mind creates a living hell for them and they suffer a lot, no doubt about it. That is also why they do not come out in the public so much any more like the used to. They have lost their confidence.

There is one very interesting Buddhist teaching called Attanuvada. It means self-accusation and it basically says that if you do something that is wrong, like stealing, it is unavoidable that your mind will be tormented even if you get away with it and you manage to hide it from the police, for example. So I am one hundred per cent sure that they already suffer as Buddhists, it is unavoidable. In their case, the hell is here.

But can there be a national reconciliation, under these circumstances, which the junta claims is working for? Can the opposition ever strike a deal with the present regime after all that has happened?

It is very difficult. Even if the National League for Democracy and the ethnic minorities want to have a reconciliation, the regime is not showing any good will. For example after the Saffron Revolution (and under the pressure from the UN) the junta appointed the mediator to facilitate negotiations between (the NLD leader) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and (the supreme chief of the junta, general) Than Shwe, but what has he been doing for the last year or so? He is just a fake. So whenever they are making such a fake gesture for the world without a genuine, honest intention, they are making the situation more difficult. The only chance is to force them to the negotiating table by staging another round of demonstrations.

And do you think that monks will continue to be part of the pro-democracy movement in Burma even after what happened - the massacres in the streets, the raids in the monasteries, forced disrobing and jailing of monks etc. Will they still be interested?

Yes, many monks are still free. We have more than 400,000 monks. A few have been arrested, but we have a lot of monks and many said they would go on until the end. I would say that after the Saffron revolution we have more solidarity among the monks, more contacts with the opposition and more unity. And unity means power.

So the next time it happens, we will try to be more effective as we are trying to find ways that the regime cannot control. I have a feeling that Burma is going to be free soon. We cannot say when exactly, but I say soon and with that image of free Burma, where people rejoice, play music and dance to celebrate their freedom I continue working and it makes me happy.

About Ashin Sopaka

  • Born in 1977 in Sagaing Division in north-west Burma
  • In 1989 he entered a monastery as a novice. Since then he has been following the regulations of the monastic Sangha (community of ordained Buddhist monks), strictly adhering to a set of rules
  • In 2001 he left Burma, lived in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos and Japan. In 2003 he settled in Germany, where he runs a Buddhist meditation center in Cologne
  • He heads the German branch of the International Burmese Monks Organization (IBMO), which was founded in October 2007, following the bloody crackdown on thousands of monks during the Saffron revolution. The IBMO supports the work of monks and nuns inside Burma ands tries to alarm the international community about the human rights abuses under the military junta's rule.
  • Between 2006-07 Ashin Sopaka organized world marches for peace in Europe, Asia and America.
  • In Ferbuary 2008 awarded the International Freedom Prize by the Society of Liberty in Italy.
  • In March 2009 invited by the One World festival to Prague


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