Burmese monks in revolt

by Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy, September 11, 2007

Yangon, Burma -- Dissatisfied Burmese monks have now released leaflets asking for an apology from the regime and authorities who violently suppressed their peaceful gathering in Pakokku, central Burma.

The underground monks’ union warned that if the authorities refuse to come up with a formal apology, they will hold “patam nikkujjana kamma’ - meaning a boycott of alms from members of the military regime or simply overturning their bowls instead of collecting food.

This is not the first time monks and Burma’s generals have entered into a “love lost” relationship.

Over the last two decades, Burma’s young and active Sangha community, estimated to number between 250,000 and 300,000, has had an uneasy relationship with the ruling generals, who have imprisoned several prominent, politically active monks.

It is not surprising to hear that many young monks from different parts of Burma have expressed simmering discontent and disappointment with the regime for years.

Ironically, the military leaders who often visit temples and offer alms, or hsoon, and donate valuable gifts to senior abbots in order to win the hearts and minds of the Sangha community have failed to win the monks’ blessing.

In fact, these numerous visits to temples and projects to build splendid pagodas and erect Shwe Hti Daw ornamental finials do little to boost the image of the generals or forge any feeling of good will between young monks and the junta.

Monks who receive donations from laymen and who visit households every morning to receive hsoon in Burmese learn and witness at first-hand the suffering and poverty of ordinary Burmese people. They continue to witness the deteriorating situation in the predominately Buddhist country, ruled by a military government.

Young monks might thus feel they have a noble obligation and every reason to speak out on behalf of the large number of Burmese who provide alms and maintain the country’s innumerable temples.

While regularly reciting the Lord Buddha’s teachings, the monks also understand the nature of politics. Although he shunned worldly affairs, Buddha stressed the need for good governance and good rulers.

The Buddha once said: “When the ruler of a country is just and good, the ministers become just and good; when the ministers are just and good, the higher officials become just and good; when the higher officials are just and good, the rank and file become just and good; when the rank and file become just and good, the people become just and good.”

Monks, considered “sons of Buddha,” are the strongest institution in Burma after the armed forces. But there is continuing debate on whether they should involve themselves in politics. History has shown that monks have long played a pivotal role in Burmese politics.

Monks were involved in early outbreaks of resistance against the British colonization. Two well-known monks U Wisara and U Ottama spent many years in prison for their non-violent resistance, and U Wisara died in jail after 166 days of a hunger strike.

In olden times, Burmese kings appointed Thathana-baing (Sangha ruler or chief of religious affairs or Supreme Patriarch) to govern the Sangha community. In 1787, King Bodaw Phaya appointed a distinguished monk, U Nyana, to serve as Thathana-baing, and made him responsible for doctrinal instruction and discipline of all monks.

The role of Thathana-baing is complicated, as he acted as a link between the monarchy and the Sangha community. The Thathana-baing was highly influential and could even intervene in political and diplomatic affairs.

After the British invaded Burma, the position of Thathana-baing was abolished, although local authorities and foreign experts called for its maintenance in Mandalay in order to head off conflicts with the colonial power in its government of predominately Buddhist Burma. The opposition led by U Wisara and U Ottama was a rude shock for the British.

Even after independence, however, Buddhism and the influential Sangha community were in decline. Under the current military rulers, the traditionally powerful Sangha community is in discord and decay. The generals have been trying to control the Sangha community, regarding it as a real threat to the stability of the regime.

While rebellious monks are prepared to go to prison, condemned as “agitators in yellow robes,” many senior monks and abbots are becoming government tools by accepting gifts and large donations from the generals. These elderly abbots who cuddle up to the ruling generals can no longer speak for the Sangha community at large, let alone comment on the suffering of the Burmese people.

Elderly senior monks are grouped within the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a legal organization founded in 1980 that wields little influence, either with the Sangha community or with the generals.

Any intervention by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee in the aftermath of the recent Pakokku confrontation could even provoke more dissent from young monks.

Good governance and a good ruler are now important for the sons of Buddha  who dare to challenge the ruling elite.

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