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Cry, beloved Burma

by U Gambira and Ashin Nayaka, The Daily Times, November 2, 2007

Yangon. Myanmar -- As monks, we believe in alleviating suffering wherever we see it, as part of the vows we have taken. We could not ignore our people’s suffering. We formed the Sangha Coalition when we saw that the country’s monks were united.

Religious orders of monks have been the face of Burma ever since Buddhism was introduced here more than 1,000 years ago. For a monk to involve himself in politics or to hold a political post is contrary to the ethical code of Theravada Buddhism. But in Burma today, this spiritual philosophy, rooted in compassion and non-violence, has assumed unexpected dimensions of defiance and recalcitrance, as monks challenge the hegemony of the military junta that rules our country.

We are both Burmese Buddhist monks — a leader of the All Burma Sangha Coalition that led the recent protests, and a scholar teaching in the United States. One of us is in hiding today, because Burma’s military government met the peaceful protests of our Buddhist brothers and sisters with violence and brutality.

Many monks and nuns have been abused and beaten, and thousands who have been arrested endure continued brutality. More than 1,000 are missing, and many are presumed dead.

A few weeks ago, Burma’s monks began to march and pray and spread loving kindness in an effort to solve our nation’s problems peacefully. Burma is a country rich in natural resources, but its people are poor. When the government suddenly and capriciously increased the price of fuel by as much as 500% overnight, everyone was affected — and made even more desperate.

As monks, we believe in alleviating suffering wherever we see it, as part of the vows we have taken. We could not ignore our people’s suffering. We formed the Sangha Coalition when we saw that the country’s monks were united.

Those of us who are studying and teaching abroad share this unity, and have rallied to the support of those of us in Burma. And it is not only the monks who are united. When we started our peaceful marches for change, students, youth, intellectuals, and ordinary people joined us in the streets, in the rain.

We thought that we could appeal to some, if not all, of the generals — Buddhists themselves — who control our country to join us in trying to right the many ills befalling Burma. At first, we tried to show our displeasure with military rule by refusing to receive alms from them. We turned our begging bowls upside down as a gesture of our feelings. We have not lost our loving kindness towards ordinary soldiers, nor even towards the leaders who ordered them to brutalise their own people, but we wanted to urge them to change while there was still time.

We know that some people in the army and organisations close to the regime have been reluctant to use violence against the monks. We want to tell the people who are violent towards their own countrymen to stop and think whether their actions are in accordance with the dharma, whether they are acting for the good of Burma’s people. Some of the soldiers who were ordered to beat us and to stop us from marching actually refused to do so, because they understood the truth of what we were doing.

We hoped to create a way out for the military leaders, a way to start a real dialogue with the people’s leaders and the leaders of ethnic groups, for the unity of the nation. But that hope was short-lived. The regime is now hunting down those who participated in the demonstrations and committing unspeakable acts of violence.

They have attacked monasteries and arrested monks and nuns by force. Guards are everywhere, on all the streets, around the pagodas and residential areas. Wounded demonstrators are reported to have been buried alive in mass graves, and there are confirmed reports of bodies washing ashore in the waterways near Yangon (Rangoon). The regime is brutalising the Burmese people, and lying to the world about its actions.

Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, a representative of the military, recently told UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari that the marchers in the streets were “bogus monks.” But we are genuine, and thousands of us — from Rangoon, Mandalay, Pegu, Arakan, Magwe, and Sagaing — demonstrated for peace.

Some have said that the uprising in Burma is over. That is what the junta wants the world to think. But we believe that the protests represent the beginning of the end of military rule in our country. The generals who ordered the crackdown are assaulting not only Burma’s people, but also their own hearts, souls, and spiritual beliefs. The monks are the preservers of dharma; by attacking them, the generals attack Buddhism itself.

We know that the international community is trying to help us, but we need that help to be more effective. We thank the many people and organisations abroad who are helping us regain the rights denied to us for more than 40 years. But we also appeal to the international community to make its actions practical and effective.

The military government will do anything to remain in power, and their violent acts must be exposed to the world. They may control the streets and monasteries, but they will never be able to control our hearts and our determination.

U Gambira is the pseudonym of one of the leaders of the All Burma Sangha Coalition; Ashin Nayaka is founder of the Buddhist Missionary Society and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University

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