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Chased from streets, Myanmar monks get out message on video

AFP, Dec 5, 2007

YANGON, Myanmar -- A young monk whispers to street vendors in the hope of finding the hottest contraband in Yangon -- video recordings of religious sermons by two of Myanmar's most respected Buddhist leaders.

"I don't dare to sell those VCDs. I'm afraid I'd be arrested. You can ask at the shop over there," one woman tells him, pointing him to a nearby vendor.

The next shopkeeper glances around and then reaches into his shoulder bag to pull out the illegal disc, which shows a series of sermons and parables that Buddhists here interpret as sharp criticism of the ruling military junta.

Buddhist monks were at the forefront of pro-democracy protests in September, which were the biggest threat to military rules in nearly two decades.

Soldiers and police stamped out the demonstrations with a bloody crackdown that left at least 15 dead and 3,000 injured.

Now many monasteries are empty as the monks fled persecution by seeking shelter in villages or by taking off their robes and hiding among the general population.

For residents of Yangon, Myanmar's main city and former capital, the disappearance of the monks has profoundly disrupted their daily lives.

Buddhism is the state religion, followed by about 90 percent of Myanmar's 54 million people who every day are in the habit of offering alms, mostly food, to monks who roam the streets from dawn.

There are about 500,000 monks in Myanmar, according to the government. Of these, some 300,000 or 60 percent of the total live in Mandalay, the second largest city.

Boys older than five years old enter monasteries for at least one week and again when they turn 18 and legally become an adult.

The daily ritual of giving donations to monks is an important part of religious practise for the people of Myanmar -- a way of receiving spiritual instruction as they chat with the monks during their rounds.

But much of that spiritual life has evaporated since the crackdown on the demonstrations as the monks are no longer the ubiquitous presence they had been for centuries.

Residents say the illegal videos are helping to fill that void.

"Now the senior monks are taking up that role of giving religious services to the people through these videos. This is a very responsible thing for them to do," one Yangon resident told AFP.

Unable to speak directly to their followers in public, two senior monks -- Nyanissara and Kawvida -- have recorded their sermons on a video disc titled "The end of sinful people".

In the sermon, they discuss the legend of a ruthless emperor who violated the teachings of the Lord Buddha, which resulted in him, and his followers, being sent to hell.

"When people do evil and act as if it were good, their karma becomes very fragile. That sin will lead to their destruction," Nyanissara says in the video.

"You can find sinful people in hell. Many more people will be going there. Those already in hell are waiting for them," he says.

Nyanissara is a founder of the respected Sagaing Thitagu World Buddha University in northern Myanmar, which is popular among foreigners who come to Myanmar, the former Burma, to study the religion.

His lecture is widely seen here as a rebuke to the junta, and a warning that security forces will pay a price in the afterlife for the beatings of monks during the protests -- an unpardonable act in this devoutly Buddhist country.

Political activists have also been turning to video recordings to keep public anger focused on the crackdown by distributing compilations of international news footage that shows soldiers and police beating the protesters.

The VCDs are spreading through Yangon despite tightened security, because people can make copies at home and pass them on to friends in private.

"We have to keep reminding people about the junta's brutality. These images can remind people how much we paid for the September movement, which isn't over yet," one activist said.

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