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Burmese Monks in Japan Start National Tour to Express Solidarity

By Neil Lawrence, The Irrawaddy, December 13, 2007

Kyoto, Japan -- With Burma's brutal suppression of Buddhist monks and other protesters in September fading from the world's spotlight, members of the Burmese Sangha living abroad have stepped up their efforts to keep the world's attention on the ongoing crisis in their homeland.

<< Ven U Pannavamsa

Prominent members of the International Burmese Monks Organization, or Sasana Moli, will begin a one-week tour of Japan on Saturday, starting in Nagoya and finishing in Tokyo on December 16.

The group will call on Burma's junta to "immediately cease all hostile acts of repression and start genuine political reformation by inclusive dialogue."

The goodwill mission, made at the invitation of Buddhist groups in Japan, will be led by Ven U Pannavamsa, a respected senior Burmese monk who has established temples around the world.

Ven U Pannavamsa is also president of Sasana Moli, which was formed in Los Angeles on October 27 to "work together with the international Buddhist community in defending and protecting Buddhism."

In recent months, Burma has witnessed unprecedented attacks on its monastic community, whose support has for centuries been regarded as key to the legitimacy of any government in the predominantly Buddhist country.

While images of soldiers shooting at monks, beating monks and dragging monks away shocked viewers around the world, the ongoing suppression of pro-democracy activists remains largely unseen, according to Ven U Pannavamsa.

"Extra-judicial imprisonments, forced disrobing, torture and keeping detainees under very inhumane conditions are widespread and less reported," he said.

On Sunday, Ven U Pannavamsa and Ven Ashin Sujana, another senior monk based in California, spoke to an audience of about 50 people in Kyoto, an important center of Japanese Buddhism. The audience consisted largely of members of various Buddhist sects or organizations.

The response of the Japanese Buddhist community to the junta's crackdown on monks in late September has been uncharacteristically strong. On September 28, the Japan Buddhist Federation (JBF), which represents most of the major Buddhist sects in Japan, released a statement expressing its "indignation and deep regret" at the Burmese junta's handling of the peaceful protests.

The statement was "a bit of a surprise for everyone who knows the organization because it's very rare for JBF to mention any topics which are deemed political by the traditional Japanese Buddhist Sangha," according to Tetsu Hakoda, administrator of the Japanese-language BurmaInfo.org Web site.

As a religious organization, Sasana Moli has been careful to avoid charges of political meddling. In a press release prepared for the Japan tour, the group, which has about 500 members worldwide, said, "We are in no way interfering in the affairs of Burma’s politics; however, as an act of compassion and goodwill, [we are] expressing our heartfelt position and beneficial input for the suffering brothers and sisters of Burma."

Ven U Pannavamsa said he and fellow monks outside of Burma decided to express their views publicly after "inside monks asked us to speak to the international community" on their behalf. He stopped short of calling for international intervention, noting the Burmese regime has not responded to pressure from the United Nations or other countries.

On December 3, however, another leading member of Sasana Moli, Ven Ashin Nayaka, called for "strong, effective and timely intervention by the international community" in an address he gave to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. "This is a moral crisis that Americans must stand [up] for," he said.

Speaking to a Japanese audience, Ven U Pannavamsa made no mention of Tokyo's official policy towards the Burmese junta, which has been criticized by many Burma observers as too soft.

In response to the September 27 shooting death of photojournalist Kenji Nagai by a Burmese soldier, the Japanese government suggested that it might further curb aid to Burma. In October, Tokyo canceled an aid grant of US $ 4.7 million for a business education center in Rangoon.

The monks' message was well received in Kyoto, where members of the audience asked questions and offered expressions of support. One man, who identified himself as a Christian pastor, expressed solidarity with his Buddhist counterparts who felt a need to transcend their spiritual role to address temporal issues.

Ven U Pannavamsa said he agreed with the pastor and that "clergies, regardless of their religion, should care for people in need."

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