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Subdued but Unbowed

by KYI WAI, The Irrawaddy, February 1, 2008

Fiery Pakokku monks who were in the forefront of anti-junta demonstrations have been under constant surveillance from authorities

Pakokku, Burma -- A 35-year-old, slender, dark man with a long face wearing a white shirt and longyi is sitting in a teashop opposite a A-Nauk Taik, a famous monastery in western Pakokku.

<< Young monks offer prayers during a devotional service, a daily practice in all monasteries [Photo: AP]

Many people, including the teashop owner, notice him. They know he is an undercover police officer assigned to watch the monks’ activities in A-Nauk Taik, also known as Mandalay Monastery.

Pakokku residents said that since the September monk-led protests, the authorities have assigned various officers in plain clothes to areas surrounding Buddhist monasteries, many of which are also monastic schools that train monks in the higher Buddhist scriptures.

“They don’t come out and investigate openly, but everybody knows they are watching the monasteries,” said a neighborhood resident.  “The monks know it, and everybody knows it.”

The monks here are among the most committed and well-educated in the Burmese sangha (monkhood) and they enjoy the devotion and support of the local population. For that reason, perhaps, the military and district authorities have placed heavy restrictions on the monasteries, eventually winning a commitment from the monks not to engage in public demonstrations in the future. Many monasteries have less than one-half of their former numbers.

Pakokku City lies on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River about 75 miles southwest of Mandalay. It is home to the second largest population, after Mandalay, of student-monks studying Buddhist literature. Pakokku goes back to the Pagan dynasty and is known for its historical and religious heritages, including Thi-Ho-Shin Pagoda and the ancient Shwe-Gu temple. Mandalay and Mahawri Thu-Sa-Marama monasteries are famous institutions in religious training.

Four monasteries are believed to be under heavy surveillance: A-Shay-Taik (East Monastery) near State Middle School No 3, Nar-Yi-Sin A-Lel Taik (Middle Yard Monastery), Mandalay Taik and Baw-Di-Man-Dai Taik.

Many monks from the monastic schools participated in the 2007 September protests and called on other monasteries to join them.

Since then, the military authorities have assigned police, police-informers and pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) members to watch the monasteries and local members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).

The authorities also monitor guests visiting the monasteries, say local residents.

“They note down if someone goes in these monasteries and send an informer to follow them when they come out of the monasteries,” said a resident. “Sometimes they follow them to their guesthouse if they are foreign visitors.”

 Authorities reportedly monitor and record phone conversations to and from these monasteries and they “eavesdrop whenever we talk on a telephone at the telecom exchange office,” said a monk at Mandalay Monastery. “We can’t say anything controversial.”

The phone line to the home of Pike Ko, a resident of Pakokku, has been cut off since October, following an interview he gave to an exiled radio station. Pike Ko,  a member of the Magwe Division NLD branch, was detained and interrogated by local authorities from September 25 to October 23, 2007, and is still under surveillance, said a local source.

Even while under heavy surveillance, 150 Pakokku monks marched in the streets again on October 31, walking from Baw-di-Man-Dai Monastery through the city for one hour while chanting the “Metta Sutta.”

The march was a public rebuke to the authorities who violated an agreement between district officials and the monks. Both sides had agreed not to hold any kind of mass rally and to show restraint. But the authorities violated their promise by forcing people to attend a pro-junta rally, said a monk. Monks were also upset by official accusations in the state media that many of the monks in the September protests were bogus monks.

The monks decided to march again to challenge the authorities’ actions, said a leading monk who took to the streets on October 31.

In a trade-off following the October 31 demonstration, authorities agreed not to arrest the monks who participated in the march if they would not initiate any more demonstrations in Pakokku. An agreement was signed in front of local military authorities at the district administration office on November 5.

“The military authorities threatened that they would seize and manage monastic affairs if the Pakokku monks start another protest,” said a monk familiar with the compromise. “They threatened to arrest all the monks who participated in the protests. That is why the sangha agreed to no more protests in Pakokku.”

However, Pakokku monks have continued the Patta-nikujana protest, in which no alms will be accepted from members of the military and their supporters. Also, some small-scale protests continue to occur through anti-regime poster campaigns around the Sasana Biman halls.

Sangha indignation runs deep. When the division’s religious authorities donated rice and cooking oil to some monastic schools on December 1 as a peace offering, the monks refused the donations and threw the items on the road. The monks were also outraged by the news that Rangoon authorities had closed Maggin Monastery, which also served as a hospice for HIV/AIDS patients.

“These monks are unique,” said a resident living near the monasteries. “They are still maintaining a religious boycott. They don’t accept anything from the government. They threw all the donations from the district authorities onto the road. The local residents would not pick up the donations, even though many are very hungry. It was on the road untouched for a long time until some USDA members and municipal workers removed the items.”

In another move designed to weaken the sangha, authorities have restricted the travel of monks. A monk who wants to travel must file an application and get permission from the District Administration office.

Another serious blow came when the military authorities ordered classes to be closed and the student-monks to return to their homes. Many have not yet returned to the monasteries.

“In our monastery, about 740 monks were here last year before the demonstrations. Now, most of the monks have returned home and only about 220 monks are at the monastery,” said a monk at A-Lel Taik.

Most Pakokku monks have totally rejected the authority of the abbot of Kya-Khat-Wine Monastery in Pegu, who spoke out against a sangha protest and encouraged authorities to crackdown on protesting monks. Pakokku monks say he has committed “a colossal religious offense” called “the third Parajica.”  A third Parajica means a monk has been rejected and can never return to the sangha.

A leading monk in Pakokku told The Irrawaddy that fellow monks in other locations must be bold and keep the monk-led protests alive in the country.

For now, he said, “We have struggled as much as we can.” But he added, “We still keep up the alms boycott.”

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