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The Sangha, the hope for change in Myanmar

by Ary Hermawan, The Jakarta Post, May 26, 2008

Jakarta, Indonesia -- The reason why Ashin Nayaka decided to become a Buddhist monk is that he wanted to live peacefully, free from the agony of such mundane affairs as having a job, a family or a social life.

He could have had the peace he sought if he lived in China or India where monks, in one way or another, evade politics.

In Myanmar (formerly Burma), Buddhist monks, also collectively known as the Sangha, are not living a secluded life in quiet monasteries, unaware of events occurring in the outside world.

They play an important role in society as "the highest moral institution" that stands up to protect the people that give them alms and support.

"When our country faces an emergency situation, like this time, or when our country faces a crisis, monks play an important role in creating peace and stability," Nayaka, a 39-year-old Myanmarese monk, who now lives in exile, said when he visited The Jakarta Post.

The military took power of Myanmar in 1962, casting a dark shadow over the Southeast Asian country.

Today, millions of Myanmarmese are suffering from starvation after deadly Cyclone Nargis hit the nation on May 3, killing thousands of people.

Defying international pressure, the junta government closed the door to foreign aid workers until last Friday, undermining efforts to ease the pain of the survivors.

Nayaka said the situation was very "critical" now in Myanmar following the cyclone and that the people had "suffered too much for too long".

Along with a number of pro-democracy activists, Nayaka visited Indonesia to beseech the region's biggest democracy, which has also suffered a series of major disasters, to take a leading role in managing foreign aid delivery to the survivors and put an end to the authoritarian regime in Myanmar.

Another monk, U Awbata, one of the leading monks in the bloody "saffron revolution" last year, also joined him.

The two monks, who come from different generations, said they could no longer take to the streets in their country to protest the military government, as they had both seen their friends brutally tortured and killed by tatmadaw (soldiers) during rallies.

The two are now members of the International Burmese Monks Organization.

"I will comeback to Burma when the newly-formed government takes over the power from the junta rulers," said Awbata, who, like his other fellow monks, was forced to leave to his country after suffering repression.

Nayaka was involved in the unrest that occurred on August 8, 1988 -- also known as the "8888 Uprising" --, when students, activists and monks demonstrated against the government's political oppression and mismanagement of the economy.

"The monks were taking a leadership role in 1988. So, after the military crushed the movement, the monks were arrested, tortured and jail," said Nayaka, who fled to India and studied religion, history and social sciences for 12 years.

He now lives in the U.S. and is a visiting professor at Columbia University's department of history.

He has continued to fight for change in his country from abroad.

"I have traveled across Asia and Europe. I have testified in the United States Senate, the Japanese Senate and also in the Human Rights Council in Geneva, after this visit I'm going to South America," he said.

His main goal is to get the international community to intervene and topple the military junta, which he said illegally ruled Myanmar and kept violating the rights of its citizens.

While acknowledging the responses he receives as encouraging, he said the international community was too sluggish, especially the Asian countries.

"The Asian countries should take a leadership role to make change in Burma. Asian countries must not back the regime because it has committed too many crimes against humanity," he said.

Despite the political impact of his activities, Nayaka refused to call his actions political, stressing the Sangha sought no political power and did not back certain political groups.

"Our mission is to promote peace and freedom in Burma. Our mission is to help the Burmese who are silenced today, who are denied their right to speak, to express their opinions," he said.

Buddhism, predominantly of the Theravada tradition, is practiced by 85 percent of the people in Myanmar, which is considered the world's most religious Buddhist country in terms of proportion of monks in the population and income spent on religion. It is also often called "the Land of Pagodas".

Monks are therefore venerated and are influential members of the society. During the British colonial administration, they were the vanguards of the independence movement that was primarily catalyzed by religious sentiment against the British colonizers, who disrespected their holy pagodas and tried to convert them to Christianity.

"It was such prominent monks as U Wisara who led the nationalist movement," said Nayaka, who wrote a dissertation on the role of Buddhism in the political, cultural and social development in Myanmar.

U Wisara is the renowned Buddhist martyr who died in prison after a 166-day hunger strike to protest the British rule that forbade him from wearing his Buddhist robes during his imprisonment.

While most Christians and Muslims in Asia, who appear to be more politically aggressive, have begun to shun politics, the Buddhist monks in Burma, despite their quiet and withdrawn appearance, are still trying to maintain the link between religion and state.

In Nayaka's words, the monks serve as "the provider of moral guidance" to the rulers and the history of this intricate association stretches back to the country's ancient Buddhist kingdoms.

That link, he said, was cut after the military took power, as the military junta had refused to accept the moral guidance of the monks. The monks in turn do not accept what they offer or participate in their funerals and weddings.

"We refuse to have contact with the regime. That is a powerful message. This is a monk's role in politics, role in Burmese history," he said.

He again stressed that the monks were neither "playing with politics" nor "seeking political power".

"Everyday we go down to the street to obtain food from people. If they are suffering, we must help them. You are now supporting me. If you are suffering, I must help you. This is where politics and religion associate.

"We are doing it for humanity, for the suffering people in Burma. We are not fighting against the government. We are asking for a government that respects human rights," he said.

The remaining monks in Burma have become comforters for the survivors of the recent cyclone.

"When the monks come out to the street, people have the hope that change will come peacefully," Nayaka said.

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