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Where are Burma’s monks?

by Min Lwin, The Irrawaddy, September 19, 2008

Rangoon, Burma -- One year ago, Buddhist monks in Burma took to the streets in their thousands. Today, however, they are either in detention or back in their monasteries, where they remain under the watchful eyes of the authorities.

Many of the leaders of last year’s uprising - the largest in nearly 20 years - have been imprisoned by Burma’s ruling military regime, which came down hard on the chanting masses of saffron-robed monks as their growing numbers threatened to embolden a country that rarely dares to challenge its rulers.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners - Burma (AAPP), the junta is now holding 212 monks in its notorious prisons, including the prominent activist-monk U Gambira, who was arrested last November after three months in hiding, and U Indika, the abbot of Rangoon’s Maggin Monastery—one of the focal points of last year’s unrest.

U Indika and another monk appeared at a court hearing in Rangoon’s Insein Prison today, according to relatives of the detained monks. They are facing numerous charges for alleged criminal offenses related to their involvement in the protests.

During the crackdown, monks were shot and beaten by heavily armed soldiers and riot police. A year later, they are still viewed with suspicion by the authorities, who have deployed plainclothes security forces to monasteries and pagodas around the country.

In Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, residents say that only a handful of monks can be seen near Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s most revered religious site, or Sule Pagoda, another local landmark that attracted huge numbers of protesting monks last year.

“Riot police have been stationed around all of Rangoon’s best-known monasteries,” said a senior monk. “There have also been plainclothes policemen and members of the [pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Association] around Ngwe Kyar Yan Monastery in South Okkalapa Township since three days ago.

“The plainclothes security forces are carefully observing the monks’ daily routines,” he added. “They are watching for any signs of anti-government activity, or to see if monks are sending information to the exiled media. We have to be very careful, especially when we go into Internet cafés.”

Another monk from a monastery near Shwedagon said that there were security forces posted at every entrance to the pagoda.

“They are guarding it like it’s a prison camp,” he said.

According to pilgrims to the Dhammayone religious hall near Shwedagon, dozens of plainclothes police have been positioned around the area where pilgrims gather for Buddhist rites.

“Military intelligence agents without uniforms and police are going around the pagoda and watching everyone very closely,” said one Buddhist pilgrim.

Meanwhile, in the Arakan State city of Sittwe, dozens of monks were prevented from gathering at the Gissapa Nadi football field on September 14, according to local monks.

In Rangoon, at least two monasteries have been shut down since last September’s protests. Maggin Monastery and Thatana Thatepan Monastery were closed because of their alleged links to the unrest.

“The authorities see Maggin Monastery as a camp for political activists because one of the leading monks stayed here,” said a monk close to the monastery.

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