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Silencing Burma’s Monks

By MIN LWIN, The Irrawaddy, December 1, 2008

Rangoon, Burma -- The 68-year prison sentence handed down to Ashin Gambira for his role in last year’s monk-led protests shows that Burma’s brutal junta now exercises total control over the country’s Sangha, or community of Buddhist monks, who many regarded as the last bastion of resistance against military rule.

<< The Burmese regime has been relentless in its efforts to assert control over the last bastion of resistance. Many young monks were arrested and detained for their involvement in last year's demonstrations. (Photo: Clancy Chassay)

Ashin Gambira, 29, was one of the organizers of the uprising, which captured international attention last September with dramatic images of thousands of peacefully marching monks confronting heavily armed soldiers. On November 18, he received an initial 12-year sentence, which was extended by another 56 years last week.

According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), 143 young monks were arrested and detained for their involvement in the demonstrations.

Fifty-six of these monks have already received lengthy prison sentences, while another 87 remain in detention awaiting a final judgment by courts that invariably do the regime’s bidding.

Last year’s massive show of defiance was sparked by the heavy-handed response of security forces to a march by monks in Pakokku Township on September 5. The monks, who were responding to a sudden increase in fuel prices that had a devastating effect on Burma’s already struggling population, were tied to electrical poles and beaten in the streets.

The violence in Pakokku prompted Ashin Gambira and some other young monks to found the All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA) to demand an apology from the regime. They also called for a reduction in prices, the release of all political prisoners, and a dialogue between the military and the political opposition.

The protests that ensued, in Rangoon and other cities around the country, were the largest the country had seen in nearly two decades. As in 1988, when the military last faced a serious challenge to its stranglehold on power, the peaceful demonstrations ended in a bloodbath, with dozens dead and hundreds of monks and nuns rounded up in late-night raids. Many more went into hiding or exile to escape arbitrary arrest and torture.

Ashin Gambira managed to evade capture for two months, but the authorities finally caught up with him last November. Even then, he remained defiant, according to his lawyer, Aung Thein, who said that Ashin Gambira demanded that the court recognize the detained monks’ right to remain in robes in accordance with Buddhist ecclesiastical law.

“We appealed to the court to respect Buddhist rules, which say that [government] authorities have no right to disrobe him or charge him with criminal offenses,” said Aung Thein in an interview with The Irrawaddy.

Ashin Gambira argued that just as the army has laws relating to military personnel, the actions of monks should be judged according to Buddhist regulations. The judge rejected his argument.

Lawyers for the detained monks said that senior monks should be permitted to hear their cases, since there is no law in Burma that forbids the chanting of the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on loving-kindness.

Rather than recognizing the religious authority of the Sangha, the regime has continued to assert its control over the country’s monks. The minister for religious affairs, Brig-Gen Thura Myint Aung, said that in a meeting held on November 22, 47 senior monks agreed that the ruling military council governed more than 500,000 monks in accordance with Buddhist regulations and state law.

Ashin Kumara, chairman of the state-controlled Sangha Maha Nayaka committee, reiterated the regime’s position that monks are prohibited from participating in “secular affairs” or joining “illegal” organizations.

However, many senior monks insist that there is nothing wrong with monks taking action out of compassion for laypeople who are suffering as a result of misguided government policies.

“They called for a reduction of commodity prices, not to remove the government from power,” said a senior monk from Rangoon Theravada Buddhist University in Mayangone Township.

“They demonstrated for the benefit of Buddhism,” he added.

“Buddhism can only flourish when the basic needs of the people are met.”

“Our Lord Buddha instructed his fellow monks to wander and help in human affairs,” said Paragu, a well-known writer and former monk, in an interview with The Irrawaddy. “Historically, the sons of Buddha had responsibility not just to uphold the Buddha’s teachings, but also to work for the good of the laypeople.”

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