Burma: A Jailed Monk’s Tale

It was momentum, not militancy, that got the 26-year-old monk to join his Buddhist brethren massing on the streets of Rangoon. He left his monastery on the first day of the September protests and was soon marching near the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, confronting Burmese soldiers who barred him and others from climbing the shrine's stairs. He dropped out pretty quickly, though, when the Sangha, the state council of Buddhist monks, ordered the monks to stand down.

But he was back a week later, driven this time by "a feeling of injustice," he recalls in an interview with NEWSWEEK. "I'm a normal monk. I'm not a political monk. I am not well, not that strong. I have bone tuberculosis. But I participated because I wanted democracy, I wanted justice, and I wanted to show solidarity with people. Also, the protests had grown to thousands of people and I could not resist."

But the monk, who couldn't be named because of the dangers of his situation, never felt any euphoria, any sense that Burma would be changed forever by the crowds that took to the streets before the junta crackdown. "The truth is, I did not feel joy. I knew the military had everything and had this sense nothing would change."

Within two days he was in jail, arrested by soldiers in a roundup of about 100 monks from his monastery and others, tossed into a military truck and hauled off to a government technical institute doubling as a detention center. He was held for 19 days, including two inside infamous Insein Prison, and interrogated eight times by soldiers bent on finding out his role in the popular uprising.

"I returned to my monastery on the 25th of September. The front entrance was closed, so I had to climb over the fence in the back. I took a bath, went to bed, woke up as usual on the 26th, went out to the streets and went on an alms run. The next day, around four in the morning, about 300 soldiers surrounded the monastery and took us away," he says.

The troops treated him roughly but did not beat him, although they did slap some other monks, the youngest of whom was a 12-year-old novice. "The soldiers beat and kicked lay people. We were mainly asked, 'Who is the leader? Who's the organizer?' The typical questions were, 'Did you participate in protest? Why? Who is the leading monk in these protests? Who are overseers when they are marching?'"

The interrogators, he noted, were always police, not soldiers. He was alternately made to sit on a chair and on the ground during the questioning.

Detainees were fed twice a day, rice and fried cabbage. A small amount of drinking water was available each day. For the first 15 days, neither latrines nor bathing facilities were provided. He never bathed, because there were always three or four soldiers present, making crude remarks.

In a few days the soldiers played their intimidation trump card, moving to "derobe" the monks—excommunicate them. The military even brought in Sangha nayakas, Buddhist officials authorized to officiate in the conversion of a person from monk to layman. The nayakas refused to recite the appropriate scripture, so the soldiers simply forced monks to don civilian dress and pronounced them laymen.

"This included senior monks," says the monk, a tall man with an elegant shaved head and an easy smile, still wearing prison-issue flip-flops. "But I took my vows a long time [six years] ago, and from that moment on I know I'm a monk whether they take my robes or not. I felt angry to be forced to change my clothes, but I was still a monk."

Nothing about the soldiers' conduct surprised him, he says. As a novice in his native Rakhine state on the Bay of Bengal, he had seen the feared Tatmadaw, the military, raid villages, looting, raping women and taking away young men to serve them as porters.

A week after their arrest, "detainees got blankets and plywood flooring in the hall after one detainee died due to sleeping on the cold concrete," he says.

On Oct. 16 he was handcuffed and moved to Insein Prison, one of Asia's most notorious criminal warehouses, leaving 50 or 60 other monks behind at the technical institute. "That frightened me, because at least at GTI, I thought I might be released. When they moved me to Insein, I assumed I was not going to be released, and so I made up my mind about that."

He saw a number of prominent dissidents at Insein, including Min Ko Naing of the '88 Students Generation, a reference to students who demonstrated in 1988, when the regime killed 3,000 people in a crackdown.

"I yearned to say I was an organizer of the protests," he says with a note of regret. "But finally I told guards I just went along because others were doing it. You see, I wanted to continue my studies and I was concerned about my health. I knew if I told them that, I'd be in jail forever."

He says he never saw any beatings personally, but he did see fellow monks bleeding from wounds to their heads and bodies. He is fatalistic. "From the beginning I did not expect we would get what we wanted: justice," he says. "I know the military will never give up power. I was upset and angry [about the crackdown], but never surprised."

He and 17 other monks were released Oct. 18.