Burma: The Silence of the Monks

The 26-year-old monk was one of thousands who took to Burma's streets in late September. Like so many of them, he had never imagined himself an activist—"I'm a normal monk, not a political monk," he says—but he was carried away by the democratic fervor then sweeping Rangoon. On Sept. 25 he returned to his monastery late at night, climbing over the back wall since the front entrance was locked. The next night the soldiers came and took him away.

He was not the only monk to vanish. The few foreigners who have managed to enter Burma since the junta's crackdown have noted how empty the country's temples and monasteries seem. For centuries, Buddhist monks have been ubiquitous in Rangoon, Mandalay and other Burmese cities. Today, though they're thought to number 400,000, they are far less visible. "What has happened to all the monks?" asks Shari Villarosa, charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. "It's frightening. Something has happened. It's not like they all willingly left town."

The military junta has jailed monks it sees as ringleaders and has persuaded abbots—some of who were already collaborating with the regime—to get rid of dissidents. Hundreds were killed and injured. Many more have been placed under "monastery arrest," confined to quarters except perhaps to collect their daily alms. Others have been forcibly "derobed," or have fled to the countryside or to Thailand and China. "The monasteries in my neighborhood seem to be empty," says a 26-year-old monk who was jailed for 19 days. "In my monastery, we used to have 100. Now [it's] 31. I can feel the silence."

The government claims it has released all but about 90 of the 3,000 monks and civilians initially jailed. The ruling generals like to make a show of their piety, often posting pictures of themselves at pagodas, but when the monks marched in the streets this summer, the show was over. Today, few monks can be found around the Shwedagon and Sule Pagodas, the main Rangoon protest sites. Those visible move around cautiously, often alone. In Amarapura, near Mandalay, a 27-year-old cleric at the legendary Mahagandayon Monastery says almost 1,000 of the 1,800 inhabitants fled home in September, though many are now slipping back.

Monks are easier to spot in more rural areas. In Sagaing, west of Mandalay, they roam a hilltop pagoda, taking tea and chatting amiably with locals. "Not a surprise," says a tour guide. "Here, they're far from the action, and remember, some abbots work with the government." Buddhism eschews politics, and some senior monks were uncomfortable with the street marches. Several complied with a junta directive to the Sangha, the Buddhist leadership council, to order protesters back to the monasteries. The abbot at Kya Khat Waing Monastery north of Rangoon even called on the junta to punish monks who joined the marches.

The generals used bribes and force to win obedience, says Saw David Taw, a spokesman with the Karen National Union, an ethnic opposition party. The abbot of Ngwe Kyar Yan Monastery in Rangoon's South Okkalapa township was severely beaten, and many of his monks were roughed up and driven away in military trucks. Unconfirmed reports say the abbot later died of his injuries.

Many people in this 80 percent Buddhist country have been scared off the street by the harsh treatment of their revered clerics. If the regime will beat monks, they reason, civilians face worse. Monks in Rangoon say they are being kept in line by the paranoid regime's seemingly inexhaustible army of snitches.

Villarosa remains optimistic: "Yes, they're cowed. Yes, they're more terrified than they were before. But they're angry. It's not over yet." Asked what foreigners could do to help, a young monk in Mandalay forms a trigger with his finger and makes the sound of a gun being fired. Reminded that Buddhism rejects violence, he says: "Well, people have nothing. They ask the government for help and get nothing. What else can we do?"