Where Are 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, I'm 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, either from his monastery or dozens of others. The few foreigners who have managed to enter Burma since the junta's crackdown have all noted how empty the country's temples and monasteries seem to be. Thought to number around 400,000, Buddhist monks had been ubiquitous in Rangoon, Mandalay and other Burmese cities for centuries. "Something has happened," says Shari Villarosa, chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. "It's frightening to think of. It's not like they all willingly left town."

In interviews, diplomats, monks and Burmese activists say that the junta has jailed those monks it sees as ringleaders and has persuaded abbots—some of them already collaborating with the regime—to get rid of dissidents. Many monks have been placed under "monastery arrest," forbidden to leave their campuses, except to collect their daily alms. Others have been forcibly derobed. And some terrified monks have fled to the countryside or to neighboring Thailand and China. "The monasteries in my neighborhood seem empty," says the 26-year-old monk, who was jailed for 19 days. "In my monastery, we used to have 100. Now we're down to about 31. I can feel the silence."

Those few monks visible at the Shwedagon temple in Rangoon, a magnificent, sprawling complex of pagodas anchored by a glittering 2,500-year-old stupa, move around cautiously, mostly alone. In Amarapura, near Mandalay, the number of monks who queue up for lunch each day at the Mahagandayon monastery—a daily ritual once mobbed by tourists—has also declined dramatically. A 27-year-old cleric there says almost 1,000 of the monastery's 1,800 inhabitants fled to their home provinces in September, although he says many have since slipped back.

The 26-year-old Rangoon monk—a tall man with an elegant shaved head and an easy smile—says soldiers treated him roughly in detention but did not beat him, although they did slap around several other monks. For the first 15 days no latrines or bathing facilities were provided. Interrogations were basic: "We were mainly asked, 'Did you participate in the protests? Why? Who is the leading monk in these protests?' " Soldiers then brought in Sangha nayakas—Buddhist officials authorized to convert monks to laypeople. The nayakas refused to recite the appropriate scripture, so the soldiers simply forced the monks to don civilian dress and pronounced them laymen. "I took my vows a long time ago," says the defiant monk, still wearing his prison-issue flip-flops. "I felt angry to be forced to change my clothes, but I was still a monk."

The government concedes that a few monks remain in detention, although it claims to have released all but about 90 of the 3,000 monks and civilians initially jailed. Outside the major cities monks are far more evident. In Sagaing, west of Mandalay, groups of them roam the lush hillside, taking tea and chatting amiably with locals. The mood at the gorgeous Kaunghmudaw pagoda is calm. "Not a surprise," says a tour guide. "Here, they're far from the action, and remember, some abbots work with the government." He mentions the pro-government Kya Khat Waing monastery in Bago, about 50 miles northeast of Rangoon, most of whose monks did not march and whose abbot urged the government to punish those who did.

That some senior monks came out against the protests isn't surprising given the fact that Buddhism eschews politics and violence. Several abbots were uncomfortable with the spectacle of monks shouting political slogans, including calls to free jailed democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But like most Burmese, they're equally uncomfortable with the regime's actions. The junta pressured abbots not to allow monks who had marched back into their monasteries. "Of course the abbots refused. Many monks are back here again," says one monk in Amarapura.

The regime may yet pay for its actions if they radicalize a group known for its pacifism. "Yes, they're cowed, yes, they're more terrified than they were before. But they're angry," says Villarosa. Asked what help he'd like from outside powers, a young monk in Mandalay forms a trigger with his finger and makes the sound of a gun being fired. "People have nothing," he says. "They ask the government for help and get nothing. What else can we do?"