Where Have Burma's Monks Gone?

The men were crammed into a tiny, overcrowded Burmese government detention-center cell. With no latrines in the bare room, they were forced to urinate in a corner. But when the guards finally reacted to the spreading puddle and intensifying stench, the men recoiled from the rags brought in. The maroon fabric clearly has been torn from Buddhist vestments, and the prisoners tacitly decide they'd rather live with the mess than clean the floor with monks' robes.

The source of this report about Burma's postprotest prison conditions is too sensitive to disclose. But the issue here is less Burma's grim prison conditions than the unknown fates of those who had been wearing those robes. More broadly, what befell all the monks who took part in the September uprisings that Burma's military regime ruthlessly put down? Buddhist monks, for centuries a ubiquitous presence in Rangoon, Mandalay and other urban centers, are in retreat, their public numbers down compared with the weeks before the protests. Some--no one knows how many--of the estimated 400,000 monks in Burma were killed or injured outright during the military crackdown. The remainders of them are being punished for being the inspirations, leaders and faces of the most recent attempt to force change in authoritarian Burma. "What has happened to all the monks?" asks Shari Villarosa, charge d'affaires at the United States Embassy in Rangoon. "It's frightening to think of. There obviously has been some kind of crackdown on the monks. Something has happened to them. It's not like they all willingly left town."

What's happened is that the military junta has forced many monks to flee the cities, continues to jail those it sees as ringleaders in the protests, has persuaded abbots--some of them already collaborating with the regime--to get rid of dissidents and has placed many other monks under "monastery arrest." They are not allowed to leave their campuses, except perhaps to collect their daily alms, which most monks do in the early morning. Further, the regime has forcibly "derobed" many monks, implying they no longer are clerics. Some terrified monks simply fled, some to the countryside, others to neighboring Thailand and China. "Some monks went away and others, their parents came to get them," says a 26-year-old monk who himself was jailed for 19 days. "The monasteries in my neighborhood seem to be empty. In my monastery, we used to have 100, now we're down to about 31. I can feel the silence in the monasteries."

The government concedes that a few monks remain in detention, although it claims it has released all but about 90 of the 3,000 monks and civilians initially jailed. Ostensibly religious, even superstitious, the government likes to make a show of its piety. On display at numerous pagodas are photos of various government officials paying respects to a venerated senior monk or laying wreaths in connection with some religious observance. But when the monks led protests that eventually drew hundreds of thousands, they became simply political dissidents to be crushed. "These people will do anything, kill anybody, to keep power," says a young man who works as a tour guide despite his university degree. "At first I was not that concerned," adds the monk who had been detained. "I reasoned that they were human beings and I am too, so why should I be afraid. But apparently they're not human beings."

Around Shwedagon Pagoda and Sule Pagoda, the main sites of protests in Rangoon, few monks are in evidence, despite the importance of the pagodas. Shwedagon is a magnificent, sprawling complex of multiple pagodas anchored by a glittering 2,500-year-old dome-shaped monument known as a stupa and ringed by a cluster of monasteries where the monks live. The monks have always come and gone, but now they move around cautiously, mostly singly, perhaps two or three at a time. In Amarapura, near Mandalay, Burma's second city, the number of monks at legendary Mahagandayon Monastery who queue to enter the mess hall to eat lunch--a daily ritual once mobbed by tourists--is down. A 27-year-old monk from Shan state says almost 1,000 of the monastery's 1,800 monks fled to their home provinces after September, although he said many have been slipping back to the facility. Another monk, 32, who teaches philosophy and scripture at the monastery and has been in orders since age 16, says the campus is back up to about 600 monks, 800 novices and 50 pre-novices. He himself never left, although he did join the marches in Mandalay.

In a seeming paradox, monks in more rural areas remain very much in sight. In Sagaing, west of Mandalay, groups of monks roam the hillside, many taking tea and chatting amiably with locals for hours at a time. They move around freely between the dozens of monasteries and pagodas that dot the stunning valley next to the Irrawaddy River. The feel at the gorgeous hilltop Kaunghmudaw Pagoda is idyllic, especially compared with Shwedagon. "Not a surprise," says a tour guide. "Here, they're far from the action, and remember, some abbots work with the government." He mentioned pro-government Kya Khat Waing monastery in Bago, about 50 miles northeast of Rangoon, from which most monks did not march and whose abbot actually urged the government to punish protesting monks.

That some senior monks initially came out against the protests and tried to get young monks off the streets is not that surprising given Buddhism's tenets and perhaps more important, the ruthlessness of the junta. Buddhism eschews politics and certainly, violence. Several senior monks were uncomfortable with the spectacle of monks marching, many shouting political slogans, including calls for freeing jailed democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Worse, the military regime directed the Sangha, the 47-man Buddhist leadership council based in Kabaraye, to order junior monks back to the monasteries. While the abbot at Kya Khat Waing was most egregious in his enthusiasm, several senior monks did comply. 

"The SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] approached the senior monks to urge junior monks to stop, and they [the generals] used a combination of pressure and offering senior monks various 'luxuries' at pagodas, which are supported by donations," says Saw David Taw, a spokesman with the Karen National Union, an ethnic opposition party. "There was a split among the senior monks then. But when monks were arrested, beaten and killed, it turned those monks who had opposed demonstrating, because they could not stand with the regime. From that point, the senior monks did not oppose the junior ones."

One monk in Amarapura confirmed that sequence. "Abbots were even pressured by the SPDC to not allow monks, who had gone to demonstrate, to return," he says. "Of course the abbots refused. Many monks are back here again."

Recalcitrant senior monks did not always get away scot-free. The abbot of Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery in Rangoon's South Okklapa township was severely beaten, and many monks there were said to have been injured in beatings and then driven away in military trucks. Unconfirmed reports say the head monk died of his injuries.

The decision by Senior Gen. Than Shwe and the rest of the junta to deal harshly with the monks has been having the desired effect. Shocked, even traumatized, by the treatment of revered monks in a country where at least 80 percent of the population is Buddhist, people have grown more docile, at least for now. If the regime will deal so harshly with monks, they reason, what chance do civilians have? In the meantime, monks in Rangoon say they are being watched by the paranoid regime and its seemingly inexhaustible phalanx of snitches. But Ms. 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."

Ultimately, the regime may pay for its own harsh actions by radicalizing a group known for its gentleness and pacifism. 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 abhors violence, he says: "Well, people have nothing. They ask the government for help and get nothing. What else can we do?"

Join the Discussion