RANGOON – They are known for their peaceful and tranquil ways and teachings, which is perhaps why Burma’s thousands of monks have chosen to show their disapproval of the ruling military junta simply by “overturning the bowl.” For this, thousands of them have been arrested and jailed.
In 1990, a conclave of senior Burmese Buddhist monks decided to boycott alms from the military regime. The patam nikkujjana kamma –overturning the bowl — as the boycott is known in Buddhist religious scripture, was in response to a military crackdown that year in the central city of Mandalay. There had gathered thousands of monks who wanted to mark the second anniversary of Burma’s August 1988 pro-democracy uprising.
A number of monks were killed and hundreds arrested during the 1990 military action in Mandalay. At least 3,000 more were imprisoned later for refusing to accept donations from military personnel as part of the patam nikkujjana kamma. Similar action would be taken on more monks in subsequent years for the same “offence.”
The alms ritual is one of the most important in Theravada Buddhism and a monk’s refusal to accept signifies moral degeneration of the alms giver.
The 1990 alms boycott has been the most radical political action by Burma’s Buddhist sangha (monastic order), says U Pandavamsa, secretary of the Young Monks Union (Sangha Sammagi) for Upper Burma that organised the pattam nikujjana kamma declaration.
“The declaration is binding on every monk in Burma,” he says. The boycott, decided by highly respected senior monks known as Auwadasariya, requires monks to refuse alms from military personnel and not to perform religious rites for them. The pattam nikujjana kamma is regulated by the Vinaya, the 227 disciplinary rules for monks laid down in the third of the three Buddhist Tipitika religious scriptures.
The monks are well aware of the harm the boycott could bring to them. But U Pandavamsa, who once spent more than eight years in jail for being among those who refused donations from the country’s military rulers, also says, “History shows that this action can topple a ruler.”
Monks as mediators
There are about 1.5 million Buddhist monks and nuns living in 50,000 monasteries in Burma, which has Theravada Buddhists making up 90 percent of its population. Nine Theravada Buddhism sects are officially recognised in Burma by State SLORC Law No 20/90 of October 31, 1990. The largest is the Sudhama, while the other major sects include Shweikyin, Dhammanudhama Mahadvara Nikaya, and Dhammavinayanuloma Muhadvara Nikaya.
According to Ashin Zagara, abbot of Yangon’s Chauk Htat Kye monastery and chief editor of the popular Buddhist Damma Yeik magazine, Burma’s Buddhist monks have played an important socio-political role in the past. Early in the last century, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association pioneered popular opposition to colonial British rule in Burma.
U Pandavamsa, who was the abbott of the Shwe Taung monastery near the Rangoon railway station when he was arrested along with 300 other monks in 1997, also cites the Buddhist monks’ resistance movement in Tibet. He notes, “In Buddhism, we do not recognise the difference between personal and socio-political ethics. Their expression and form are the same.”
Here in Burma, he says, monks can play a constructive political role as “mediators for dialogue, by lobbying, building awareness and, in its harshest form, boycotting and severing social and religious ties with the uncooperative.”
According to a social observer who does not want to be identified, Burma’s Buddhist monks do not have an overt political role but express their resistance to the junta through criticism, alms boycott, and support to the pro-democracy movement.
Buddhism forbids extreme forms of political action such as violence and terrorism, explains U Pandavamsa. But Buddhism endorses political democratisation, which is in keeping with Buddha’s teachings, he says. “We, the monks, are always involved in every process of social change,” he adds. “Only, maybe, the action and organisation are different.”
The Young Monks Union has 80,000 members and runs its activities from Ah Thiti Tazaung pagoda in Rangoon. “We are not an underground organization,” says its head, U Zawana.
In December 2004, the Union boycotted the Buddhist World Summit being held in Burma at the time. The boycott was in protest against the continuing imprisonment of hundreds of Burmese monks.
Tightening the screws
But the military junta has tried to make it harder and harder for the monks to remain politically active. U Pandavamsa says that official intelligence agencies have infiltrated all monasteries. Public activities in monasteries, including religious ceremonies, must also be approved by the army.
“The military regime in Burma does not heed the voice of the monks anymore,” he says. “They even imprison the monks, especially young ones, without trial.”
One of the more recent actions against monks was the 2003 arrest of several monks belonging to the influential Mahar Gondhayone monastery in Kabayare, Rangoon, again for turning down a donation from the government.
According to Tate Naing, Secretary, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, there are currently about 3,000 political prisoners in Burma’s jails including 300 monks. “In prison, they are no longer considered as monks,” he says. “They are prohibited from wearing the robe and treated like criminals.”
In 2006, the Sangha Mahanayaka, the only government-recognised Buddhist body in Burma, issued an order against a jailed monk resuming being part of the Buddhist religious after his release. This has become a powerful weapon in the hands of the military regime, says U Pandavamsa.
“The regulation really intimidates monks,” he admits. “They are not afraid of being imprisoned, but they are terrified of not being allowed to wear their priceless robe.”
The 47-member Sangha Mahanayaka is chosen from among 300 senior monks by a panel of 1,400 monks representing all provinces, districts and major monasteries. Under the supervision of the Department of Religious Affairs, it issues identity cards to monks. The Sangha can revoke a monk’s identity card. It also holds examinations for monks in religious scripture and Pali, the language of the Buddhist sermon.
U Pandavamsa says, however, that monks are “holders of Burmese cultural power” and do not need official approval from any organisation before they act. He also says that many monks in Burma do not agree with the Sangha Mahanayaka. In any case, only abbots of prominent monasteries are required to avoid politics and this does not apply to all monasteries, he says.
No change in sight
Yet for all its efforts, the Young Monks Union itself sees little chance of immediate political change in the country. “We see no hope of getting democracy now,” concedes U Pandavamsa. “We are still traumatised by the killing of monks and students during the 1988 demonstration, the shooting and arrest of monks in Rangoon and Mandalay in 1990, the 1997 incident in Rangoon and the 2003 incident in Mandalay.”
In his view, the political situation has worsened since 2000 with all sections of civil society weakened by the military regime. These include the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and Buddhist monks, he says.
The recent shift of the Burmese capital from Rangoon to Pyinmana in central Burma has merely increased the country’s isolation. “Even Burmese are not allowed to visit Pyinmana,” he says.
Buddhist monks opposed to the military regime also failed to be encouraged by the May 2006 visit of the UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari who travelled to Pyinmana and met Burma’s top three leaders: Senior General Than Shwe, who also chairs the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, as the junta calls itself); Prime Minister General Soe Win; and Head of Burmese Military Intelligence General Maung Aye. The UN envoy also visited NLD leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has remained under house arrest for years.
One young monk who secretly listens to BBC radio broadcasts to follow political developments in his country is sceptical of the outcome of the UN envoy’s visit.
“I don’t believe that Mr. Gambari’s visit will bring any changes in the government’s political stance,” he says. “The meeting was merely a ploy of General Than Swe to create a positive image (of the regime) for the world.”
The monk feels that the Burmese military government is at its strongest now in the absence of democratic campaigning by opposition groups. “Not only the NLD, but all civil-society groups including the Sangha have been silenced,” he says.
But the Young Monks Union has not given up hope – and neither has the avid BBC listener in monk’s robes. He says, “The Sangha is still strong as we embody the Burmese cultural power. Therefore, monks are the only one who still have a role (in politics) in Burma.”
Wahyuana is a freelance Indonesian journalist. He contributes to the Jakarta Post.