Grace Under Pressure — The Plight of Burma's Monks
by Alan Senauke
Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions, courage that could be described as “grace under pressure”—grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure. —Aung San Suu Kyi, from Freedom from Fear
The rains of late September fell on a hundred thousand monks in saffron robes as they marched through the streets of Burma chanting the Metta Sutta, the sutra of loving-kindness, turning their minds and prayers toward democracy and the nonviolent transformation of the military regime that has ruled Burma for forty-five years. Once again Burmese monks had taken up the practice of patam nikkujjana kamma, or “overturning the bowl,” boycotting alms from the military junta and their families, ritually denying the junta leaders refuge from the destructive karma of their own greed and brutality. In Burma, where monks and nuns are so deeply trained in meditation, Buddhist scholarship, and the peaceful acceptance of life’s sufferings, this was an extraordinary act. It was “grace under pressure,” to borrow novelist Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage, a sentiment echoed by Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
On September 22, monks surged through barriers blocking off Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Rangoon. Still under house arrest, Suu came outside to receive their blessings. They stood before her and chanted:
May we be completely free from all danger May we be completely free from all grief May we be completely free from poverty May we have peace in heart and mind
As monks took to the streets in greater numbers, they were flanked by thousands of ordinary Burmese. This was more than the junta could stand. On September 26, protest leaders—ordained and lay—were arrested. Burmese troops and the paramilitary Union Solidarity and Development Association blockaded the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and began beating hundreds of people trapped on the temple grounds. Meanwhile, monks and nuns continued to march through Rangoon’s downtown, where they were attacked with bamboo canes. The following day troops fired on nearly fifty thousand people protesting in Rangoon. How many were killed in this crackdown? We will never know. The beaten body of a monk was found floating in the Rangoon River, and this image was broadcast around the world. Visiting Burma after the crackdown, the UN’s Special Rapporteur, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, made an effort to investigate Rangoon’s Ye Way crematorium, where, he explains,
“…credible sources report a large number of bodies (wrapped in plastic and rice bags) were burned during the night, between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., on 27–30 September. Sources indicate…that normal employees were instructed to keep away, and that the facility was operated on those nights by State security personnel or State-supported groups. At least one report indicates that some of the deceased being cremated had shaved heads and some had signs of serious injuries.”
In the days that followed in the wake of murder, beatings, and confusion, monasteries were emptied, locked, and barricaded. Some monks were arrested, some were forcibly disrobed, some were dismissed to their home villages, and some fled. This was not the first time in Burma’s history that monks had led protests, nor was it the first time they had been attacked by the military junta. But the junta’s systematic violence against the Burmese sangha—revered as sons of the Buddha—was unprecedented. The whole world could see it at last.
By early December the rains had passed and an uneasy silence fell across Burma. I flew into Yangon International Airport on December 4, as part of a witness delegation sponsored by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF). Four of us had come to see firsthand how things were, to listen to the stories of monks and laypeople and to convey the international Buddhist community’s solidarity with the people of Burma. We also wanted to open lines of communication and support for future work. Our group included Phra Paisan Visalo, a Thai forest monk and founder of Buddhika, Thailand’s engaged Buddhist network; Nupphanat Anuphongphat (aka Top), also from Buddhika; Jill Jameson, a human rights activist and trainer from Melbourne’s BPF chapter in Australia; and myself, from BPF’s U.S. national office.
I’d been involved with Burma since 1991, when I began working at BPF. That year I traveled with a delegation from the International Network of Engaged Buddhists to Manerplaw, a large encampment of opposition armed forces and refugees on the Burmese side of the Moie River, across from Thailand. Manerplaw was later overrun by Burmese troops, but in the years since, I had visited the border areas numerous times, sleeping with monks in jungle monasteries, visiting refugee camps down long, muddy roads, bringing food and medicine to clinics and schools. I’d walked through the smoking ashes of settlements, sat with monks shivering from malaria in the midst of an April heat wave, and wept to see the swollen bellies of hungry children in Burma’s ethnic areas.
Now for the first time I was seeing Rangoon. Phra Paisan, Top, and I taxied into Rangoon from the airport. Time seemed to have stopped here long ago. Even in rush hour, traffic was light throughout the city’s badly potholed streets. Vintage cars from the sixties spewed exhaust. Sidewalks were filled with people walking to work, and commuters jammed themselves into ramshackle buses and trucks. Normally streets would be teeming with monks and nuns, but the only monks I saw were novice schoolboys and old men with their umbrellas and bowls.
Our cab driver interrogated us. His questions went uncomfortably beyond ordinary curiosity, and, instinctively, we were careful about how we framed our responses. We knew we would be watched everywhere and that official scrutiny had begun the minute we stepped off the plane. This was confirmed when Jill flew in a few hours later and we met at our hotel. Her taxi driver had asked her the same kind of questions. Then he remarked that three men had arrived on an earlier flight—an American, a Thai monk, and another Thai—and asked if she was connected with them. We could only wonder what other connections had already been made. It set me on edge.
Over the next week, we met with Burmese activists, monks, teachers, students, orphans, diplomats, and ordinary people in streets, homes, tea shops, and restaurants. We visited monasteries, schools, and bustling markets. We woke up before dawn to circumambulate the Shwedagon Pagoda as the sun kindled its golden flanks.
A cloud of fear encircled everything. Beneath people’s smiles, fear seemed close to the surface. But wherever we went, people were anxious to talk, to tell their stories about the long, painful months just past. All we could do was listen, that simple and essential dharma practice. We heard tales of violence and loss, and yet there was a remarkable lightness too—a laugh, a look, or the touch of a hand would sometimes cut through the almost unbearable words and memories.
Around the public temples, monks usually avoided engaging with us for fear of reprisal. We too feared for the safety of those who might be seen talking with Westerners. An activist friend explained, “We have a saying: If you have died once, you know how much the coffin costs.” The price of Burmese resistance is high, not just in blood but in the arising of trauma manifesting as anger, mistrust, and depression. Aung San Suu Kyi writes in Freedom from Fear, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Where are the monks? We asked this wherever we went. In late September and the weeks that followed, Burmese security forces raided dozens of monasteries. They often came late at night, beating monks, tearing the robes from their bodies, shooting some, and stealing and destroying religious objects. A local activist friend, Stephen, said that intelligence agents had scanned photographs and videos looking for monks and nuns who were involved in the protests. The protesters were slotted into one of four incriminating categories: those who watched; those who clapped; those who offered water, and those who actually marched. These actions were met with a corresponding range of punishments and prison terms. Stephen also told us that a college friend, an officer in the military, said that officers and soldiers under his command raided a monastery while drunk, and that he had been under orders to beat monks while questioning them.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than fifty monasteries were raided in Rangoon alone. In most cases, resident monks either fled or were sent to their home villages. Those identified as leaders of the All-Burma Monks Alliance were arrested and tortured. Many remain in prison. According to the Burmese opposition blog “Vimutti,” 348 monasteries in and around Rangoon had a population of 29,658 monks and novices. As of February 7, only 6,391 could be accounted for in these monasteries.
In the aftermath of the repression, we found many large monasteries empty and locked. Some had military vehicles and barbed wire blocking access. (A recent news story from Agence-France Press confirms this is still the case in late March.) At one monastery we were told that all of the local nuns had fled after the crackdown and that local people missed their morning chanting. Each of the centers we were able to visit—and these were places ostensibly not involved in the demonstrations—had government security officers at the gate. One morning, while we gave out packages of noodles to five hundred young children at a desperately poor monastic orphanage, we learned that military intelligence agents had followed us in and questioned the young abbot about our presence. They left—evidently feeding children was not illegal that day—but their presence had left the school staff badly shaken.
Buddhist monastic schools and orphanages play a key role in the educational system. In the Rangoon Division alone there are 162 monastic schools. Across Burma there are hundreds of thousands of orphans, children who have lost a parent or whose families cannot afford even the small expense of government schools. There are some fine monastic schools, but the ones we saw on the outskirts of Rangoon were disturbing places. Hundreds of young children had to make do with thin rice gruel, sometimes mixed with a touch of fish paste. They had no textbooks and writing materials were scarce. Children learned by rote memorization. Dormitories—home to dozens of students per room—were crowded and dirty. We saw a health worker checking the children for scabies and ringworm, conditions that were almost universal. Malnutrition, overcrowding, and limited staff mean that children are neglected, despite the teachers’ and monks’ best intentions.
The school we visited had previously been home to nearly forty monks and was now staffed by just four or five, the rest having fled in October. That was not unique to one temple but rather common in monasteries across Burma. We asked the abbot where they had gone. He didn’t know. Looking down, he said he did not know if he would hear from any of them again.
Leaving Burma, we flew back to Bangkok and traveled by van to Mae Sot along the Thai-Burma border, where we heard there was a cluster of Burmese monks who had fled Burma for the relative safety of Thailand. Mae Sot is deep in the mountains of Thailand, just across the Moie River from Myawaddy on the Burmese side. It is a kind of Wild West place with dusty streets and teeming markets full of cheap goods. Illegal Burmese refugees account for roughly 80,000 of the town’s population of 100,000. Another 75,000 refugees live in three large makeshift camps set up by Thai authorities in the nearby hills, cut off from opportunities for work and liberty. Around Mae Sot’s garbage dump children comb through mounds of refuse daily, salvaging anything that might be sold or bartered for food.
On the outskirts of town, two hundred prison-like factories are staffed by these illegals. They manufacture clothing and other bargain items for the world market, working for half the Thai minimum wage of about $4.50/day. Most of these workers are from the neighboring Karen state inside Burma, a region that has seen much repression by the Burmese army and where there are no jobs to speak of. They are grateful for any employment at all, but working behind barbed wire for such wages is exploitation nonetheless.
Mae Sot is also home to an astonishing number of Burmese opposition groups—local, national, and international. Each has its own mission and constituency, and it is often difficult for them to work together across ethnic and political lines. Despite Mae Sot’s proximity to Burma, and a somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward these displaced Burmese (Thai businesses need their cheap labor), sources told us that only a few hundred refugees have made the difficult journey from central Burma to the border, and of those, perhaps only twenty or thirty were monks. The number is hard to pin down.
Through contacts with the local National League for Democracy and other activist organizations, we were invited to talk with monks from Rangoon, Mandalay, and Bago at several Mae Sot safe houses. The houses themselves were inconspicuous, but hardly safe. Like many of the offices and residences of Burmese activists, they were subject to random raids by Thai immigration officers, who line their own pockets with bribes and remind the Burmese of their undocumented vulnerability in Thailand. Dr. Cynthia Maung’s Mae Tao Clinic, the main medical resource for Burmese migrants and refugees along the border, has been raided countless times. Since Thailand never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has blocked the United Nations High Commission for Refugees from registering and screening new arrivals, who are constantly subject to deportation and exploitation.
Talking with monks over cups of tea, their sense of insecurity was the first matter of conversation. Many of them are living alongside laypeople, a highly unusual and uncomfortable situation for Burmese monastics. The Thai sangha does not welcome or include them in their temple life, and Burmese monks are not permitted to go on alms rounds for food. Their red robes also make them dangerously conspicuous to immigration police. Even the established Burmese-style temples in Mae Sot are hesitant to have them in residence for more than a few days. Although a handful of escaped monks have just been granted asylum in the United States, without UNHCR refugee status, financial support, and the sustaining regimen of practicing dharma together, most of the monks have left the street battles of Burma and entered a twilight zone of displacement on the Thai border. They deserve much better than this.
Some of the eleven monks we met had been religious leaders in their communities. They had varying degrees of political awareness along with their advanced study of suttas and abhidhamma. Several had been to university before ordination and were familiar with social theory. Some were activist monks. Ashin K, who had fled Burma in 2006 at the urging of his abbot, wore a tattooed portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi on his chest, just under his robes. Other monks seemed traumatized. They had followed their brothers and their conscience into the streets but had not anticipated the risks. What they saw in September at the hands of military and pro-junta vigilantes had left deep shadows on their minds. Each of them had to disrobe temporarily to escape from the cities, using false papers and disguises to make their way across Burma. Crossing the border to presumptive safety, a sayadaw in this group was arrested by Thai police, and friends had to pay a bribe of $80 to save him from threatened repatriation. Understandably, some monks have given up their robes, melting into the larger community of Burmese in Mae Sot.
There is no end to this story, but there are many beginnings. I believe the Burmese sangha will survive, because I believe that dharma itself cannot be harmed. Also, I have seen the courage of monks, nuns, and laypeople whose training is so thorough that, with or without robes, they were able to sustain their practice of mindfulness and metta in the depths of prison. Even torture was not able to break their practice. And in the months since our return, I have seen fearlessness flowering in the Burmese sangha. In a New Year’s statement, the All-Burmese Monks Alliance called on the people of Burma to continue their struggle against the regime but stressed the necessity of nonviolence. They urged monks to continue with their boycott of the Burmese regime until all monks and political prisoners have been released. In addition, the new International Burmese Monks Organization (Sasana Moli) has set up branches in fourteen countries—including the United States, Europe, Canada, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India—to respond to the Burmese junta’s violent suppression of the sangha. Sasana Moli’s patron, the eighty-one-year-old Sayadaw U Kovida, recently spoke about the monks’ actions and their alms boycott:
“I am convinced that Burma will get democracy very soon and that this boycott will end successfully. The monks inside Burma want to remind us time and again that the boycott is still on. It does not matter that they are having food forced on them. What’s more important is to realize that in their minds the struggle is still on. If they have the courage and vision and continue the fight, with support of the world, then Burma will see the light in the near future.”
On March 27, Burma’s Armed Forces Day, thirty demonstrators staged a rare public protest in Rangoon, outside the National League for Democracy offices. Wearing bright T-shirts printed with the word “NO,” they urged their fellow citizens to vote against the junta’s proposed constitution that would legalize the military’s already sweeping illegal powers. Similar demonstrations have been quietly mounted in other Burmese cities, with some protestors wearing “NO” T-shirts and others donning blue prison uniforms and shackles. Still, the repression persists. In January, U Gambira, a leading young monk in September’s demonstrations, who has been held and tortured by the junta since early November, was charged with violating the Unlawful Assembly Act and now faces at least three years in prison. In late March, he was placed in solitary confinement at Insein Prison, and supporters fear for his health. The Democratic Voice of Burma reports that U Gambira and fellow monks have begun a vocal campaign of chanting metta, which has reportedly spread to other prison wards.
I feel a debt of gratitude for the Burmese teachers who have preserved the dharma and helped carry it to the West. And as a matter of practice, I turn toward their suffering. I hope others will do so as well. But as Thich Nhat Hanh says, suffering is not enough. There is the necessary activity of a bodhisattva, pointing the way for sentient beings to liberate ourselves from our own personal prisons and from places like Burma, where the whole of society has become a prison.
We can support our Burmese brothers and sisters by offering material aid, dharma teachings, and the example of fearlessness itself. The work is endless. In return, the monks and nuns of Burma offer us the possibility of a nation and a world that truly courses in liberation.
The Roots of the Saffron Revolution
Burma’s population is 90 percent Theravada Buddhist, so the more than 400,000 monks and 75,000 nuns represent the most stable, ongoing institution of national life. Historically, they have always played a role in society. Monks led the first anti-colonial activities in Burma when British officers entered temples with their shoes on. In the 1920s and ’30s, as the anti-colonial movements grew, articulate monks such as U Ottama and U Wissara spent long years in British prisons for their nationalist stance. U Wissara died in prison on the 167th day of a hunger strike. In 1988 and again in 1990, monks helped lead the democracy movement. Many were shot, and many more were imprisoned; over ninety of them were still in custody when the recent protests began.
Theravada monastics live in close relationship to the wider community. Their response to Burma’s extreme economic hardship is, in a sense, logical. If the people cannot eat, monks and nuns cannot eat.
The Orwellian military regime, established in 1962 by General Ne Win, has transformed Burma. Despite its great wealth of natural resources, greedy and violent generals have reduced Burma from a prosperous, self-sufficient nation to its present status as one of the UN’s designated poorest twenty countries.
In late 2006, basic commodity prices for rice, cooking oil, and other necessities rose sharply. Then on August 15, 2007, with no advance notice, the government cancelled fuel subsidies, and overnight gasoline and oil prices doubled at the pump, and natural gas, used extensively for fueling cars as well as for cooking, rose by 500 percent. At that point, public protest began.
The regime’s immediate response was violent. The military beat and arrested demonstrators and zeroed in on well-known dissidents. On September 5, several hundred monks in the city of Pakokku marched and chanted the Metta Sutta in solidarity with a suffering nation. Troops attacked, tying up and beating three monks. The next day, young monks briefly took several government officials hostage. In a widely read leaflet, the All-Burma Monks’ Alliance demanded that the military apologize for their brutal actions against Pakokku’s monks.
There was no apology. The alliance urged all of Burma’s Buddhist monks to boycott alms. City by city, monks took to the streets. The Saffron Revolution had begun.
Burma Comments 8.8.08 — Union Square, San Francisco August 8, 2008 Alan Senauke / Clear View Project
From what I hear this is a highly auspicious date for the Chinese. Maybe so, but for the Burmese and all of us who love Burma it is a date that brings up mourning and celebration together.
We mourn: • The still unknown numbers of monks, students, activists, ordinary people lost on 8888. And we remember them. • The potential and promise of democracy bravely raised 20 yrs ago. And we remember that democracy will come. • Those who died and were disappeared in last year’s Saffron Revolution. We remember all of them, and wonder where are the monks • The millions caught by Cyclone Nargis and abandoned by their own paranoid government, which thinks of nothing but survival. We remember them. • All the junta’s victims, named and unnamed — Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, countless Burmese in forced labor, those who suffer rape and torture, and those in exile, even here among us now.
Still, we celebrate: • The spirit of resistance that after 46 years, after 20 years, persists day by day. • The astonishing qualities common to all Burma’s people — qualities of compassion, joy, effort, and patience — qualities taught by the Buddha, Christ, and Mohammed. • The yearning for freedom and democracy whose flame cannot be extinguished. I know, we all know that tyranny cannot last, liberation is bound to come.
Today I bring a message of solidarity from Buddhist communities across the United States. Since last September, this is what I have been trying to do: bringing word of Burma to all the Buddhist temples and centers, so that with our prayers, with work, and with our generosity we can align ourselves with Burmese sisters and brothers in their nonviolent liberation movement.
There is much I could say, but today I want to remember one thing more. The dhamma or truth we manifest in our daily Buddhist practice has been carefully brought to us by our Burmese teachers and others from Asia. Without their sacrifice and effort for our sake, we would not hold this dhamma treasure. Holding it, we hold a debt to these teachers. We can fulfill this debt by working for Burma, returning precious gifts in another form.
So today we remember our comrades in Burma. And those in Tibet, Darfur, and in China itself, and all those places where people resist oppression. We call on the leaders of Burma and China to let go of their self-imprisoning fears and allow the flowering of freedom. And we urge brave peoples to rise nonviolently and claim their birthright of wellbeing and life that flows free like a river.