BANGKOK - "I'm being watched all the time. I am considered an organizer.
Between noon and 2 pm, I am allowed to go out of the monastery. But then I'm
followed," Buddhist monk U Manita said, referring to stepped up government
repression of the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar. "We don't want this junta. And
that's what everyone at my monastery thinks as well."
"Traditionally, we monks are not supposed to be politically active. The
military has ruled our country for more than 40 years, and they don't care
about the welfare of the people; they care only for themselves and their
relatives, and how to remain in power forever. That was why the people rose up
against them", said U Pannacara, a 27-year-old monk, referring to street
protests in 2007.
These are just two of the many monks' voices heard in "The
Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Protests in Burma", a new report issued
by the New York-based Human Rights Watch this week to coincide with the second
anniversary of the monk-led "Saffron" revolution in Myanmar.
Two years ago this month, crimson robes flooded the streets of Yangon and
Mandalay as thousands of Buddhist monks marched defiantly against Myanmar's
military junta. In certain instances, bystanders formed human shields to
protect the venerated monks from security force attacks.
The 2007 protests were sparked mainly by the ruling State Peace and Development
Council's (SPDC) decision to remove fuel subsidies that sent prices of diesel
and petrol, bus fares and other items soaring, adding to the already hard times
from the previous year that saw prices of basic goods rise by 40%.
After protests that started in August 2007 were violently suppressed by
security forces in September, more than 1,000 monks had been arrested and
detained, according to the HRW. Hundreds of them were tortured in government
custody, writes the report.
Myanmar's monks continue to be the subject of suspicion, restrictions and
infiltration by a military wary of their organization, clout and moral
authority in this mainly Buddhist country of 54 million people.
A total of 237 monks remain imprisoned across Myanmar's 43 prisons and 50 labor
camps, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political
Prisoners (AAPP), which assists political prisoners and their families in
Myanmar. Many were arrested while protesting on the streets or during violent
night-time raids on monasteries across the country.
"It was quite a pivotal moment in modern [Myanmar] history when the monks
started marching on the streets," David Mathieson, HRW's Myanmar consultant,
said at the report's launch at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.
"Buddhist monks in [Myanmar] are not just one of the key institutions in the
country. They are in some senses a barometer of social ideals. They take to the
streets, they become public actors, when things get so bad that they can't stay
In a country where monks are widely revered and wield huge influence, the
history of the Buddhist clergy, or Sangha, in Myanmar has been marked by
revolutionary and radical movements that catalyzed various events of national
importance, such as Myanmar's struggle for independence from the British and
anti-military protests in the 1970s and 1980s. "They are probably the most
powerful institution after the military in the country," Mathieson said.
There are about 400,000 monks in 45,000 registered monasteries across Myanmar,
according to HRW. Bertil Lintner, the author of the HRW report and a Myanmar
expert, said that "exactly how many [monks] went home [after the September 2007
protests], we don't know". He added, "Many of the monks fled and they disrobed
themselves to disguise the fact that they were monks on the run." Dressed in
plain civilian clothes, a number were reported to have escaped either by
fleeing east toward the Thai border or west toward India.
While compiling the HRW report, Lintner, who has three decades of experience
reporting on Myanmar, interviewed monks near the Thai border who had managed to
escape from prison. One monk he interviewed escaped by riding a bus to the
"At the checkpoint before the border he jumped out and pretended to be a
busboy, tearing tickets and changing gears. The bus driver was fully aware of
what was going on but he played along. They don't check the drivers' and the
busboys' [identification] and he managed to get through, and he finally crossed
the border and lived there."
The junta has in recent days tightened its watch over the Buddhist clergy.
Exiled Burmese media reported that on August 22, the Sangha League issued a
statement saying it was working with 14 other political groups to plan a third
boycott against the military, similar to the one launched during the 2007
Meanwhile, the junta is known to have planted monks in monasteries to gather
information about their sentiments and plans. "They want to show that 'look, we
are here and keeping an eye on you','' added Lintner. "The monasteries are
heavily infiltrated by informants."
Since the 2007 protests, government attempts to officially register monks have
also intensified. "There's just more and more background checks on whether the
monks have any affiliations or ties with political organizations," said
Mathieson. "That is by its nature an intimidating process, basically warning
monks not to get involved in any kind of political activities."
Sermons of abbots and senior monks are also coming under more scrutiny, and
monks returning to Myanmar from overseas are sometimes arrested and
interrogated, he added. Monasteries have also been warned not to be so visible
and many have been shut down in different parts of the country, according to
Only three of the 7,114 prisoners released as part of a mass amnesty last week
were Buddhist monks, according to AAPP's Bo Kyi. Only 122 of those released
were considered to be political prisoners, exiled Burmese organizations
Monks released from detention often find their situations changed. "Some monks
find it very difficult to return to their monastery as some of the monasteries
are reluctant to accept those who have been released from prison," Bo Kyi told
Inter Press Service. "They have to find out themselves where they can stay."
Last week's amnesty announcement was notably made before Myanmar Prime Minister
Gen Thein Sein's trip to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly
meeting, which he is expected to address on September 28. While it's still
unclear if Myanmar's monks intend to take new action against the military
regime, analysts say that dissent continues to simmer below the surface as the
government prepares for elections in 2010.
"The monks can never be the leaders of a political-social movement, [but] they
can be the catalyst ... They showed that very clearly in September  when
they showed up at [detained pro-democracy leader] Aung San Suu Kyi's house and
showed her 'we're here, but you are the leader'," said Lintner. "It doesn't
matter what the military do to the monks. They are still monks in their hearts,
and they will continue being that."