Human Rights Watch (2009): The Resistance of the Monks | Buddhism and Activism in Burma | VI – The Reemergence of Buddhist Political Activism in Burma

Young monk in Myanmar | Photo: Alessandro Bergamini

The demonstrations in August and September 2007 were the largest popular protests against military rule in Burma in nearly 20 years. Human Rights Watch documented the demonstrations and the brutal crackdown by security forces, interviewing more than 100 eyewitnesses to the events. Our report, Crackdown: Repression of the 2007 Popular Protests in Burma,[1] and an investigation by then United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro,[2] demonstrated that SPDC security forces killed, beat, tortured, and violently dispersed peaceful protesters, including monks. Unsurprisingly, the SPDC has not conducted its own investigation; disappointingly, neither the United Nations, regional bodies, nor governments have mounted any further investigation or pressed for perpetrators of abuses to be brought to justice.

The demonstrations in 2007 were fuelled by widespread social frustration over declining living standards, a fuel price increase, and denial of basic freedoms. Monks, far from the common view of them as being almost other-worldly, depend on community support for their lives: this is a symbiotic relationship whereby the Sangha provide spiritual guidance and comfort and maintain safe spaces for worship and basic social services, while lay people provide them with material support. Monks thus were well aware of the hardships most Burmese were facing and themselves directly felt the impact of Burma’s economic stagnation. Many young monks in particular were vocally critical of the government’s role in producing increasingly desperate living conditions.

Against this backdrop, monks had begun to organize themselves even before the first demonstrations by laypeople in August 2007. In June, monks led by U Nat Zaw, (aka U Pyin Nya Zaw Ta or Pannajota), formed the All-Burma Young Monks’ Union, the first independent monks’ organization since the movement of 1990. U Nat Zaw came from Meggin monastery in Thinganyunt township in Rangoon which was famous for offering shelter to HIV-sufferers. He had taken part in the protests in 1990 and was arrested on December 10 of that year. He spent three years in jail and was rearrested in January 1998. He was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for “attempts to form the young monks union for a second time.”[3] When U Nat Zaw was released in November 2004, he and other monks began establishing ties to one another. Thanks to donations from overseas Burmese, many monasteries now had computers and monks in various parts of the country communicated by e-mail.[4]

The attack on the monks in Pakokku on September 5 prompted the monks to form a broader organization, the All-Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA), which was formally established on September 9. According to a leading senior monk, this is the process of events leading to the formation of the movement:

But on September 5 when the Pakokku monks came out to chant the peaceful prayers of the ‘Metta Sutta,’ —the sutra of loving kindness to radiate the spirit of love to all beings—in sympathy with the suffering public, the local government militia brutally attacked the monks and tied them to electric poles, beat them with rifle butts, and arrested them. News of these actions spread quickly, and the next day unrest broke out and cars were burnt in Pakokku. Burmese monks from all over the country felt compelled to respond to such shocking violence against revered Buddhist monks who were marching peacefully. When the monks gathered on September 9 as previously agreed, the meeting was forced to move to a new location for fear of detection by the authorities. Finally, monks at the meeting unanimously decided to boycott the military if the government failed to comply with the following demands by a given deadline. The monks demanded that the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC):

  1. Apologize to the Pakokku monks, by midnight of September 17;
  2. Reduce the prices of fuel oil and basic commodities;
  3. Unconditionally release Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners;
  4. Hold dialogue with the democratic political opposition representatives in order to begin a national reconciliation process.

The ensuing united monks’ organization was named the ‘All Burma Monks’ Alliance’ (ABMA) and the monks decided to proceed with boycotting the military on September 18, 2007 after the regime failed to meet the demands before the deadline. The members of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance include:

  1. All Burma Young Monks’ Union
  2. Federation of All Burma Monks’ Union
  3. Rangoon Young Monks’ Union
  4. Sangha Duta Council of Burma

The announcement of the above formation of the ABMA was handwritten, photographed, and published via email media sent from a handheld camera, since computer communications were disrupted or unavailable.[5]

According to a detailed and, in many ways, surprisingly accurate government account of events published in the state media a month after the demonstrations:

After the occurrence of monk protests in Sittway (Sittwe) and Pakokku due to the incitement of All-Myanmar (Burma) Young Monks Union (Association), other groups such as Sangha Sammeggi in Mandalay and Sotujana Bhikkhu in Pakokku came into being. All-Myanmar Monks United Front (All-Burma Monks Alliance) was founded on 9-9-2007 to ensure a single command. The intention of forming the front was to organize all members of the Sangha to participate in its activities and to systematically control all activities. Sangha Representatives Steering Committee was formed with 15 monks. Of the 15, U Ghosita was assigned duty to Thinganyunt area, U Kovida (Nan Oo monastery) to Mingala Taungnyunt area, U Nandasiri (Pwinbyu-Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery) to South Okkalapa area, and U Candasiri(a) [“a” denotes alias] Payit to Shwethein Dhamma Theingi monastery to start all Sangha protests at the same time… The main instigators of the incident in Sittway (Sittwe) were U Kovida of Takkasila Pariyatti monastery in Dagon Myothit (East) and U Komala(a), Kyaw Sein(a), Judo Kyaw Sein of Adithan monastery in Sittway (Sittwe), U Pannajota(a), Nat Zaw, and U Gambira(a), U Candobhasa(a), Hlaing Bwa(a), Nyi Nyi Lwin of All Myanmar Young Monks Union visited Mandalay and neighboring areas in upper Myanmar to spread the disturbances to all parts of the union. Secretary of the Union U Visuddasara made contacts with monasteries inside and outside the country and media through telephone and e-mail.[6]

This report, which was delivered by the Minister for Religious Affairs, Brigadier-General Thura Myint Maung and published in The New Lightof Myanmar on October 25, 2007, revealed the extent of the government’s intelligence network, and how closely watched the monks must have been. Most details are accurate—apart from accusations of the monks’ having weapons and bombs hidden in their monasteries and the suggestion that their goals were negative (“systematic control” and spreading “disturbances.” The minister went on to say that U Gambira had visited Mae Sot in Thailand in July 2005, where he “met with AAPP (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma) in-charge Bo Kyi and also attended a community organizer course there…clandestine supporters of U Gambira were Ko Nyein Chan (chairman of political defiance committee), Min Naing (internal liaison in-charge of Forum for Democracy in Burma-FDB), and Kyaw Htet (vice chairman of FDB).”[7]

But the Burmese intelligence service had overlooked some important aspects of support and encouragement for the monks’ movement: monks from Sri Lanka had visited Burma at the time of the marches, and support had also come from Burmese Buddhist monasteries in Penang, Malaysia, and Singapore. So rather than being a plot hatched from Mae Sot and the Thai border, a regional network of socially engaged Buddhists offered support for the monks of Burma.[8] The groups on the Thai border did little more than disseminate information from inside Burma to the outside world.

U Eitthariya, a 32-year-old monk in 2007, explained to Human Rights Watch his decision to become more politically active:

There are two main reasons. Most of the Sangha have families, so they see the social problems. All monks have feelings for their families, and we didn’t have an opportunity to express this. Low living standards of the people affect the monks because we depend on the people to support us. Especially in Pakokku and Mandalay, there are lots of monks who cannot be supported. Everyone knows the justice system doesn’t work and that you need money and contacts with the authorities. This makes the economic hardships even worse. Secondly, there was bloodshed against the monks in Pakokku. Even under the British we were not treated like this.[9]

“U Agga Pyindaya” (not his real name), a 29-year-old monk, heard from the people around him how much the fuel price increases had affected living standards in Rangoon. He told Human Rights Watch:

I heard people say in their house or on the bus that they had difficulties for the livelihoods. We got less food day by day after the price increase. People had more difficulties after the price increase. We heard the voice of the people. They complained about bus fares. Also, the commodity prices had gone up.[10]

“U Pannacara” (not his real name) is a 27-year-old monk who echoes the view that social problems prompted the monks to take action:

Traditionally, we monks are not supposed to be politically active. But the political and economic situation in the country was so bad that we couldn’t keep quiet. We could not stand to see the suffering of the people, that was why we decided to show them our support and sympathy. 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. There are three powerful groups in Burma: the sit-tha (sons of war), that’s the military. The kyaung-tha (sons of the school), the students. The paya-tha (sons of the Buddha). That’s us, the monks.[11]

“U Kosalla” says he became politically active because he began to think about the political and social situation in Burma:

Why are there so many poor people when the country is rich in resources? Why is the educational system so bad? I read many books about history, I talked to monks and others about what happened in 1988, and even earlier in our country’s history. I came to the conclusion that the main problem the country is facing is the policy of the junta. I’m an activist and the junta knows that.[12]

U Gawsita was born in Pegu Division in Burma in 1979. He was ordained as a novice at the age of 12 and studied Buddhism in Pegu before going to Rangoon, where he stayed at the Maggin monastery, where people with HIV and AIDS were received and comforted. He was only a child during the 1988 uprising and has only vague memories of that time. But he reacted against the continuing repression in Burma and the hardships the people were facing, and, like many other monks from Maggin, he became involved in the 2007 movement at an early stage:

We decided to take to the streets because of two main issues: higher fuel prices and the government’s action against the monks in Pakokku and Sittwe. Monks from our monastery began marching on September 18. Then we demanded the release of all political prisoners and asked for talks between the government and the pro-democracy movement as well. We also demanded an apology for the violence against the monks in Pakokku, and, if such an apology was not forthcoming, we would stage a patta nikkujjana kamma. The fact that we began marching on September 18 had actually nothing to do with the anniversary of the 1988 coup. It was just a coincidence.[13]

Day by day, the marches became bigger and, according to U Gawsita, more than 50,000 monks and nuns participated before the crackdown began. Maggin was one of the first monasteries in Rangoon to be targeted by the military. Soldiers entered it late at night on September 25. The following morning, U Gawsita and other monks tried to march to downtown Rangoon:

But soldiers were blocking our way. There was a confrontation near the Shwedagon Pagoda. Soldiers started beating the monks. Smoke bombs were fired and we couldn’t see the Shwedagon for all the smoke. I was beaten on my head and I believe four monks were killed. Both the army and the Lon Htein [riot police] took part in the beatings. The laypeople couldn’t stand seeing the monks being beaten, but there was nothing they could do. They were beaten, too.[14]

On September 27, troops surrounded monasteries all over Rangoon:

This continued into the night. Army trucks crashed through the gates of several monasteries. It happened after midnight, so no laymen could witness it because of the curfew that the authorities had imposed. Because I was wounded, I stayed in a room beside the main building at Meggin. From where I was staying, I first saw civilians from the USDA [mass-based social movement organized and controlled by the SPDC] come up to the monastery. They claimed that they had come to check the night attendance at the monastery, so the monks opened the gates. But as soon as the gates were open, about 50 soldiers stormed in and began arresting the novices. They made them lie down on the floor with guns at their heads, demanding: “Where are the senior monks?” The young novices cried and said that they didn’t know. But the soldiers found them. The first senior monk to be arrested was in his 80s. Four other senior monks were also arrested. Two of them were later released, but we don’t know what happened to the other two.[15]

According to U Gawsita, several laypeople were arrested as well:

They were HIV patients. Those who were not arrested were driven out of the monastery. We have no idea where they are today.[16]

Maggin was raided several times before the authorities shut it down on September 29. At the same time, the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery in South Okkalapa, which had a long history of resistance to the military government, was raided and occupied by the army. Ngwe Kyar Yan had played a central role not only in the events of 2007 but also in the 1988 uprising, as described above in Chapter III of this report.[17] U Pyinnya Jota, who had been a monk at Maggin monastery since 2005, experienced the raids:

Raiding monasteries is like raping Buddhism. This is an unspeakable offense against the religion, and it is also inexcusable from the point of view of social ethics. Even the British colonialists did not storm monasteries, beating and arresting monks and forcibly closing these sacred places to the public.[18]

Following the closure of Maggin, villagers told U Gawsita that the older monks returned to their villages in the countryside. “There, they were still under surveillance,” said U Gawsita. “The villagers were told that they would be arrested if they went to see the monks from Maggin.”

U Gawsita, with his head wound, managed to escape from Rangoon and went back to his native village near Nyaunglebin. Soldiers came looking for him, but none of the villagers told them anything:

Young novices came to see me and told me what was happening. Some men in civilian clothes, probably military intelligence agents or people from the USDA, also came on motorcycles looking for me. I could no longer stay in the village, so I slept in the forest. In the morning, families came and offered me food. But I realized I had to flee and asked my friends to help me. It took a few days to collect some money. A family went to the nearest town and sold some jewelry. I thanked them, saying that if I don’t die, we’ll meet again.[19]

U Gawsita then walked to Nyaunglebin town 15 kilometers away, in robes but with civilian clothes in a bag so he could change whenever necessary. On December 3, he reached the outskirts of Nyaunglebin. It was four o’clock in the morning, and he slept under a bridge over a small creek, where he had a bath and then changed to civilian clothes and walked into the town. In Nyaunglebin, he caught a bus to Pegu, and then headed for Myawaddy on the Thai border, also by bus. The last part of the journey was extremely difficult:

We had to pass several checkpoints before reaching Myawaddy. Soldiers came on the bus to check tickets and people’s ID cards. If passengers were wearing nice clothes, their cards were taken and then they were asked to pay 1,000 kyats before they got the cards back. The soldiers didn’t bother much with poor people who had nothing to offer them. I mingled with the bus people, helped the driver fix the tires and so on. I think the driver must have known that I was a monk trying to escape to Thailand, but he didn’t say anything. I pretended to be a busboy and sat beside the driver. In that way, I wasn’t checked, the soldiers thought I was not a passenger but worked for the bus company.[20]

U Gawsita arrived in Myawaddy on December 5, a public holiday in Thailand (the King’s birthday), so the border bridge on the Moei river was closed. Because U Gawsita knew it was not safe to stay in Myawaddy, he floated on a rubber inner-tube across the Moei river to the Thai side. There, he was briefly detained by the Thai police. “But it was not a serious arrest,” U Gawsita said. In March 2008, he left Myawaddy and went to the United States, where he was granted political asylum and now works for the International Burmese Monks Organization (IBMO) in New York.

U Nat Zaw, age 48, also from Maggin monastery and one of the main organizers of the 2007 monks’ movement, also managed to escape to Thailand despite being hunted by the military authorities—and despite the extensive intelligence file that they had on him which was evident in the account of his activities published in The New Light of Myanmar on October 25, 2007. As one of the founders of the All-Burma Young Monks’ Union in mid-2007 and having also spent several years in prison on two earlier occasions for political activities, U Nat Zaw was one of the main targets after the crackdown. He went into hiding after the closure of Maggin monastery on September 29. He changed his robes for layperson’s clothes, hid in private safe houses and in the forest, and, eventually, on January 10, 2008, reached Mae Sot in Thailand, where he spoke to Human Rights Watch:

I managed to get away and the movement has been suppressed. But if the regime doesn’t change its ways and continue to oppress the people, monks, and students, it will face more demonstrations in the future.[21]

“U Rakhine Tun” (not his real name), age 39, has been a monk for 17 years, who traveled to Rangoon from Arakan state to join the demonstrations on September 22, 2007. He marched with monks from other monasteries, and was badly injured at the brutal incident at the East Gate of the Shwedagon Pagoda on September 26:

When the shooting started I began running, the whole crowd began running. I was shot in the foot as I was running. I fell down, and then felt pain in my head, I don’t know if I was hit by a truncheon or someone threw a stone at my head. I wasn’t aware what happened after that, I was dizzy and just walked away. I wasn’t arrested, I just walked back to my monastery. Three of my toes were shot off. One of the laypersons at my monastery cleaned and wrapped it (my foot) for me. Because of my wound I decided not to stay in the monastery because we feared it would be raided. There were monks sleeping in the trees, to hide in case the soldiers came. I spent the night in a cemetery, hiding. In the morning I went to the bus station to go back to Arakan state. I was in so much pain. The bus took 20 hours (to reach my monastery), I couldn’t sleep, it (the bus) was bouncing the whole way. I was bleeding everywhere, but people were too afraid to help me, even though they knew I was a monk. I had a stick, ready to attack anyone who came close to me. I was ready to fight back.[22]

After more than a year of laying low in his monastery to avoid the authorities, and failing to seek proper medical attention for his foot wound, “U Rakhine Tun” had his leg amputated in 2009, where Human Rights Watch interviewed him soon after.

Some monks escaped to India, West of Burma. Ashin Pannasiri, a 28-year-old-monk who, like U Gawsita and U Nat Zaw, played a leading role in the 2007 movement, became a novice at the age of 18, stayed in a monastery in Mandalay, and became active in the ABMA in mid-2007. A meeting was held in his monastery, where activists from a group of young monks in Mandalay were also present. He traveled to Rangoon to liaise with other monks and to discuss the direction of the movement that was emerging at that time.

Back in Mandalay, he and his fellow activists soon attracted the attention of the security services, and they were watched wherever they went:

We moved from monastery to monastery and were not caught. But when the army began to crack down more severely on the monks’ movement, I had to go into hiding. Agents had come several times to my monastery asking for me. The other monks told me to run. I went to Sagaing town, but it was not easy to hide there. Sometimes I had to sleep in the forest. Then I went to Monywa, a small town to the north, where I went to an internet cafe to check the net and e-mail. I learnt more about what was happening in the country at the time. But there, in the internet cafe, I was arrested on October 18 last year [2007].[23]

Ashin Pannasiri was taken to a police station in Monywa, where he was disrobed, beaten, and interrogated:

I was also slapped and punched in the face. My interrogators stepped on my toes with their army boots. They demanded to know what organizations I was in touch with and who I had contacted.[24]

Ashin Pannasiri’s experience illustrates the Burmese security services’ routine use of torture and intimidation in custody. He told Human Rights Watch:

The worst persons during torture were MAS [Military Affairs Security] officials Ko Ko Aung and U San Win. They kicked my chest with their combat boots and stomped on my face with my hands handcuffed behind me. Every question was accompanied by kicks and punches to my head and body. I was almost unconscious. I fell on the table in front of me when they kicked me from the back. At last I could not endure anymore such torture. They twisted my arms and tried to break them, which affected the nervous system in my hand. They pressed between my rib bones. They slapped me on my temple and pulled my earlobes violently. They stepped on my shins which left me with severe pain until I was sentenced to prison term. I could not walk well. They interrogated me by all means available to them. My little toes were swollen.

In a twisted display of respect for his ordinarily privileged status in Burmese society, the interrogators tried to reason with him not to react to his mistreatment:

When I could not endure any more torture, I head-butted the table in front of me, trying to knock myself unconscious. Police officer U Aung Win, sitting beside me, held me and said: “Please don’t do like that, my reverend. We are acting under the command of higher authority.”[25]

Ashin Pannasiri spent three months in Monywa prison. On January 18, 2008, he was sentenced to three years of imprisonment on the basis of various accusations, including that of illegally possessing foreign currency. In May 2008, he was transferred to another prison in Kalaymyo in Sagaing Division. Two weeks later, he was sent to a labor camp at Lantalang, 30 kilometers west of Tiddim in Chin State:

There, I was chained on both legs and, like the other prisoners, had to break stones and dig ditches. I and about 140 other prisoners worked seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, without any break. We had to ask permission for everything, including going to the toilet. Sometimes we were allowed to go to the toilet, sometimes not.[26]

On September 15, 2008, two Special Branch officers came to the camp and Ashin Pannasiri was interrogated again:

It seems that they had got some information about me from monks and other activists who had been arrested and interrogated. I was beaten again; they punched me in my chest and head. I was interrogated from nine in the morning to six in the evening, and I was not allowed to eat or drink anything. I realized that I would be killed if they took me to another place, which I think they intended to do. So I made up my mind. I had to escape. There was no choice if I wanted to survive.[27]

At about 1 a.m. on September 16, Ashin Pannasiri took advantage of the fact that the guards were sleeping and climbed the two rows of barbed wire that surrounded the camp and fled:

I was covered in blood from the spikes. But I didn’t care. I cared only about my life. I ran alone through the night. I came to a road which I understood would lead to India. But I didn’t dare to walk on the road. There would be police stations and soldiers along it as it was close to the border. I walked through deep forest, my hands and face were cut from thorns. I drank water from the streams and ate a kind of gooseberry, which in Burmese is called pyuchuwee. That was the only food I had.[28]

Ashin Pannasiri spent two days and two nights walking through the forests and over the mountains of Chin State before reaching the Indian border. He crossed into safety in the Indian state of Mizoram on September 18, and later made it to New Delhi, where he was able to put on robes and become a monk again. He says that he intends to continue “the struggle for freedom and peace in Burma.”[127]

“U Manita” is in his forties and has been a monk throughout his adult life. He was educated at prestigious monastic institutions. He was also one of the organizers of the protests:

For me and my monastery, the protest began on September 16. It began with the problems in Pakokku. We discussed the situation, whether we should refuse to accept offerings from the military government. On September 18, we and monks from many other monasteries in Rangoon started to march in the streets. We wanted the government to apologize for what happened in Pakokku. And we wanted the junta to have a better policy considering the hardships people had to face. We wanted them to have a dialogue with the people.

We marched every day in Rangoon. Especially on the 22nd, the 23rd, and the 24th there were big demonstrations near the Shwedagon and the Sule Pagodas. Many ordinary people also began to march with us—around us as shields. They gave us water, food, support, and protection. But it was we who led the marches. We were so many that the police couldn’t stop us. At least not in the beginning. They were perhaps not prepared to deal with that many people marching? But they, the military intelligence, rode around on their motorbikes, observing us. Other spies filmed us and took photographs. And the junta waited before they decided to strike against us.[29]

The crackdown began in earnest on September 26. “U Manita” was among the monks who dared to go out in the streets that day:

I joined the demonstrations with a group of monks from my monastery a bit later than the other monks, who were already out in the streets. There were soldiers and police everywhere blocking our way. In front of the Shwedagon, they began beating, arresting, tying, and shooting monks and demonstrators. Several people I knew were killed that day. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but I knew it happened. Other monks were arrested and tortured. Some of them were later released.[30]

“U Gotipala” (not his real name), age 35, is a chief monk at a teaching monastery in Mandalay with more than 1,300 pupils, novices studying Pali and the Buddhist scriptures:

All my pupils marched during the protests last September. To be honest, it was a political rather than a religious gesture to protest in that way. But it was right to do it! We wanted the government to apologize for their treatment of the monks in Pakokku. We wanted to mediate between the government and the people, so the government would accept a more democratic policy.

As a chief monk, I could not take part in the marches myself. I have my responsibilities, but without directly encouraging my pupils to take part in the protest movement, I let them know that they could march if they wanted to. And they wanted to march! Our most senior monk was against it, but they didn’t listen to him. I think he supported us anyway, but couldn’t say that openly. He had great responsibilities, especially for the young monks.[31]

U Gotipala did not communicate with monks in other monasteries in Mandalay, but he knew from listening to the radio that monks all over the country were marching against the government. And his monastery was surrounded by troops when the crackdown began. Afterwards, many monks and novices returned to their home villages:

In the end, there were only about 200 of us left in our monastery. Some began to come back after five-six months or so. But we are still fewer than we were before September last year. I know that many leading monks, who organized the protests, have fled to other countries. They would be apprehended if they returned. The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee has no will of its own. They only obey the government. We don’t care about them anymore. They have no power over the monks in Burma.[32]

Some of the older monks were reluctant to take part in the marches. “U Pannananda” (not his real name), a 62-year-old monk in a monastery on the outskirts of Rangoon, belongs to a committee that is one step below the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee:

There were different opinions in our committee. Some wanted to cooperate with the junta, while others were opposed to that. But most of the monks in the committee obeyed orders from above. Because I was a committee member I could not actively support the protesting monks. But I understood them. And I was very sad to learn about the crackdown, that monks had been killed. That is a crime.[33]

“U Kusalasami” (not his real name), a 68-year-old monk in Rangoon whose abbot was abroad when the protests began, also did not take part directly in the protests:

Our abbot decided that no monks from our monastery should participate in the marches. Many younger novices were upset, they wanted to march, but they obeyed the abbot’s orders. He supported the protests but was worried that the monks and the novices could get hurt or even be killed. So we lent passive support to the protests. Some argue that monks should concern themselves only with religion and not get involved in politics. That’s correct, in a way. At the same time, it’s the duty of the monks to help the people whenever they can. There’s no contradiction here. To go out in the streets and recite the Metta Sutta, or to boycott the regime, is not politics. Politics is to overthrow the government, and that was not what we were trying to do. We can only meditate, pray and make appeals. That’s the way of religion. We boycott the regime and don’t accept offerings from them. But we can’t do more than that.

We were distraught when the soldiers opened fire on the monks and beat them. But what could we do? We had no guns. As monks we cannot fight. We follow the path of the Buddha. But we’ll never forget what the junta did to the monks and the people. This regime has been in power since 1962. Since that time, many have demonstrated and protested against the regime, but nothing has changed. September 2007 was just one of many such protests. But it’s not over yet.[34]

When “U Manita” came back to his monastery, he found it surrounded by police and soldiers. But they let him in. A warrant officer asked the monks to have their daily meal early, not at 11 a.m. as usual. Then the arrests began:

A lot of trucks were parked outside the monastery. I and other monks were forced onto those trucks. There were no benches, nothing to sit on. We were so many monks that there was hardly any place for all of us. We were forced to sit down with our hands on our heads. I saw several monks being beaten with batons and iron rods. They were beaten both by soldiers and some kind of militia. A friend of mine was very badly beaten. They aimed their pistols and rifles at us, shouting: “Don’t move!” We didn’t move. But we began to recite the Metta Sutta, about loving kindness. Then they shouted: “You’re not allowed to chant or talk!”[35]

Soon after, the trucks arrived at a technical college in a northern suburb. “U Manita” told Human Rights Watch what he observed:

There were hundreds of people, and not only monks. I saw women and children, some as young as 12. There were also monks in their seventies and eighties. All the rooms were packed with people. I was placed in a room with a hundred other monks. The guards were not wearing uniforms. They had civilian clothes and came from one of the junta’s special forces and organizations, but I’m not sure which one. We were interrogated one by one by security personnel. They asked us: “Who are your leaders?” “Who were the monks from your monastery who demonstrated?” “What are your plans?” We had to stay there for 12 days and were given very little food and water. When we had to go to the toilet, we were escorted by guards with pistols and batons. After 12 days, they told me and some others that we could return to our monastery. We were forced onto trucks again.[36]

But it was all a bluff, as “U Manita” soon discovered:

Instead of driving us back to our monastery, we were taken to Insein Jail [in Rangoon division]. There, we were forced to take off our robes. We were forced to strip naked and leave all our belongings outside the prison. Then we were given prison uniforms. There were many monks in the cells. The cells were so crowded it was impossible to lie down and sleep. We had to sleep in a sitting position, which was difficult. We were given food and water only once a day in the morning. A bit of rice, egg, and cabbage. But we got toothbrushes and blankets. All the monks who had been arrested were photographed by the security services. And then we were interrogated again. And again. After three days we were sent back. There was not enough space for all the prisoners! One prison guard said to me: “Politics is for the military, religion for the monks. I don’t want to see your face in the streets again.”[37]

 “U Sovanna” (not his real name), age 37, has been a monk for 17 years. He says that the fuel price hike and the events in Pakokku were only pretexts for the protests:

The actual reason was that we don’t want this military government. We don’t want systematic repression and corruption. We don’t want the government to arrest or kill our senior monks! The people don’t want this government either. I want it to be a revolution here in Burma, but a peaceful revolution.[38]

U Sovanna participated in the demonstrations in Mandalay:

We demonstrated for a couple of days and nothing happened. We marched in rows of five. Our abbot told us not to demonstrate and that it was forbidden to leave the monastery. Actually, he supported the protests but he was worried that the young monks would be hurt or even killed. I and many others did not obey him.

We went out and asked a police chief if we could demonstrate here or there. He said we could demonstrate neither here nor there. But we went to another place and demonstrated, a place where he had not explicitly forbidden us to demonstrate. Then, some soldiers appeared and said: “We’ve got our orders. If you move your foot we’ll shoot you in the foot. If you move your head, we’ll shoot you in the head.” So we went back to the monastery. What else could we do? It was too dangerous. And then it became impossible to demonstrate because soldiers and police surrounded several monasteries, including ours. We saw helicopters in the sky above us. Our monastery was raided in 1990 as well, because we supported the democratic cause.[39]

For six days, U Sovanna and the other monks could not leave their monastery. They stayed indoors listening to the BBC, and were afraid:

We didn’t sleep. We didn’t study. We were just worried that the soldiers would come inside the monastery. But they didn’t do that. When the military allowed us to leave the monastery, I went to my home village and stayed there for several months. I had to lie low. Then I came back.[40]


[1]  Human Rights Watch, Crackdown. Repression of the 2007 Popular Protests in Burma, vol.19, no.18(C), December 2007.
[2]  Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro,” A/HRC/6/14, December 7, 2007. For other perspectives on the events see, Human Rights Documentation Unit, Bullets in the Alms Bowl. An Analysis of the Brutal SPDC Suppression of the September 2007 Saffron Revolution, National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, March 2008; International Crisis Group, “Burma/Myanmar: After the crackdown,” ICG Asia Report No.28, Bangkok/Brussels, January 31, 2008; Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Challenging the Authoritarian State: Buddhist Monks and Peaceful Protests in Burma,” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, vol.32, no.1, Winter 2008, pp.125-44; Andrew Selth, “Burma’s ‘saffron revolution’ and the limits of international influence,” Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol.62, no.3, September 2008, pp.281-97; and Pankaj Mishra, “The Revolt of the Monks,” New York Review of Books, February 14, 2008, pp.36-38.
[3]  “Minister supplicates on religious affairs to State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee Sayadaws. A group of unscrupulous destructive elements tried to taint noble clear waters of Sasana,” The New Light of Myanmar, October 25, 2007, pp.3-5.
[4] Human Rights Watch interview with U Nat Zaw, Mae Sot, Thailand, June 24, 2008.
[5] U Pyinya Zawta, “Leading saffron monk’s memoirs,” Mizzima News, January 2, 2009. See also the series of memoirs written by a monk involved in the organization of the protests, in three parts published in Mizzima, Ko Maw, “Pre-saffron revolution experiences,” Mizzima News, part 1, February 19, part 2, March7, part 3, March 31, 2009.
[6]  “Minister supplicates on religious affairs,” The New Light of Myanmar, October 25, 2008, p.3.
[7]  “Minister supplicates on religious affairs,” The New Light of Myanmar, October 25, 2008, p.4.
[8]  Human Rights Watch interview with Ashin Nayaka, New York, July 17, 2008.
[9]  Human Rights Watch interview with U Eitthariya, Mae Sot, October 28, 2008.
[10]  Human Rights Watch interview with U Agga Pyindaya, Mae Sot, November 15, 2007.
[11]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Pannacara,” Colombo, Sri Lanka, October 29, 2008.
[12]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Kosalla,” Burma, July 2008.
[13]  Human Rights Watch interview with U Gawsita, New York, July 17, 2008.
[14]  Human Rights Watch interview with U Gawsita, New York, July 17, 2008. A picture of U Gawsita with blood streaming down his face later appeared in newspapers all over the world. He does not know who took that picture, but he recognized himself when he saw the picture reproduced in newspapers.
[15]  Human Rights Watch Interview with U Gawsita, New York, July 17, 2008.
[16]  Ibid.
[17]  See Crackdown, pp.92-94.
[18]  Wai Moe, “A Monks Tale,” The Irrawaddy, vol.16, no.4, April 2008, pp.14-15.
[19]  Human Rights Watch interview with U Gawsita, New York, July 17, 2008.
[20]  Ibid.
[21]  Human Rights Watch interview with U Nat Zaw, Mae Sot, June 24, 2008.
[22]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Rakhine Tun,” (location withheld), August 22, 2009.
[23]  Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ashin Pannasiri, New Delhi, October 19, 2008.
[24]  Ibid.
[25]  Myint Maung and Haui Pi, “Labor camp escapee tells of harrowing tale,” Mizzima News, October 27, 2008.
[26]  Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ashin Pannasiri, New Delhi, October 19, 2008.
[27]  Ibid.
[28]  Ibid.
[29]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Manita,” Burma, July 2008.
[30]  Ibid.
[31]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Gotipala,” Burma, July 2008.
[32]  Ibid.
[33]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Pannananda,” Burma, July 2008.
[34]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Kusalasami,” Burma, July 2008.
[35]  Ibid.
[36]  Ibid.
[37]  Ibid.
[38]  Human Rights Watch interview with “U Sovanna,” Mandalay, July 2008.
[39]  Ibid.
[40]  Ibid.

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