Human Rights Watch (2009): The Resistance of the Monks | Buddhism and Activism in Burma | IX. International Networks


Photo: Colby Brown Photography

After the crackdown, 54 Burmese monks in exile in Asia, Europe, and North America met in Los Angeles on October 27, 2007. Under the leadership of U Kovida, the 80-year-old former abbot of the Ma Soe Yin monastery in Mandalay, and U Pannya Vamsa, the 79-year-old abbot of the Burmese monastery in Penang, they formed the Sasana Moli, or the International Burmese Monks Organization (IBMO).

U Kovida had not been involved in the 1988 uprising, but when, in August 1990, the monks took to the streets in Mandalay, many of them came from the Ma Soe Yin monastery. When the army opened fire on the monks, several novices from Ma Soe Yin were among the casualties (see section above: Mandalay Monks Uprising of 1990). Afterwards, they went to U Kovida and showed him their bloody wounds, This is when he got involved in the monks’ movement. U Kovida says that as a general rule monks should not get involved in politics, but, “If the government hurts the people and the monks, we have to be political.”[1]

The government subsequently accused U Kovida of being one of the instigators of the 1990 monks’ boycott, and arrested him. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment with hard labor. U Kovida later recounted his experiences:

The government tried to imprison me as the instigator of that boycott, and I was sentenced to three years with hard labor, even though they could find no evidence against me. I spent 22 months meditating in a Mandalay prison. In the beginning, I was allowed to wear robes, but then I was asked to take my robes off. But according to the Vinaya, this doesn’t matter because a monk can never be disrobed as long as he keeps his precepts. Because I was a high ranking abbot of a monastery, this was the kind of treatment that I received. If I were a young novice or a junior monk, I would have been sent to a prison labor camp to be chained and shackled. The chances of returning from that kind of camp are very low because of malaria. In those years the monks were sent to prison camps and starved and died, and the world did not know much about it. But this past September [2007], the monks were murdered in front of the media and the television. That is much worse than what happened in the 90s.[2]

After 22 months in prison, U Kovida was released and he went back to the Ma Soe Yin monastery in Mandalay. He returned to teaching, now back in his robes.

According to U Kovida:

In 2001, I came on a visitor’s visa to the US. In 2002, the Buddhist Friendship Association invited me to do sasana work in the US. In 2003, a monastery was founded in New York and so that is where I settled. Every year I went back to Burma. But since September 2007, I cannot go there. If I go back, I will land in jail.[3]

U Kovida never returned to Burma; he passed away in New York on April 29, 2008. His funeral attracted Buddhists and other sympathizers from all over North America.

U Pannya Vamsa, the revered abbot of the Burmese monastery in Penang, Malaysia, has since been the main spiritual director of the IBMO. He was born in 1928 and became a novice at age 14 and a monk in 1948. In 1957, he was sent abroad to the Makutarama monastery in Sri Lanka, which has a long tradition of exchanges with monasteries in Burma. In 1970, he went to Penang and became chief monk of the Buddhist monastery there in 1972. He also traveled abroad and helped set up Buddhist monasteries in Los Angeles, Toronto, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Auckland, New Zealand. He founded the International Burmese Buddhist Sangha Organization in 1985 and continues to serve as chief monk of the Penang monastery.

He explained his involvement with IBMO:

The nationwide movement was very great. Ordinary people and monks were united, and, after the crackdown, we formed the IBMO to prevent further evil actions by the military regime. We wanted people to be free from fear. But in Burma monks were beaten, tortured, arrested, and some were wounded. This happened in many monasteries.[4]

The Ministry of Religious Affairs in Burma sent a fax to U Pannya Vamsa the day after the formation of the IBMO on October 27, 2007 saying, rather curiously, that “on September 27, 2007 we heard the sad news that the Burmese monks in the United States have formed a Sangha Regency.” Whether Burma’s intelligence knew of the Los Angeles meeting in advance or mistakenly wrote the founding month as September instead of October, it shows how closely the government watches the monks—even those in exile in North America. The fax had an ID line to “Myanmar Chevalier Limited,” which U Pannya Vamsa said was a cover often used by Burma’s military intelligence apparatus. No official from the ministry signed the fax, suggesting that no one wanted to take direct responsibility for sending a letter challenging the actions of a revered sayadaw like U Pannya Vamsa.[5]

Burmese Monks in Sri Lanka

Ties between the Burmese and the Sri Lanka Sanghas have always been very strong, and Burma came under the influence of political Buddhism as early as 1906, when the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) was set up in Rangoon, modeled on the YMBA in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). For decades, many Burmese monks have gone to Sri Lanka for higher studies, while some have also gone to India. Historically, there are almost no links with the Sanghas in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, the other Therevada Buddhist countries in the region (with the exception of the Shan Sangha, which always has had closer ties with the Thai monastic orders).

In 1924, a Burmese monk, the Venerable Sayadaw U Vinayalankara, founded a monastery in Colombo called Makutarama but known locally as “the Burmese monastery.” The Penang sayadaw, U Pannya Vamsa, stayed at Makutarama from 1957 to 1960, before he went to the Burmese monastery at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands.

Today, there are about 300 Burmese monks in Sri Lanka, including long term residents and recent arrivals, of whom 50 are staying at Makutarama, which has become a center for the monks’ resistance in exile. When Human Rights Watch visited this monastery in Colombo in November 2008, pictures of IBMO founders U Kovita and U Pannya Vamsa hang on the walls which are also full of photographs from the September 2007 demonstrations in Rangoon. Already on September 16, 2007—as the demonstrations were gathering momentum in Rangoon—Burmese monks in Sri Lanka set up the Myanmar Students’ Monks Association (MSMA), the first organization of Burmese monks outside the country.

On October 3, 2007, Sri Lankan Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim clergy joined the Burmese monks in a demonstration outside the Burmese embassy in Colombo. The Venerable Baddegama Samitha Thero, one of Sri Lanka’s best-known monks, addressed the rally in front of the embassy’s closed gates, but no one from the embassy came out to receive an open letter to the Burmese leadership that he wanted to deliver. The statement was also signed by Father Rohan Silva, a Roman Catholic, and other Buddhist and Christian leaders.

The website Catholic Online quoted Nanda Udatawa, a 55-year-old Buddhist protester working in a Catholic organization, as saying: “As we are Buddhists, we are deeply disturbed by this violence in a Buddhist country. It is time to unite with our brothers and appeal for protection of democratic rights.”[6]

The Venerable Baddegama Samitha Thero was the first Sri Lankan monk to be elected to parliament. On December 6, 2001, he became an MP representing a constituency in the southern district of Galle. Although his term has expired, he remains a strong supporter of the Burmese monks’ movement.

The growing international links between Burmese monk organizations was bolstered by the tragedy of the September 2007 demonstrations and Cyclone Nargis. Exiled monk organizations have significant influence within Burma’s massive diaspora of migrant workers in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and East Asia, as well as in Western countries. These monks are finding a great deal of overseas support—financially, materially, and for social services—to aid their international political and human rights advocacy. Should the monks in Burma rise again, they will be supported by a much larger and sophisticated international organization and millions more supporters.

____________________________________

[1]  Human Rights Watch interviews with monks who were close to U Kovida, New York, July 17, 2008.
[2]  Maia Duerr and Hozan Alan Sanauke, “Conversation with Sayadaw U Kovida,” Turning Wheel, Spring 2008: http://www.bpf.org/html/turning_wheel/archive/2008/kovida.html (accessed September 14, 2008).
[3]  Ibid.
[4]  Human Rights Watch interview with U Pannya Vamsa, New York, July 17, 2008. The Lon Htein are Burma’s riot police; USDA is the Union Solidarity and Development Association, the ruling military’s mass organization; the Swan Arr Shin are a militia recruited and supported by the government to attack pro-democracy activists.
[5]  For a full text of the letter in English translation, see Appendix II.
[6] Catholic Online, http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=25604.

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