Fri 23 Jul 2004
Filed under: News,Opinion
The fourth World Buddhist Summit will be held in military-ruled Burma for three days, beginning this December 9. The ruling State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, plans to invite about 150 delegates from Buddhist organizations in almost 30 countries. The summit will be held in cooperation with the Japanese Nenbutsushu Buddhists.
Buddhism is inextricable from Burmese culture. And by hosting this summit, the junta is hoping to score some public relations points at home and abroad.
Upon closer inspection, however, the junta has been hostile to Buddhism within the country. There are around 400,000 monks in Burma, roughly equaling the number of soldiers in the Burma Army. This similarity in numbers reflects the junta’s concern that Buddhism’s influence in culture and government rivals their own.
Currently, the regime divides monks into categories such as state monks, ordinary monks, senior monks, and young monks. In reality, senior monks represent the government’s interests. The military regime donates funds to these monks in exchange for the monks’ non-interference in politics and
public affairs. These donations are not part of the Buddhist way; monks are not supposed to accept bribes.
To be fair, the alternatives to working with the junta are harsh. Monks who object to military rule are arrested, then forced to cast off their robes. In Buddhist doctrine, this kind of maltreatment of monks is disgraceful and a violation of religious law.
The regime has a long history of oppressing even revered Buddhist figures. From 1962 to 1980 Burmese monks often joined with students and laborers to protest military rule. On several occasions the military violently disrupted all public demonstrations and, in the process, is believed to
have killed many monks.
In 1965, more than seven hundred monks in Hmawbi, near Rangoon, were arrested for refusing to accept government rule. In 1974 during the demonstrations for U Thant’s funeral, several monks were bayoneted and six hundred more arrested. After another demonstration in 1976 the junta
sought to discredit La Ba, a monk persistently critical of the regime, by accusing him of murder and cannibalism. In 1978, more monks and novices were arrested, disrobed, and imprisoned. Monasteries were closed and property seized.
During this time, the military also arrested U Nayaka, a monk of Arakan ethnicity in charge of Su Htoo Pan monastery in Rangoon. Several days later, government spokespeople told the other monks at the monastery that U Nayaka had hanged himself at an intelligence camp. However, most people believe that the monk was killed for his strong disagreement with military rule.
Violence against monks continued into the 1980s. During the 1988 uprising SPDC troops gunned down monks. After the coup, monk leaders were arrested, disrobed, and sentenced to long-term imprisonment. The junta’s court sentenced U Kawiya, a monk leader in Mandalay, to death in 1989.
On August 27, 1990, a meeting of over seven thousand monks in Mandalay called for a boycott of the military. The monks collectively refused to accept alms from military families or perform services for them. In response, the military regime forcibly seized monasteries around the country and arrested hundreds of monks, including senior monks such as U
Sumangala and U Yewata. The monks faced long-term imprisonment, and all boycotting monks were disrobed. During interrogation, some monks were tortured.
In general, prison life is not easy for monks trying to keep their religious beliefs alive. They must wear lay dress and cannot shave their heads. The prison officials do not offer monks the traditional dawn meal, and often use rude and offensive terms when speaking to them. Because of the unhealthy and brutal conditions, some monks die soon after being released, like U Yewata.
But government-led oppression of monks often takes less violent but more insidious forms. In 1980 the junta, then under Sein Lwin, the Home and Religious Affairs Minister at the time, called for the cleansing of Buddhism and also organized the State Buddhist monk conference. This lead
to the founding of the State Sangha council, consisting mostly of junta-appointed monks. The junta, officially supporting Theravada Buddhism, banned other forms of Buddhist expression, which resulted in the disrobing of a number of monks. Moreover, after the 1988 uprising, U Nyanissara, a senior monk, recorded a tape which discussed democracy in Buddhist precepts. This tape was banned.
The Lord Buddha taught that everybody has the right to peacefully express his own opinions. But the government is proving that it cares little for Buddhism, unless it can use the religion to get what it wants. Today, the international Buddhist community must encourage the junta to practice the
five basic tenets of Buddhism – bans on murder, deceit, etc. and maintain respect for monks. Otherwise, the World Buddhism Summit will ring hollow for true practitioners of the religion.
Wai Moe is a former student activist now living in exile.