On 8 August 2009, three days before the sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi to 18 months home detention, a prominent Burmese chief monk in exile agreed to share his thoughts with me. To protect his identity, the monk’s name and location are being withheld.
He has chosen not to be politically active while in hiding, so that the identities of individuals still wanted by the Burmese military junta over the 1988 uprising can remain protected.
The text has been edited in some places for grammar and clarity.
Published with thanks to David Calleja
I would like to talk to you about events in my country. The situation is so sad. I wish I knew the answer to stop all of this.
When the Saffron Revolution took place in 2007, there were protests in front of the Burmese Embassies in India and Sri Lanka. I was in Buddha gaya, India, listening to the BBC and Voice of America when news came through of troops opening fire. Images of monks lying face down in Yangon River were distributed on the Internet. They had been thrown in the river by members of the junta.
All I could keep telling myself was, ‘Why is the military doing this?’ The generals say they are Buddhists, but they continue to kill people. We do not understand. This is shameful. They are breaking all the rules of the [Buddhist] precepts. When they were young they were novice monks, too.
At the age of 12, I became a novice. When I turned 20 years old, I became an adult monk and studied Buddhism and Pali [an old Indian language]. This is so I could learn how the population can inspire one another. My parents allowed me to undertake a two month trial. However, they were concerned that lack of a regular education would disadvantage me in life. While it was difficult in the beginning to change my lifestyle, I knew that becoming a novice is the best way how to become a better person.
As you know, Burma’s military junta does not know or understand the meaning of freedom. I remember in 1989 when monks refused to take alms from members of the junta as a form of protest after the military’s reaction to the rebellion. In our university [name withheld], we locked Mandalay’s Divisional General out of the monastery to stop the soldiers from harming us. The next day, the army used a helicopter and dropped letters warning us to behave properly or face the consequences of being locked in Insein Prison.
I can still recall when 500 soldiers surrounded 1,300 unarmed monks at a university outside of Mandalay. They burst into the monastery and caught one monk. He was thrown in Insein Prison. After one year, he was released but he never spoke about his experience. He was too scared. The authorities made an example of him to show the rest of us that they were serious about the dangers we would face if we dared to undertake political action anywhere in the world.
The Burmese Embassy undertakes surveillance operations. Two years ago, a monk at this monastery, where I am now, received a telephone call from a person who identified himself as a member of the Burmese Embassy in [location withheld]. He demanded to know the whereabouts of several members of the ’88 Generation’ and read out the names of several people. We denied having any knowledge. Similar actions have also occurred in countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.
As many members of the ’88 Generation’ are still wanted, I cannot speak out because I fear being deported. Every three years, I have to re-apply for my Burmese passport at the Embassy because I am not entitled for refugee status here. My passport can be revoked at any time. This is how they control their population and it also explains why no individual is really safe, even if they get out of Burma.
Embassy officials know that the greatest likelihood of catching people on the wanted list is by attending community functions. I can spot them easily. They even pay members of the Burmese community to spy on their own people. The best event is the Asani Anniversary [also known as Burmese Martyrs’ Day], which commemorates the assassination of General Aung San. The embassy knows that every Burmese person considers him the father of Burma, so they will turn up and show respect.
[General Aung San, father of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, led Burma to the brink of independence from British colonial rule before his assassination in 1947. He is despised by the current regime for originally siding with the invading Japanese in World War II before switching over to drive Japanese forces out. The junta is believed to be erasing General Aung San’s name from all text books in Burma.]
During the 1988 revolution, all monks were angry at the military regime. Senior monks hated them but at the same time, were afraid of what the junta was capable of. They pleaded to the younger monks not to demonstrate because deep down, they knew from their own experience that soldiers just wanted to kill everyone. But it was very difficult for us to listen to their words. Many young monks came from Mandalay, and attempted to get more monks to demonstrate on the streets, not to stay inside. But the senior monks locked the front doors of the monastery. Eventually, everyone took to the streets, including me.
When I stepped onto the streets, the atmosphere was amazing. All around me were chief monks and laymen talking to large crowds using microphones. It was so noisy. There were probably tens of thousands of people. Their message was, “We must not be afraid of the military.” Everybody was chanting, “We want democracy.” People held signs containing peacocks [the symbol of the NLD] with slogans saying Democracy Yaboyae [this is our duty].
In the beginning, there were no soldiers on the street. But General Saw Mg, the man who replaced Ne Win, said, “We are soldiers. We must protect our country. There will be elections in Burma. After the elections, we will return to out military bases in the forest. We don’t want to rule this country.”
Demonstrators and civilians believed what the military said. They were being drawn into the junta’s trap. Soldiers were then ordered to start killing people. [Estimates of people killed range between 3,000 and 10,000].
If you kill and steal, you will suffer this life and in your future lives. They will never change their behaviour because they are incapable of doing so. Keeping power is all they care about. You will see this message in the documentary Burma VJ.
When I saw the footage of the Japanese cameraman getting shot by the military and continuing to film while he was dying, all I could think of was the concept of freedom. All young monks want democracy. They are trying to protest but (as you know) it is really hard for them to do so. Civilians will rise up and make themselves heard because Burma’s people are brave. They have stood up to the junta many times before, and they will do it again in 2010. Nobody likes the military’s constitution and idea for elections.
Now there is a power struggle taking place within the junta. Within two years, the military regime will crumble. I believe that some want to go on the people’s side.
I hope that after watching Burma VJ, people in my country will get more help from the outside world, especially those on the border. Our people in Malaysia, Thailand and India are very poor. Provide them with hope.
My purpose in life is to teach young people about Buddha’s deeds, Buddhism and meditation because a monk’s role is to ensure that young people are brought up correctly. If students understand Buddha’s teachings, then they will control Burma’s future wisely. But if they do not learn, then they will become like the generals.
No matter what happens, they cannot kill all the monks. Never.
David Calleja is a correspondent for Foreign Policy Journal.