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A Monk’s Tale

April 1, 2008

From Irrawaddy – A leading activist monk recounts his personal experiences of oppression and torture at the hands of Burma’s self-appointed protectors of the Buddhist faith

Ashin Pyinnya Jota is the deputy abbot of Rangoon’s Maggin Monastery. He has also been a political prisoner twice since 1990. Now, nearly six months after Burma’s military rulers crushed monk-led protests last September, he is in hiding in a monastery in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, opposite Myawaddy.

The 48-year-old monk played a leading role in last year’s uprising as one of the founding members of the All Burma Monks Alliance. After months of evading the authorities in Burma, he finally fled to Thailand in early February.

Speaking from a Thai monastery where more than a dozen Burmese monks have taken refuge since last year’s crackdown, he described the injustices that fueled the monks’ movement and the Buddhist basis for his decades of political activism.

“People’s suffering can easily move monks,” he said during a recent interview with The Irrawaddy, referring to the dramatic increase in fuel prices that led to widespread hardship. “As sons of the Buddha, how can we ignore the disasters that afflict people’s lives? So we took a leading role against evil rulers who have shown no concern for the needs of the people.”

When monks in the central Burmese town of Pakokku took to the streets chanting the “Metta Sutta” (the Buddha’s discourse on loving-kindness), security forces and members of the junta-backed Swan Ah Shin militia responded with brutal force. Monks were beaten with rifle butts, some after being tied to electricity poles. But this attempt to intimidate the monks backfired and soon they were demanding an apology from the authorities.

“But as you know, the generals don’t think it is their business to apologize for anything,” said Pyinnya Jota. “Instead of expressing remorse, the military rulers just repeated their evil acts.”

In predominantly Buddhist Burma, religious resistance to unjust rule takes a unique form: monks refuse to receive donations of food and other requisites from members of the armed forces or their families in a ritual known as “pattam nikkujjana kamma,” the overturning of alms bowls. This practice, which is tantamount to excommunication, has been used for centuries as a nonviolent means of addressing transgressions by lay people.

“We monks should show our disagreement with evil acts in a peaceful way,” said Pyinnya Jota, who added that no monks would have taken part in the protests if their monastic rules did not permit it.

“The generals say they are good Buddhists, that they are like kings working to strengthen Buddhism. But they are completely wrong, because they never stop committing unjust acts and don’t resolve problems in a peaceful way,” he said.

Maggin Monastery, where Pyinnya Jota has been a monk since 2005, was targeted by the military authorities during last year’s crackdown because of its reputation as a hotbed of dissent. A number of monks and laymen were arrested in the course of several raids on the monastery, which was closed by the authorities on November 29.

“Raiding monasteries is like raping Buddhism,” said the senior monk. “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.”

Despite the harsh crackdown on the protests, which was reminiscent of the crushing of the 1988 uprising, Pyinnya Jota remains convinced that people power will ultimately prevail in Burma.

He also believes that high-ranking members of the military will play a more prominent role in future efforts to bring about political change in Burma, despite their conspicuous absence both last year and in 1988. “If the movement continues to gain momentum, members of the military will join in,” he said. “Therefore pro-democracy groups should think about how to build mass power effectively.”

Meanwhile, however, most of the leaders of the movement to end military rule are in prison or in hiding.

In February, Pyinnya Jota finally made his escape from Burma, as the regime’s dragnet threatened to close in on him.

He was assisted by many sympathizers along the way, and to avoid detection in the intense manhunt for dissident monks, he disguised himself as a layman as he drew closer to the Thai-Burmese border.

“I was stopped in at least six different places on my way to the border,” he said. “Sometimes I had to stay in a town or village for two or three days before it was safe to move on.”

As a veteran dissident, Pyinnya Jota has firsthand experience of what happens to those who are caught opposing Burma’s military rulers. He has been arrested and imprisoned twice, in 1990 and 1998, for expressing discontent with the regime’s policies.

“The first time I was arrested, soldiers raided my monastery. They took me to a detention center in downtown Rangoon,” he said, recalling how agents of the military intelligence services then tried to get a senior monk from the Sangha Committee in Ahlone Township in Rangoon to formally disrobe him.

“In Buddhism, a monk cannot simply be disrobed by the authorities,” he explained. “Unless a monk chooses to leave the monastic order or is found guilty of a serious offense against his precepts, he should remain in his robes.”

The senior monk refused to cooperate, and Pyinnya Jota was taken back to his monastery. But on the way, the military intelligence agents demanded that he remove his robes. When he refused, saying that it would be improper to do so since he had not broken any Buddhist rules, they forcibly stripped him, put him in a truck and took him to an interrogation center.

“As the truck approached the interrogation center, I was blindfolded,” he recalled. “I was shocked that they could treat a monk that way.”

But the humiliation did not end there. When they arrived at their destination, Pyinnya Jota was taken into a room where four intelligence agents proceeded to punch him. His grief at being treated in this way was even greater than the pain of being physically assaulted, he said.

“I did not believe that monks could be beaten like this in Burma, a Buddhist country. Everyone in Burma respects monks, I thought. But I was wrong to expect our country’s evil rulers to treat monks with respect. It saddened me to learn that this was possible in a Buddhist land.”

The interrogation went on for four days. He had been arrested for taking part in a pattam nikkujjana kamma protest that had started in Mandalay on August 27, 1990, and the authorities wanted to know the names of others who were involved. They tortured him and addressed him in the rudest possible terms, insisting that his anti-government activities made him unfit to be a monk. He was not permitted to sleep throughout the harsh interrogation, which continued day and night.

Later, in early 1991, he and a number of other monks were taken to Insein Prison, and a military tribunal sentenced him to three years imprisonment. More senior monks received 5-year sentences.

In January 1998, he went through the same experience again. This time he received a 7-year sentence for speaking with an Australian journalist about the situation in Burma. After he was released in 2004, he joined Maggin Monastery, where he was involved in a hospice program to assist HIV/AIDS patients.

The hospice, the first of its kind run by Buddhist monks in Burma, was subjected to routine harassment by the military authorities. But Pyinnya Jota continued his work there because he believed that dying patients needed the spiritual care of monks.

“We monks must be actively engaged in social issues,” he said. “People in Burma often talk about metta [loving-kindness] but this is not just a word to chant. It must also be practiced. Everyone in the world needs active metta. Active metta can bring peace to the whole world.”

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