(Bangkok) - Buddhist monks in Burma face continuing repression, intimidation and harsh prison sentences two years after the military government's brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 99-page report, "The Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Protest in Burma," written by longtime Burma watcher Bertil Lintner, describes the repression Burma's monks experienced after they led demonstrations against the government in September 2007. The report tells the stories of individual monks who were arrested, beaten and detained. Two years after Buddhist monks marched down the street of the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, hundreds of monks are in prison and thousands remain fearful of military repression. Many have left their monasteries and returned to their villages or sought refuge abroad, while those who remained in their monasteries live under constant surveillance.
"The stories told by monks are sad and disturbing, but they exemplify the behavior of Burma's military government as it clings to power through violence, fear, and repression," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The monks retain a great deal of moral authority, making principled stands by monks very dangerous for a government that doesn't."
The report says that since the 2007 events, thousands of monks have been disrobed (defrocked) and deterred from fulfilling their pivotal role as social mediators in Burmese society. The report also details the crucial social-service role played by monks following the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 - and the repression faced by many as a consequence.
In a December 2007 report, Human Rights Watch documented 21 deaths as a result of security forces shooting and beating crowds of monks and civilians. Thousands of monks and their supporters were arrested.
Approximately 240 monks are now serving harsh prison terms inside Burma,
including 30-year-old U Gambira, who is serving a 63-year prison term for his role as one of the protest movement's leaders. In the report he is quoted saying:
"We adhere to nonviolence, but our spine is made of steel. There is no turning back. It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey. Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow."
U Gambira is now held at an isolated prison in western Burma near the Indian border, where he is reportedly in ill health.
The military government has intensified its surveillance of monasteries, closed down health and social services programs run by local monastic groups in Rangoon and other parts of the country such as Pakokku and Magwe, and continued to disrobe Buddhist monks suspected of political activities. One of the monks Human Rights Watch interviewed in Mandalay said:
"There are military intelligence agents outside, and they watch everyone who goes in and out of the gates. A man from the security services comes every morning and evening to check who of the monks are here, then he leaves."
"That the military government would treat monks engaged in peaceful protests in such an appalling manner shows not only its brutality, but just how out of touch the generals are with the views and sensibilities of ordinary people," Adams said. "This is not surprising, as the government has no popular legitimacy and bases its policies on what will keep it in power, not what the public wants or needs."
The report also traces the long history of activism in the Buddhist Sangha (the Buddhist monkhood). It documents how Buddhist monks have become involved in overt acts of political defiance during periods of great repression in Burma, from the time of British colonialism to anti-military protests following the military coup of 1962, and in major demonstrations against military rule in 1974, 1988, and 1990.
The report also details how the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) routinely represses community welfare, health, and education initiatives by the monks, while at the same time attempting to utilize Buddhism as a tool to gain political legitimacy, often by building large pagodas and lavishing gifts on selected senior monks and monasteries.
"While the casual observer may see the crimson robes and temple-building in Burma as a sign of religious freedom, the reality is that monks who engage in peaceful resistance have long been targeted by successive military governments," Adams said.
"The Resistance of the Monks" complements the campaign launched by Human Rights Watch on September 16 for the release of political prisoners, including detained monks, ahead of elections planned in 2010. Human Rights Watch called on key actors in the international community, including China, India, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN), the United States, the European Union, Australia, and the new government in Japan to make it clear that the planned elections will not be considered credible and legitimate if they are held with so many monks, Buddhist nuns, activists and opposition figures in prison.
"Public anger remains high in Burma, and the potential for a repeat of the demonstrations in 2007 is very real unless the international community puts coordinated pressure on the regime to engage in a credible political reform process," Adams said. "It would not be surprising to see monks on the streets again if social grievances are not addressed."
Selected accounts from the report
"For us, it was not politics, but a question of religion. We just went out into the streets to recite metta sutta, loving kindness. We did not advocate violence to overthrow the government...We wanted the government to have a better policy for the people. So we decided to boycott the junta with our bowls turned upside-down. That's called patta nikkujjana kamma. We did not accept food, medicines or anything from the authorities. That's the only way we can fight for our rights. This has nothing to do with politics."
- Buddhist monk U Viccita, talking about his role in the peaceful 2007 demonstrations, Burma, 2008
"The regime's use of mass arrests, murder, torture, and imprisonment has failed to extinguish our desire for the freedom that was stolen from us. We have taken their best punch. Now it is the generals who must fear the consequences of their actions. We adhere to nonviolence, but our spine is made of steel. There is no turning back. It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey. Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow."
- Buddhist monk and protest leader U Gambira, November 2007
"I'm being watched all the time. I am considered an organizer. Between noon and 2 p.m., I am allowed to go out of the monastery. But then I'm followed. I had to shake off my tail to come to this meeting today. I'm not afraid, not for myself. I'm not afraid to tell foreign journalists what happened. And I'm prepared to march again when the opportunity arises. We don't want this junta. And that's what everyone at my monastery thinks as well."
- Buddhist monk U Manita, Burma, July 2008
"[S]omething was achieved [in September 2007]. A whole new generation of monks has been politicized. We're educating them. We're still boycotting the military. We are not accepting gifts and offerings from them. One of the reasons why the regime will fall is globalization. No country can be isolated like before. Look at Indonesia, that regime fell. Now it's a democracy. We want the UN's Security Council to take up the Burma issue, that the UN investigates what really happened. ... But China and Russia can use their veto. Please tell the world what's happening in our country!"
- Buddhist monk U Igara, Burma, July 2008