Nearly 200 monks remain political prisoners in Myanmar [EPA]
The pace of change in Myanmar that has excited certain schools of observers over the past six months evidently isn’t enough for some: In November, five monks barricaded themselves on the balcony of a monastery in Mandalay, demanding that the government carry through on its pledge to release the country’s 1,700 political prisoners – seen as the key litmus test for determining the genuineness of Myanmar’s reformists. With the image of thousands of monks marching, elegant but stoic, towards the armies of men that awaited them in 2007 still fresh in the minds of many, the November protest and the apparent resurgence of monastic activism attracted immediate attention.
A day after the protest began, the group was asked to move on by the monastery’s chief abbot; trailed by up to 1,000 people, they walked to the nearby Masoyein Monastery, where they felt safer. At the same time, parliament was busy deliberating a new protest bill that could dramatically shift international perceptions of Myanmar, long read by outsiders as a tragic story of tyrannical rule, but where several bursts of mass defiance have pierced the veil to capture the attention of millions. The law, now passed, allows Burmese to demonstrate publicly for the first time in nearly half a century. Symbolically at least, it marks a radical break with the policies of the former junta.
The November protest died out within days, and the lack of police retaliation was another coup for the democratic credentials of the new government. But hundreds of miles from Mandalay in the remote village of Thaphyay Aye, in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing division, four of the monks say they are effectively being held under «village arrest»; plainclothes police are monitoring them round-the-clock, according to the leader of the protest, Ashin Sopaka, and he is unable to travel.
His situation points to the Jekyll and Hyde nature of a lot of the new laws unveiled in recent months, particularly the protest bill which has become something of a cause célèbre among observers. Many see it as a watershed for freedom of expression in Myanmar, and to an extent, it is, but tight restrictions governing the law signal an ongoing close-circuit monitoring of dissent: Personal details of demonstrators need to be handed over to police in advance, and the penalties for those who ignore the small print are severe, meaning the potential for spontaneous protest has diminished.
The treatment of the four monks also points to a continued anxiety within the Burmese government over the huge influence the country’s revered monastic community wields. Moreover, it is a reminder that an ostensibly apolitical body can and will challenge the limitations of political reform.
Boycotting religious duties
Several years ago, I interviewed Ashin Sopaka when he was in Thailand, having left Myanmar in 2003. The premise for his political activism, he said, lies in Buddhist doctrine that explicitly calls for the alleviation of human suffering: «If the people are suffering, then we have a responsibility – of course it [the suffering] is because of the political situation… [and] the political situation is connected to everything.» While the government then attempted to slander protesting monks as heretics, many among the clergy consider activism as a natural obligation borne of Buddhist doctrine.
This was manifested in 2007 when monks organised to boycott religious duties for the generals, symbolised by the thousands who marched with their alms’ bowls upturned. The act deeply unsettled the country’s rulers, who are known for their almost paranoiac devotion to higher powers – the refusal to grant them and their colleagues merit, a cornerstone of Buddhist practice, had a tangible effect, with numbers of government workers who were effectively excommunicated during the uprising choosing to resign rather than continue to carry the stigma of being associated with the junta at that time.
With this in mind, one could assume the new government would change its attitude towards dissent among the clergy. But among the country’s 1,600 political prisoners are nearly 200 monks who continue to languish in woeful conditions – this includes Ashin Gambira, who played a pivotal role in the 2007 uprising before being sentenced to 65 years in jail. His family has spoken of its concern at his physical and mental decline after lengthy bouts of torture, but despite sporadic rumours of his release, he remains behind bars.
And just last week, authorities turned on Ashin Pyinna Thiha, a prominent Rangoon monk who met with Hillary Clinton when she visited Myanmar last month. His monastery, which hosted a recent event to mark 20 years since Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize, has evolved into something of a hub for political organising, so much so that an order to shut it down was met with loud protests. The Thailand-based exiled news outlet, The Irrawaddy, wrote of the incident: «Burmese blogs have responded actively, and much resentment seems to rest on the premises that there was a growing acceptance at home and abroad that the days of repression were starting to fade under the country’s quasi-civilian government, which had relaxed control over the society in a number of areas.»
But pulling many of the strings within and around the monastic community is the State Sangha Committee, a government-appointed body of Buddhist elders that last week accused Ashin Pyinna Thiha of «disobedience». The same group last year said it would restrict the freedom of monks in a bid to tighten monastic discipline and «safeguard Buddhism». This sort of double-speak has found its target in the dozens of families who have disowned their robed relatives after they used their revered status to demand change in the country.
The Dalai’s visit
Perhaps the ultimate test of the government’s newfound quest to reconcile its own interests with those of its critics will be a decision over whether to let the Dalai Lama visit, as has been mooted. Accepting the Tibetan spiritual leader into the country would set Myanmar’s rulers on a collision course with China. This was acknowledged by the Dalai Lama’s spokesperson Tenzin Taklha, who recently told the Wall Street Journal that «the big neighbour in Asia» had interfered in his past attempts to visit regional countries.
Making an explicit reference to how the political and religious discourses are intertwined in Myanmar, chief government adviser Ko Ko Hlaing further told the newspaper that the Dalai Lama’s visit «is no problem from religious aspect, but very controversial from political point of view».
The reluctance to admit the Dalai Lama also spotlights the inevitable limitations of the country’s evolving political landscape, and how this will affect communities, like the clergy, that are perceived to operate outside of the political sphere. Were it not for China, Myanmar’s leaders would welcome the world’s most influential Buddhist leader; similarly, a clergy that respects, rather than challenges, the government would be embraced. But developments in Myanmar since the dawn of military rule have placed the country’s rulers in a bind, and to maintain a vice-like grip on power they have sacrificed a pillar of society that many would consider crucial to sustainable rule.
The obvious shortcomings of the reform programme, exemplified by the restrictions surrounding the protest bill, shows then that the same anxieties that have characterised nearly half a century of military rule persist. The fallout from this style of governance, that as the crackdown on the 2007 protests demonstrated was once so raw and visible, is now being institutionalised and hidden from view – the November protest was allowed to run as long as public scrutiny was trained on it, but once it fell off the radar quiet retribution began. That hefty punishment is once again being meted out on monks is perhaps not surprising – they remain a potent political force that can both galvanise Burmese and correct popular perceptions that a more benevolent regime is in power. Therefore they must be silenced.
Francis Wade is a journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma, and has written this article from a personal capacity.