Where Are Burma's Monks?

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Lha Lhoba / Polaris

Rangoon's normally bustling Shwedagon pagoda, almost deserted except for a few soldiers patrolling

For much of late September, the road to the eastern gateway of Rangoon's revered Shwedagon pagoda was a sea of maroon and saffron robes, as hundreds of Buddhist monks gathered to march in protest against Burma's military government.

Now, two weeks after the junta brutally cracked down on the pro-democracy demonstrations, the small monasteries that line both sides of the road are mostly locked and empty, while wooden barricades and bales of rusted barbed wire that police used to seal off Shwedagon are stacked on the pavement. Police and soldiers armed with automatic weapons sit on stools outside the mostly silent monasteries. More are stationed at the entrance of the hilltop temple, the spiritual center of Burmese Buddhism. As many as a thousand monks lived and studied at these small monasteries in the shadow of Shwedagon. But troops now far outnumber the handful of monks that are still seen at Shwedagon and the downtown Sule pagoda, another focal point of the pro-democracy protests.

When the military and police moved to crush the demonstrators, they first went after the monks. Under cover of darkness, say several sources who did not want their names used, doors of monasteries were kicked in and the monks around Shwedagon, including some nuns, were bundled onto trucks and taken away. When asked where the monks had gone, one 30-year-old man who was at Shwedagon in the early days of the protests puts his wrists together in the sign of locked handcuffs. According to Burma's state-run paper, The New Light of Myanmar, raids on 18 monasteries netted the authorities some 513 monks, one novice, 167 men and 30 women. The monks were summarily defrocked and interrogated and those found to be innocent were re-ordained and sent back to their monasteries. While the paper said that only 118 monks and laymen were still in custody, Rangoon's pagodas remain empty and quiet; many say the figures are much higher than the state has reported. One Rangoon resident told me that the remaining prisoners will probably be released once the situation calms down, which he believed would be at least a couple of months.

Many who eluded the authorities have fled the city for the relative safety of their home villages, where they remain, still fearful of arrest for their roles in the protests. One man who helped shelter a young monk who had suffered a deep gash on the head while escaping from a monastery raid told me the monk had later fled for the provinces. He believes the attack on the clergy of this devoted Buddhist nation and the imprisonment of monks will come back to haunt the junta. "We believe that if you do good, you receive good," he says. "If you do bad things you receive bad things. This will be the same for the military."

To head off such an outcome, the generals are waging a propaganda war to win back Burmese hearts and minds. Burma's state-run television broadcast footage over the weekend of military officers and their wives presenting gifts of rice and cash to an assembly of forlorn-looking, elderly Buddhist patriarchs in Rangoon. On Sunday, The New Light of Myanmar assured readers that the military was only targeting "bogus" monks and demonstration leaders with its purges. "Although authorities and security members pay respects to the real monks, they had to take action against those bogus monks trying to tarnish the image of the Sasana [religion]," the paper announced.

But many, even some members of Burma's own oppressive security forces, remain unconvinced. On Monday evening, a 26-year-old member of the plainclothes security apparatus knelt to pay a final homage to the Buddha at Shwedagon before fleeing for the Thai border. The officer had taken part in the nighttime roundup of monks, and it still weighed heavily on his conscience. "I have had enough. I have to leave," he said as he rose from his knees and started his journey to the border. Still, the nightly roundup of suspects continues under the darkness of a 10 p.m. curfew. One source with friends in the security forces says police are still trying to put names to faces on video footage of those who took part in the demonstrations. Police apparently carried out a nighttime arrest on Monday night near the guesthouse where I stayed, according to the manager, who whispered that to me after watching a story about Burma on the BBC the following morning.

As I traveled to the airport on Tuesday I noticed two elderly Buddhist nuns accepting alms at a large house on the outskirts of the city, the first adult clergy members I had seen doing this all week. But my line of sight was momentarily blocked by an image that better sums up a week in Rangoon in the aftermath of the pro-democracy protests. A fast-moving police wagon passed the two nuns; the arms of the detainees inside protruded through gaps in two iron grills along the vehicle's side.

For just a moment I could see the frightened faces of the prisoners inside: Dozens of young teenagers, boys and girls wearing brightly-colored T-shirts, packed cheek-to-cheek, their outstretched arms and hands grasping at the world passing by outside.