The abbot didn't bother to lower his voice. Around us were sitting half a dozen local Buddhist worshippers, including one man whose aggressive curiosity about my presence made him a likely informant for the repressive Burmese junta. No matter, the abbot had no time for fear. "This is a very famous monastery," he said, as I, the first foreign visitor in many months, nodded. "Important people have come here: Nehru, Indira Gandhi and, of course, the Lady."
It was the connection to Aung San Suu Kyi the democracy icon known in Burma simply as the Lady, who in August was sentenced to 11/2 years of house arrest that had led me to the Shwe Zedi monastery in the first place. Located in the crumbling Indian Ocean port of Sittwe, Shwe Zedi was the monastery of U Ottama, a revered monk whose pacifist resistance against the colonial British inspired independence hero Aung San, father of Suu Kyi. In 2002, this was one of the few places the Nobel Peace Prize winner visited between stints of house arrest, and she called for political change from its lawn. Then, two years ago this month, Shwe Zedi was among the first places in Burma to organize pro-democracy rallies, a doomed effort that ended in the junta gunning down unarmed demonstrators. "At first, I was scared to join the protests," recalls one teenaged monk. "But I had faith that even if it failed, it was better than doing nothing."
Most Burmese are devout Buddhists, and the junta tries to burnish its image by plastering state-controlled newspapers with articles about its contributions to religious causes. But no amount of merit-making can erase the image of regime goons massacring monks two years ago. Although a frightened hush followed that crackdown, Suu Kyi's sentencing has reignited speculation that the generals have gone too far and that religious harmony has been disturbed.
Certainly, the signs from the heavens haven't been auspicious of late. In May, the Danoke pagoda near Rangoon collapsed, killing three. Burmese with an eye for otherworldly coincidences noted that a pagoda ceremony earlier this year was officiated by the wife of Than Shwe, the junta's leader. Then, in June, an elevator inside a 32-story Buddha in Sagaing division failed, injuring several passengers. "Burmese people take omens very seriously," says a newspaper editor in Rangoon. "These coincidences aren't just coincidences. I can assure you that the generals are very worried."
In the aftermath of the September 2007 protests, Shwe Zedi, like many monasteries, was forced to shutter. Cautiously, the faithful returned, but dozens of monks are still missing, either toiling in labor camps or having slipped into foreign exile. Yet the monks I spoke to were unafraid to talk. "It is our responsibility to try to change our country," said one, sitting cross-legged on the teak floor. "If the monkhood doesn't do it, who else will?" Another monk padded over to a bookcase, pulled out a Burmese-English dictionary and pointed to a word: democracy.
In 1988, hundreds of Burmese were slaughtered when troops opened fire on monks, students and other peaceful protesters. Two years later, the generals lost badly in elections to Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy; the junta ignored the results and tightened its grip on power. In 2010, the regime promises another nationwide ballot, but few expect clean elections. Particularly concerned are members of Burma's 100-plus ethnic minorities, who fear that their already limited autonomy will be erased by the polls. Fighting between the state army and a hill tribe in northern Burma erupted last month, and the monks of Sittwe themselves are from the Arakan minority that chafes against ethnic Burmese rule.
So what can the monks of Shwe Zedi do, besides point at words in a dictionary? I asked the abbot, who replied, "Pray." As I left Shwe Zedi, he handed me a tiny, ivory-hued bead. It was, the abbot said, a bone relic of the Buddha, or it symbolized as much. I thanked him for the lucky gift, but I couldn't help thinking that the monks of Burma needed the relic far more than I did.