Published at www.asiamediaforum.org
Buddhist monk U Pandavamsa spent eight years and four months as a prisoner of Burma’s military junta. Along with 300 monks, his colleagues in Nga Hut Gyi monastery in Rangoon, Pandavamsa was picked up in 1997 for refusing to accept alms donated by the ruling junta. The donation was given by senior general Saw Maung, chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to hundreds of monasteries in Rangoon.
U Pandavamsa is now head of the Shwe Taung monastery, one of the biggest monasteries in a 10-monastery compound in the capital city. He is also the secretary general of the Young Monks Union (Sangha Sammagi), an organisation of about 80,000 young monks that works for public education and the promotion of Buddhism.
Below is an interview with U Pandavamsa on the role of Buddhist monks in Burma.
Young monks have been playing an important role in Burma’s modern politics. What is the role of the monks in democratisation issues in Burma?
We are not very hopeful at the moment. We are still traumatised by the deaths of hundreds of young monks and students in 1988, as well as the mass shootings and arrest of monks in Rangoon and Mandalay. Almost every year, many monks are arrested and jailed by the junta because they refuse to accept donations from military and government officers and their families. Monasteries and monks’ activities are under observation and are tightly controlled by the junta’s intelligence personnel. Religious ceremonies need to have permission first from the government.
In 2001, the government through the Sangha Mahanayaka Committee (the state’s Buddhist monks organisation) release Order No. 15/2001, banning monks who have been released from prison to don their robes again. We are not afraid to be imprisoned but we cannot imagine ourselves not donning our robes ever again.
Do monks who have served jail sentences have to sign a letter stating that he promises not to get involved in political activities once he gets out? Is a monk obliged to have a legal identity card?
Yes, but this contract letter is just for the head monks of famous and influential monasteries. Monks, though, are required to have identity cards released by the Sangha Mahanayaka Committee. The committee can revoke the card anytime if a monk is found to be participating in political acts.
What are your thoughts about civil society organisations in Burma now?
Public and civil society organizations, including the National Democratic League and Buddhist religious groups, have been weakened by the junta’s repressive acts. The government’s new capital in Pyanmana is under tight control by the military. There is much pressure on the Burmese people because of this.
How does the concept of democracy figure in Burma’s Buddhist teachings?
The sangha (monk’s community) is very enthusiastic and supports the democratisation process in the country because democracy is in line with the Buddha’s dhamma teaching. Democracy in Buddhism is recognised as ‘sutta’. ‘Metta sutta’ directly gives attention to the humanitarian approach democracy. Buddhist monks have a motto in their struggle for democracy, and this is to not tackle each other and not to hurt one another. This is becoming a social ethics base of the democratic struggle of Burmese monks.
Religion has played an important role in democracy and social change in many Asian countries. In the Philippines, the late Roman Catholic archbishop Cardinal Sin led the fight for democracy against the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 via the People Power Revolution. In Indonesia, we have the Islamic cleric Abdurahman Wahid. In Tibet, the Dalai Lama led freedom movement. What can you say about the role of Buddhist monks in Burma?
Religion has been playing an important role in the public life of the Burmese and monks are always involved in the evolution of the social process. But maybe our way is different. We cannot follow the way of terrorism and extremism in the struggle for democracy. The dhamma in Buddhism’s Tipitaka textbooks prohibits every Buddhist to commit violence. The monks’ boycott of donations was, in fact, the most extreme political action they have done in the history of their political involvement.
The monks try to avoid staging street demonstrations or joining the resistance movement. Rather, they try to be mediators to a dialogue between opposing parties and help out find a resolution to a problem. The hardest form of struggle for monks is staging a boycott or refusing to participate in religious ceremonies with people perceived to be having a ‘social problem’ like the military junta officials.
If we take the lesson from the political struggle of the Tibetan Buddhist sangha in Mongolia, for example, when it’s really necessary, monks can directly participate in the struggle for democracy. In the British colonialism era, the Burmese Buddhist sangha was very active in the struggle for freedom.
Almost every year, we read about reports on violent attacks on religious minority members such as Christians and Islam in Burma. How do you assess religious tolerance in Burma?
My personal relations with other religious leaders are good. Whenever we have a major Buddhist religious celebration such as the Thadingyut Festival (Candle Festival), we always invite imams and priests. If Christians celebrate Christmas, for instance, we are also invited to participate. It’s the same thing with the Islamic religion. For example, before they start the reading of the Qur’an, they send us food and also give donations. We don’t have problems with other religions, despite the cases of violence against religious minorities.
(*This article is being reprinted with the permission of the author who produced the story under the South-east Asian Press Alliance’s journalism fellowship programme in 2006.)