RANGOON – They are known for their peaceful and tranquil ways and teachings, which is perhaps why Burma’s thousands of monks have chosen to show their disapproval of the ruling military junta simply by “overturning the bowl.” For this, thousands of them have been arrested and jailed.
In 1990, a conclave of senior Burmese Buddhist monks decided to boycott alms from the military regime. The patam nikkujjana kamma --overturning the bowl -- as the boycott is known in Buddhist religious scripture, was in response to a military crackdown that year in the central city of Mandalay. There had gathered thousands of monks who wanted to mark the second anniversary of Burma’s August 1988 pro-democracy uprising.
A number of monks were killed and hundreds arrested during the 1990 military action in Mandalay. At least 3,000 more were imprisoned later for refusing to accept donations from military personnel as part of the patam nikkujjana kamma. Similar action would be taken on more monks in subsequent years for the same “offence.”
The alms ritual is one of the most important in Theravada Buddhism and a monk’s refusal to accept signifies moral degeneration of the alms giver.
The 1990 alms boycott has been the most radical political action by Burma’s Buddhist sangha (monastic order), says U Pandavamsa, secretary of the Young Monks Union (Sangha Sammagi) for Upper Burma that organised the pattam nikujjana kamma declaration.
“The declaration is binding on every monk in Burma,” he says. The boycott, decided by highly respected senior monks known as Auwadasariya, requires monks to refuse alms from military personnel and not to perform religious rites for them. The pattam nikujjana kamma is regulated by the Vinaya, the 227 disciplinary rules for monks laid down in the third of the three Buddhist Tipitika religious scriptures.
The monks are well aware of the harm the boycott could bring to them. But U Pandavamsa, who once spent more than eight years in jail for being among those who refused donations from the country’s military rulers, also says, “History shows that this action can topple a ruler.”