The Disappearance of Burmese Monks
Fasting for Peace

Memories of Burma, 1998

Free Burma Editor's Note: Today, thousands of bloggers around the world are taking part in an International Bloggers Day for Burma. Instead of the usual blogging, they've put up just one post with a image (like the one here) showing their support for the peaceful revolution brought to the streets by thousands of Buddhist monks. We applaud these bloggers for their attention to this struggle, but instead of going dark today ourselves we wanted to share with you this story, from scholar and Beacon author Sarah LeVine, which gives some context to the great acts of courage we've recently witnessed and the vicious reprisals in their wake.

In mid-September when I began to hear news reports that thousands of monks—and a few days later, nuns as well—were out in the streets of Yangon and other Myanmar cities demonstrating against the government, I could hardly believe my ears.

In April 1998 I joined a group of Nepalese Theravada Buddhists on a pilgrimage to Myanmar. Led by a nun who had been trained many years before in what was then Burma, we flew from Kathmandu to Bangkok, a veritable fleshpot, where we visited temples and hung out with Nepalese novices; and then we flew on to Yangon where, though it was a charming well-laid-out city and the people were strikingly attractive, the military were much in evidence and the atmosphere was palpably repressive and austere.

Within a few hours we were in our bus heading out of Yangon and east across the Irrawaddy River. After heading south to visit sites in Lower Burma, we headed north to Mandalay and then back to the capital. We spent our days visiting pagodas, paddling in the Andaman Sea, shopping and eating at food stalls. In the evening we stopped at monasteries and vipassana meditation centers (all full to bursting with lay meditators) where we slept on cool—and extremely hard—tiled floors. Everywhere we went, though our monastic hosts were gracious, I found communication difficult since I didn’t speak Burmese. But every now and then I’d encounter an elderly monastic who’d grown up in the period of British colonial rule and spoke English (the military regime which took over in the early 1960s, abolished English language instruction in the schools), or a Nepalese novice being trained in Burma with whom I could speak Nepali. None was willing to talk about politics. “You can’t do that here,” one young nun whispered. “You’ll get us in bad trouble.”

Back in Yangon, I met some elderly nuns, friends of the political activist and Nobel Peace prize-winner, Aung San Su Kyi, who, in 1998, had already been living under house arrest for seven years. In a low voice one of them told me that though in the early years of  Su’s arrest, they had occasionally been permitted to accompany her teacher, U Pandita Sayadaw, when he visited her in her lake-side family home, more recently they had been denied access. Later, in a private meeting with the Sayadaw, I asked after Su (I’d explained to him that her husband, Michael Aris, who’d taught for a few years  at Harvard, and I were friends). “Her life is very difficult,”  he said sadly, and that was the end of our conversation. The following day, Saturday, I visited a large monastery in which an elaborate noon meal was being offered to the hundreds of resident monks by a general and his extended family who had arrived in a caravan of military vehicles. My companion, a Nepalese nun, told me, “Every Saturday it’s like this. The army gives dana to the monks—food, money, robes…” And then she whispered, “In Myanmar the army controls everything…”

When, last week, I saw photos of a long column of monks snaking its way through the center of Yangon, I was astounded. For the monks, long so fearful, to dare to come out—and in such large numbers—against the government surely signaled a radical shift. What had empowered them? Rage, desperation, hope that the international community would support them? I can only speculate. What I do know is that when, nine years ago, a few monks and nuns told me in fearful whispers about the government’s power and brutality, their fears have proved justified. At least for the present, the sangha has been crushed.

Sarah LeVine grew up in England. She was educated at Oxford, the University of Chicago, and Harvard, where she received her Ph.D. and is now an associate in the department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies. Her most recent book, with David Gellner, is Rebuilding Buddhism, and a collection of stories, The Saint of Kathmandu and Other Tales of the Sacred in Distant Lands, is forthcoming from Beacon Press. She lives in the Boston area.