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Myanmar's monks regain political footing after killer cyclone

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

YANGON, Myanmar -- In helping others, Myanmar's saffron-robed Buddhist monks have helped themselves.

The monks' critical role in providing relief after Cyclone Nargis has galvanized their ranks and strengthened their political voice -- just months after the junta quashed the democracy uprising spearheaded by the monks last fall.

The monks have channeled aid materials into stricken regions and turned monasteries into soup kitchens and refugee camps since the May 2 and 3 storm.

Their outreach to survivors -- many of whom received little or no government help -- highlighted the monks' power and the possibility they could clash again with Myanmar's ruling forces. Some monks are even building secret stashes of makeshift weapons, clerics say.

While Buddhism orders its clergy to shun violence and politics, monks in Myanmar and elsewhere in Asia have a history of militancy. The monk Saya San became a national hero in the 1930s by leading a revolt against the British colonialists who hanged him after fielding 12,000 troops to suppress his peasant army.

In more recent times, monks were at the forefront of a 1988 uprising against the junta and led mass street demonstrations the military crushed last fall.

A Yangon monk -- one of a dozen interviewed -- said it was impossible to "close our eyes to a government that cares so little for the people that it allows them to suffer and die." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the intense government scrutiny of monks and the sensitivity of discussing anti-government action in this tightly controlled nation.

His monastery has collected and distributed truckloads of blankets, tarpaulins and food to storm survivors. And, like hundreds of other monasteries throughout Myanmar's storm-struck southwest, it also became a temporary shelter for those who lost their homes.

The monk spoke in hushed but urgent tones as he blamed the ruling generals for failing to adequately warn people of the cyclone, which killed at least 78,000.

He also blamed government restrictions on foreign aid and humanitarian workers for putting millions of survivors at risk of starvation and disease.

"As monks, it's our responsibility to fight for a change," said the monk, as he fingered a scar that he said came from a melee with authorities during last September's crackdown.

He displayed part of a secret cache, consisting of a half-dozen slingshots, and said he was working with monks in several cities to collect more weapons for storage at other secret locations. Most of them were rudimentary devices patched together from everyday objects such as bamboo rods and bicycle spokes and chains, he said, declining to give numbers and other details for security reasons.

The extent of the weapons gathering could not be independently confirmed.

But other monks interviewed in Yangon and Mandalay said they had heard of colleagues building weapons stashes, though they stressed they were not hoarding weapons themselves.

Monks are also trying to obtain guns to make any clashes "less one-sided," said the Yangon monk.

At least 31 people were killed when troops opened fire on demonstrators in Yangon last year, according to the United Nations.

The "Saffron Revolution," which took its name from the color of the monks' traditional robes and began as a protest against high prices, was the largest show of dissent against the military regime in nearly two decades.

The junta's response was swift and stern. Monks were dragged from their monasteries in overnight raids, beaten, tortured and imprisoned, monks and human rights groups say. An unknown number remain behind bars, while many fled into exile. Those who stayed kept a low profile.

Inside the region hit hardest by Cyclone Nargis, the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, the homeless streamed into monasteries. Often the sole structures to survive the storm's 120 mph winds and towering waves, monasteries quickly became de facto refugee camps and aid distribution centers.

Even as the government clamped down on the flow of foreign assistance, monks worked to ferry vital supplies into the delta.

"Helping the people makes us stronger," said U Sumana, a 30-year-old monk from Mandalay, hundreds of miles north of the affected areas.

In his dormitory, piles of donated clothing and hundreds of bags of rice sit in neat stacks among bed rolls and clotheslines hung with the saffron robes. His monastery has organized two trips to the delta to distribute donations and a third is in the works, he said.

Since the storm, authorities have tried to play down the monks' relief efforts, even ordering newspapers not to publish stories on the clerics' work with storm victims.

The junta has tried to press individuals to give through government channels. But due in part to the respect monks command in Myanmar society, many donors still opt to give through the monasteries.

A wealthy businessman from Yangon who recently donated hundreds of cooking pans and woks to a city monastery called his choice "a simple matter of trust."

"We know the monks don't steal and that everything we give them will get to the people who need it," said the man, who declined to give his name for fear of government reprisals.

U Tiloka, the monastery's abbot, said the government "is scared of the monks" and has tried to hamper their distribution work. Plainclothes policemen have turned up as monks were distributing supplies, and the monastery's power was cut in apparent retribution for their work, he said.

Other monks say authorities have tried to block their access to the delta.

"But the people have too much respect for the monks," said U Sumana of the monastery in Mandalay. "Even if the soldiers have orders to stop us, when they see our robes they wave us through."

International aid agencies, hampered by government rules and red tape, have come to rely on the monks to get aid to those in need.

Christian charity World Vision has set up food and supply distribution points and day care centers at dozens of monasteries in the delta.

"To reach a community, you have to reach its heart and, in Myanmar, the monastery is that heart," said spokesman Chris Webster. "Without the monks, there's no way we would have been able to reach the number of people we've reached."

Though Myanmar's monks often explain their relief work in religious terms, some acknowledge its political undertones.

"Whenever you do things for the people, you are engaging in politics," said U Zaw Ti Ka, an elderly abbot at another monastery in Mandalay. "Here the government is against the people, so if you do something for the people, you are also doing it against the government."

He said he abhors the violence that marred September's protests -- but understands those who want to use force against the government.

"To make a Christian comparison, this is a real David and Goliath situation," said the bespectacled monk. "What we need now are not slingshots. What we need are real guns."


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