The Almsbowl Remains Overturned
A Report on SLORC's Abuses of Buddhism in Burma
by Buddhist Relief Mission
The military regime in Burma, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), has, since its beginning in 1988, presented itself as the preserver and protector of Burmese culture, including Buddhism. The regime's propaganda, laws, and actions, however, make a cruel mockery of that pious facade.
In this brief report, Buddhist Relief Mission will present evidence of SLORC's continued abuse of Buddhism and the Buddhist Sangha. This evidence should be of interest not only to Buddhists, but also to followers of all faiths who are concerned about religious freedom and the protection of human rights.
The publication of the report is particularly timely in light of the very recent attacks of the so-called Democratic Buddhist Kayin Army on three refugee camps in Thailand. Given the overwhelming evidence, only a small portion of which is presented here, there should be no question that this "army" is at least directly supported by SLORC if not actually a branch of the SLORC army.
the report contains important material never before published. The Southeast
Asian Information Network (SAIN) has just pierced the wall of silence
that SLORC has erected about members of the Sangha in its gulag. This
report reveals the names of several monks who have died in custody, as
well as the names of others who have been secretly condemned to death
by the SLORC. Material evidence, including photographs, of some of SLORC's
crimes against the Sangha cannot be released at this time, for fear of
revealing the identity of SAIN sources inside Burma.
this massacre, the Monks' Union (Sangha Sammagi) of Mandalay, led by Ven.
U Yewata, declared pattam nikkujjana kamma, "overturning the bowl,"
against the military. This refusal to accept alms is used as a rebuke to
laypeople. According to vinaya, the rules of conduct for Theravada Buddhist
monks, a layperson who has committed any of eight offenses should be ostracized.
These eight are: striving for that which is not gain, striving for that
which is not benefit, acting against a monastery, vilifying and making insidious
comparisons about monks, inciting dissension among monks, defaming the Buddha,
defaming the Dhamma, and defaming the Sangha, the order of monks. If a layman
acts in any of these ways, the Sangha should refuse all contact with him.
religious boycott, which began in Mandalay spread like wildfire across
Burma, causing alarm and trauma to the ruling State Law and Order Restoration
Council (SLORC). By October, the religious sanctions against the military
families had reached Rangoon. Throughout the country, monks were refusing
alms from military personnel and their families and refusing to attend
religious services organized by SLORC. Although the purpose of the boycott
was compassionate to help the evil doers to repent of their deeds, to
forsake their wrong ways, and to return to the true path the military
leaders did not accept the reproach. Saw Maung, Chairman of SLORC, and
Tun Kyi, Mandalay Division Commander, declared that their actions were
completely justified and that they were not afraid of going to hell.
On October 19, Ven. U Yewata himself was arrested. Most monks were accused of possessing anti-SLORC literature, including articles by the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi's party which had won the election in May. Three young monks were arrested for allegedly having written inflammatory poems in their diaries and notebooks. In a crude attempt to smear the Sangha Sammagi movement, some monks were even charged with gambling, illegal possession of jade or heroin, and rape. When Khin Nyunt, the head of Military Intelligence, explained these arrests on State radio, however, he only accused the Mandalay monks of working with the defunct Communist Party of Burma.
On October 20, a decree was passed (SLORC Order 6/90) banning all independent Sangha organizations historically important agents of political change in Burma. Another decree (SLORC Order 7/90), passed the following day, authorized army commanders to bring monks before military tribunals for "activities inconsistent with and detrimental to Buddhism." These tribunals, whose procedures fall far short of international standards on fair trials, can impose punishments ranging from three years' imprisonment to death.
A former prisoner has described how monks are treated in the notorious Insein Prison, in Rangoon:
is estimated that there are nearly 200 Buddhist monks in Insein prison
alone. . . . The monks have asked to wear robes in prison, but the prison
authorities took off their robes and now the monks only wear white prison
uniforms. In addition, the monks are not referred to by their monk names,
only ordinary names. When the prison authorities call them, they do not
use the word U, which is a respectful prefix to a name. The monk Meggin
Sayadaw is over 70 years old, but the warden calls him, "Hey, Shwe
Tha Aye" in a very rude way.
Ven. U Sandawara,
Weyanbonthai Monastery, Mandalay, Secretary of the Sangha Samaggi; died
in Swunpayabo concentration camp.
Ven. U Kawiya,
Phayagyi Monastery , Mandalay. He is a member of Galonni (Galonni was
originally an active Buddhist association opposed to British imperialism,
which was reestablished in 1988 in Mandalay as an organization of monks
In order to call himself Buddhist, a person should, at the very least, take refugee in the Triple Gem, Buddha (the Teacher), Dhamma (the Teaching), and Sangha (the Order), and accept the pancasila (the Five Precepts). These Five Precepts are:
from taking life,
the members of SLORC are shown for hours at a stretch on TV, ostensibly
performing pious acts and making grandiose offerings, such as TV's and
refrigerators, to senior monks and important monasteries, these men in
green uniforms are unable, either privately or officially, to keep the
five precepts. In carrying out its campaign of terrorism, SLORC has ruthlessly
killed thousands of people in Burma and massively stolen from them. Rape
is used as military strategy. Lying is official policy in public addresses
and through the state-controlled media. There is incontrovertible evidence
that SLORC both promotes and profits from the sale of narcotics, especially
military officers say they want to meet with the Buddhist monks. They
demand the people to prepare things so they can donate these to the monks.
Usually the Buddhist people must give 100 or 200 kyats as donation from
their pockets. These officers give 20,000 or 30,000 kyats to the monastery,
but we know this is not from their pockets. They demand all this money
from the people."
has formed Sangha organizations in the villages, townships, and districts.
All monks have to obey the orders of the organization, whether or not
they belong. Buddhist monks can't do anything without the permission of
SLORC. For example, new buildings in the monasteries or even extensions
to old buildings can be constructed only with the authorization of the
township or district Sangha organization."
ceremonies which invigorate the lives of the community are, under SLORC,
routinely postponed by government projects, including forced labor. Soldiers
often say, "If your wife [or your husband] is dying, let it be. Finish
your work for us first; then you can organize the funeral." The Rakhine
monk quoted above has also observed how SLORC demands obedience even from
monks: "On all Buddhist holidays, we monks have to go first to the
military camp to perform the ceremony for them. Only after we finish the
function there can we perform the ceremony with our people."
disrespect for all religion
In Chin State the military has forced Christian villagers to remove crosses from hilltops and to replace them with pagodas. There are many charges of Christians being forced to convert to Buddhism. In 1994-95 SLORC lured Chin children from their Christian parents with promises of education in Rangoon. When the parents tried communicate with their children or to find information about them, they were denied all access. Later they discovered that instead of having been placed in schools, their children had been put in Buddhist monasteries, with their heads shaven and dressed in novices' robes.
The interpretation of "Buddhification" however, does not, account for the ruthless oppression of the Mon, the original Theravada Buddhists in Southeast Asia, or of the Shan, the Pa-o, and the Rakhine who are also overwhelmingly Buddhist. It would be more accurate to say that SLORC is attempting to "Myanmarize" or "Burmanize" all the ethnic minorities, regardless of their religion. Burman Buddhists are just now experiencing what ethnic minorities, Buddhists and others, have suffered much longer.
In Tenasserim Division a mass relocation operation was begun in May 1996. Twenty-five thousand people were forcibly moved from their villages to new areas under SLORC control. Most of the Karen villagers were Christian, but some were Buddhist. In the first week of June, troops from LIB 101, commanded by Major Myint Lwin, arrived at Pyin Ka Doe village and gathered all the villagers in the monastery. The army demanded that everyone move, and they threatened to burn the village. When Ven. U Thammanya, the abbot of the monastery, attempted to negotiate with the troops, soldiers slashed his face. Later he was severely beaten by other soldiers. The entire village, including the monastery, was burned to the ground in October.
SLORC has no real respect for any religion. The military manipulates and
abuses the beliefs of all people of Burma in order to maintain their total
control of the country and its wealth.
between laymen and monks
Within the Sangha, authority is decentralized. Matters relating to the Sangha, such as new buildings, accepting new candidates, and punishment of monks for breach of discipline are discussed among the members, and decisions are made according to the will of the majority. All members have equal rights and opportunities to determine and to administer affairs. This basic principle of democracy, extended in Buddhist philosophy and practice to society and the nation, is precisely what irritates and frightens the Burmese military junta.
Since monks hold the highest position in society, all Buddhists pay respect to any member of the Sangha. A lay person, even a king or a deva (heavenly being or god), should pay respect even to a novice. For a king, a general, or a soldier to command a monk to do anything is out of the question.
As mentioned earlier, after the boycott in Mandalay, SLORC banned all independent monks' associations. The only Sangha organizations recognized are the Sangha Mahanayaka Committees, senior monks given the task of establishing rules maintaining discipline and generally overseeing all Sangha affairs. In addition to the State Sangha Mahanayaka Committee, there are local Sangha Mahanayaka Committees. Whereas the members of the Sangha Mahanayaka Committees are all elderly and learned monks, they should be highly respected and venerated. Since, however, it is well known that the committees are controlled by SLORC, they are no longer held in the same esteem by the people. The regime, of course, wishes to include as many senior monks as possible within the ranks of the committees, and monks are pressured to join, even though they are reluctant to do so. Until a monk joins, his monastery is kept under strict surveillance. He may be subject to vilification by SLORC propaganda and attempts to ostracize him. Once he relents and joins the committee, the pressure eases. SLORC may then shower his monastery with lavish gifts, but he loses his independence and the respect of the people.
SLORC has also infiltrated many monasteries in an attempt to check any dissent or resistance. A monk from Masoeyein, a famous monastery in Mandalay, reported that another monk had confessed to being a SLORC agent. After graduating from the university, this monk had agreed to become a monk in order to spy on the monks for SLORC. After the army fired on monks in 1990, however, he regretted his role and confessed to the other monk.
SLORC's penetration of the Sangha has extended outside Burma as well. A Burmese-Bangladeshi monk reported that in February 1995 he had met a monk with an Burmese passport in Thailand who claimed to be from Kyeuklekyi Temple in Rangoon, but was not at all familiar with how a monk should behave. This bogus monk was outspoken in his support of SLORC, but it is well known that most of the monks in that monastery staunchly oppose the regime.
In a further attempt to gain legitimacy and respect, SLORC organizes elaborate ceremonies to award titles to monks. In the past, these titles were granted only to very learned monks and carried great honor. Now, however, they are viewed as either a reward for submission or bait with which to lure senior monks. Ven. U Kawida, a famous teacher, also from Masoeyein, was offered the title of Agga Mahapandita, one of the highest awards, and even a professorial post at the Sangha university, even though he was known to be opposed to SLORC's interference in religious activities. Refusing to submit to the regime's hypocrisy, he refused the award. Later, he was arrested and forced to resign from the monkhood.
Another renowned teacher, Ven. U Dhammananda, who taught for many years at Wat Tama Oh in Lampang, Thailand, was unable to resist combined Thai and Burmese pressure to receive the same title. Reluctantly, he returned to Rangoon for the ceremony to accept the title, as he later put it, "from the butchers of my brother monks." In the official SLORC-produced tape of the award ceremonies, when Ven. U Dhammananda at one point turned to speak to another recipient, the sound was immediately and completely suppressed for the time he spoke. As soon as he had finished, the soundtrack resumed. We must wonder what it was that SLORC censored out.
of the Ordination Procedure
According to Buddhist Law, only the assembled Sangha, in this case a minimum of five fully ordained monks, has the authority to determine whether or not any individual can be ordained a monk. No layman, not even a member of the Department of Religious Affairs, nor any monk, not even a member of the Sangha Mahanayaka, has the right to exclude any ethnic group, caste, occupation, or community from ordination.
In the ordination ceremony, the candidate approaches the assembled Sangha in a humble manner, pays respect, and requests ordination. The candidate is asked, "Do you have a disease such as leprosy, consumption, or epilepsy? Are you a human being? Are you a man? Are you a free man? Are you without debts? Are you in the royal service? Do you have your parents' permission? Are you a full twenty years of age? Are you complete as to bowl and robes?" If the answers to these questions are acceptable, the ordination can proceed. Political affiliation is not included in the stumbling blocks (antarayike dhamme) which can prevent ordination.
Should any monk object to a certain candidate, he must provide the Sangha with a valid reason for his feelings or be reprimanded (and perhaps even punished) by the Sangha for his bias. If he has a good reason, his objection will be taken into consideration by the Sangha. Such a case will be decided by the majority of the Sangha involved.
On another occasion in Burmese history, a ruler, King Mindon, tried to dominate the Sangha. This king is usually considered a pious ruler who was quite knowledgeable about Buddhism, but in this case, he took it upon himself to interfere. The monks of the capital did not to object to these intrusions into Sangha affairs, for fear of losing the king's favor or of being persecuted. (We must remember that the king was an absolute monarch.)
One monk, however, the revered Bhamo Sayadaw, severely criticized his fellow monks in Mandalay for meekly submitting to the king's interference. When the Mandalay monks continued to remain silent, he denounced them. When the king heard about this, he was angry, but knowing that Bhamo Sayadaw had an extremely sharp tongue (something like Zargana in robes), he politely, but threateningly, warned the Sayadaw about commenting on the new rules. Bhamo Sayadaw replied acidly, "A man who dwells between two mountains [an ascetic] does not need advice on how to live from a man who dwells between two thighs" [referring to the king's wives].
Since King Mindon, as all Burmese Buddhists know, was a good and pious king, this disagreement, after taking many interesting twists and turns, ended peacefully with the king making abject apologies to Bhamo Sayadaw. Unfortunately the current military dictators, are neither good nor pious, with the direst of consequences for the Sangha
abuses of Buddhism
In 1965, when monks refused the government's attempt to gain control over the Sangha at Hmawbi, Ne Win arrested more than seven hundred monks. Some of these were shamefully abused and imprisoned.
In the demonstrations which erupted in Rangoon when the military blocked a proper funeral for U Thant (Secretary-General of the United Nations) in 1974, several monks were bayonetted and shot, and six hundred more arrested.
In 1976, Ne Win launched a media campaign against Ven. U La Ba, a brave and persistent critic of the military government. The trumped-up charges, including murder and cannibalism, were obviously meant to shock the populace and to defame the Sangha.
In 1978, many more monks and novices were arrested, disrobed, and imprisoned. Some were even sent as porters to the front line of the civil war. Valuable monasteries were closed and their property seized by the government. That same year, Ven. U Nayaka, a senior and respected monk, died in jail after being brutally tortured.
Throughout Ne Win's rule, military propaganda became increasingly strident, relentlessly lauding the military and claiming that soldiers sacrificed everything for the country while monks were shameless parasites.
in the forefront of the 1988 democracy movement
Any monk who had been involved in the demonstrations, but who remained in Burma, was subject to surveillance, harassment, and arrest. A young monk in Mandalay, Ven. U Koweinda was arrested in June 1989 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 1990, his sentence was extended to 15 years because he was suspected of being the leader of a riot which had broken out in Mandalay Prison. At some point he was transferred to Katha Prison in Sagaing Division. (The SLORC often moves prisoners around like this to prevent their being traced.) All Burma Young Monks' Union, an association of monks who have fled Burma, has confirmed that Ven. U Koweinda died there in October 1994. Since he was only in his thirties, it is suspected that he died from torture or maltreatment.
In July 1989, a senior monk in Mandalay, Ven. U Kawainda, who had been one of the leading advocates for human rights in 1988, was also arrested. SLORC accused him of being a member of the Burmese Communist Party, but he persistently denied the accusation. On September 9, 1991, BBC reported that this monk had been tortured to death.
On July 6, 1989, the army committed the unprecedented desecration of setting up barricades on the platform of sacred Shwedagon Pagoda and searching all pilgrims. In an incident provoked by the soldiers, eleven monks and seventeen students were killed. Subsequently, the pagoda was closed for five days.
punished for overturning the bowl
Another senior monk, Ven. Jotika, a professor at the Sangha University in Rangoon, who was more than 70 years old, was also arrested after the boycott. Although he was suffering from intestinal cancer, he was denied medical treatment and shackled to his bed, where he died in December 1992.
We cannot estimate how many other monks and novices have been similarly arrested, disrobed, imprisoned, or tortured.
controls on monasteries and pagodas
In Burma, monasteries and pagodas are administered by boards of trustees. Their responsibility is to maintain the facilities, handle finances, and carry out projects in the name of the patron monks. Traditionally, this has been task of pious, highly respected men from the local community. Beginning in about 1986 and rapidly increasing under SLORC, trustees have been appointed from the ranks of retired military officers, many of whom appear ignorant of proper monastery etiquette and awkward in a religious setting. Under this new system of trusteeship, there has been not only a marked decrease in religious activities but also much less accounting for the donations from generous Burmese believers. Some pagodas have begun charging foreigners an entrance fee in hard foreign currency. One can be sure that such "donations" are not being used for "upkeep," but are instead lining some green pockets.
While Burmese are not yet being charged entrance fees to Shwedagon, trustees of the pagoda recently refused a senior member of NLD access to the pagoda platform. On January 18, 1997, acting on information from SLORC, they prevented U Tin Oo from proceeding up the pagoda stairs, claiming he wasn't going for "purely religious reasons."
Relic and forced labor
Now SLORC is building a pagoda to enshrine a replica of the relic. Much of the work is being done by forced and prison labor. One former convict has reported that at first he and fellow Buddhist prisoners welcomed the opportunity to make merit by laboring on the construction of this pagoda. They quickly realized, however, how harsh the working conditions were. Despite the hellish Mandalay heat, prison authorities did not allow the workers any rest time. Labor on the pagoda continued seven days a week. The prisoners' worksites were isolated from outsiders, especially foreign tourists. Prisoners were forced to work, often in manacles, from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM, with only a lunch break. Local people sympathized with them and attempted to give them cheroots and food, but this was not allowed. If prisoners were found communicating with outsiders, they were beaten.
In addition to prisoners, every household in Mandalay has had to provide labor. Hundreds of ordinary citizens, including women, school children, and the elderly, have been forced to work on this relic pagoda. These people are brought by truck each morning and taken home just before the prisoners are transported back to jail. Civilian workers have to bring their own food and tools. This labor is entirely unpaid.
Furthermore, wealthy residents and business people of Mandalay have been ordered to donate money for the pagoda. School children and civil servants have been required to give monthly donations. Another irony is that people are being forced to contribute toward a pagoda which is being built on confiscated land by forced and unpaid labor.
Across the country, in Sittway, Arakan State, another notorious SLORC project is being carried out in the name of the religion. Hundreds of prisoners as well as local citizens are being made to work on the construction of a Buddha Museum. Working conditions there are so extreme that people are calling it Dukkha Museum or "Museum of Suffering," instead of Buddha Museum.
The Burmese military frequently argues that donating labor is a traditional form of Buddhist merit-making that others cannot understand or judge. They have repeatedly claimed that donations and labor for the Tooth Relic Pagoda and other projects have been willingly given by people across the country. There is, however, incontrovertible evidence that these projects have caused great suffering to the people and that they are forced, brutal, and detested.
creation of a Buddhist army
Several monks are said to be "spiritual" leaders of this group. A monk named U Thuzana has played a major role in attracting people to the DKBA and actually gives orders to DKBA commanders. In an interview with The Nation, one of his deputies, another monk named U Yanika stated, "Tons of the weapons belonging to the KNU are hidden inside the refugee camps inside Thailand. We want those weapons, and, if the Thai army cannot give them to us, we will go and get them ourselves." He admitted that the raids would be intended to force the refugees to return to Burma, and he threatened more violence unless all the Karen refugees return to SLORC-controlled Burma soon.
How can these monks advocate violence and still be monks? According to the vinaya, they cannot. The Buddhist Monastic Code is quite clear: "Should any bhikkhu [monk] intentionally deprive a human being of life . . . , then he is defeated and no more in communion."
To deprive a human being of life includes: killing by direct contact, killing at a distance, killing by arranging something which will kill, killing using magical knowledge, killing with supernatural power, and commanding. Commanding means inciting another person to commit a murder. A monk commits the same offense if he assists in a murder or a suicide, which would include not only finding an assassin, but also procuring weapons for the would-be murder or suicide.
DKBA soldiers have said that when they go to Myaing Gyi Ngu, DKBA headquarters and U Thuzana's monastery, they are also required to "drink the monk's medicine," vowing to be loyal and to fight the DKBA's enemies to the death. Sometimes this is water that contains a bullet or knife-tip, with the idea that should the vow be broken, that weapon will return to kill the soldier himself.
The DKBA has the deplorable distinction of being the first army in history that has dared call itself Buddhist. Buddhism, which preaches non-harming of living beings, has never been spread by means of the sword. For Buddhism there is no righteous anger, let alone a righteous war, so a Buddhist army is a gross contradiction in terms.
After playing a key role in the fall of the KNU headquarters, the DKBA, with monks as its leaders, has carried out a terrorist campaign against Karen refugees. They have abducted both Buddhist and Christian Karens from camps, forced Christians and animists to "convert" to Buddhism, burned thousands of refugee houses, and harassed and threatened the 74,000 Karen refugees on Thai soil. Thai border police, Thai tourists, ordinary Thai farmers, and Karen refugees Christian, Buddhist, and animist alike have died at the hands of the DKBA. In early 1996, a large DKBA force attacked a Thai Karen Buddhist monastery at Mae U Su, north of Mae Sot near the paved road which parallels the border. In the late night attack, the DKBA soldiers shot and killed a Buddhist monk and two other people. Then they ransacked the monastery before retreating across the Moei River into Burma.
At the end of January 1997, Burmese and DKBA forces entered Thailand to attack three refugee camps, burning hundreds of homes and killing three people. Many of the soldiers were speaking Burmese, not Karen. As of this writing, that combined SLORC/DKBA threat continues. With thousands of troops poised to move again against the helpless refugees, a major SLORC offensive and further shelling is feared.
bowl is still overturned
In spite of the massive amount of carefully documented evidence of SLORC's human rights violations which has been compiled and presented in reports by the United Nations, the US State Department, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other reliable observers, the military regime adamantly denies any wrongdoing. Despite the great harm it has done to Buddhism, SLORC has never approached the Sangha to beg forgiveness. On the contrary, the regime continues arresting, torturing, and killing monks; confiscating monasteries; creating dissension; and defaming the Triple Gem. SLORC has never repented for carrying out its evil acts of religious oppression in the very name of Buddhism.
Monks in Burma have paid a tremendous price for opposing the regime, for trying to end the dictatorship, and for speaking the truth. Some have died. Many have suffered imprisonment and torture. Those who could no longer endure the situation inside have fled to Burma's borders. The All Burma Young Monks' Union and the Overseas Mon Young Monks' Union are both active on the Thai border. The former also has branches in Bangladesh and India. A few monks have found safety in foreign countries, but because of the close relations between SLORC and the Thai government, trying to practice the religious life can also be very precarious for Burmese monks in Thailand. A monk who has neither a Myanmar passport nor a Thai monk's card can be arrested and deported, despite his genuine eligibility for asylum as a political refugee.
As evidenced by the number of young monks who joined the students in demonstrations in Rangoon in December 1996, there are still many monks who deplore the military dictatorship but are unable to protest. At this time, their only prudent course of action may be silence and patience. The alternative would be martyrdom.
Despite the appearance of calm in the country and of submission by the Sangha which SLORC wants the world to believe, the Sangha's judgment in overturning the bowl remains valid and just. The military regime is an unrepentant outcast to be ostracized by Buddhist monks of all sects, to be shunned and opposed by Buddhist laypersons, and to be condemned by all.
For SLORC, the almsbowl remains overturned.