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Buddhadharma : Summer 2008
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 8 60 of questions. Then he remarked that three men had arrived on an earlier flight—an American, a Thai monk, and another Thai—and asked if she was connected with them. We could only wonder what other connections had already been made. It set me on edge. Over the next week, we met with Burmese activists, monks, teachers, students, orphans, diplomats, and ordinary people in streets, homes, tea shops, and restaurants. We vis- ited monasteries, schools, and bustling markets. We woke up before dawn to circumambu- late the Shwedagon Pagoda as the sun kindled its golden flanks. A cloud of fear encircled everything. Beneath people’s smiles, fear seemed close to the surface. But wherever we went, people were anxious to talk, to tell their stories about the long, painful months just past. All we could do was listen, that simple and essential dharma practice. We heard tales of violence and loss, and yet there was a remarkable lightness too—a laugh, a look, or the touch of a hand would sometimes cut through the almost unbear- able words and memories. Around the public tem- ples, monks usually avoided engaging with us for fear of reprisal. We too feared for the safety of those who might be seen talking with Westerners. An activist friend explained, “We have a saying: If you have died once, you know how much the coffin costs.” The price of Burmese resistance is high, not just in blood but in the arising of trauma manifest- ing as anger, mistrust, and depression. Aung San Suu Kyi writes in Freedom from Fear, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Where are the monks? We asked this wherever we went. In late September and the weeks that followed, Bur- mese security forces raided dozens of monasteries. They often came late at night, beating monks, tearing the robes from their bodies, shooting some, and stealing and destroy- ing religious objects. A local activist friend, Stephen, said that intelligence agents had scanned photographs and videos looking for monks and nuns who were involved in the pro- tests. The protesters were slotted into one of four incrimi- nating categories: those who watched; those who clapped; those who offered water, and those who actually marched. These actions were met with a corresponding range of punishments and prison terms. Stephen also told us that a college friend, an of- ficer in the military, said that officers and soldiers under his command raided a mon- astery while drunk, and that he had been under orders to beat monks while question- ing them. According to the Assis- tance Association for Politi- cal Prisoners, more than fifty monasteries were raided in Rangoon alone. In most cases, resident monks either fled or were sent to their home villages. Those iden- tified as leaders of the All- Burma Monks Alliance were arrested and tortured. Many remain in prison. According to the Burmese opposition blog “Vimutti,” 348 monasteries in and around Rangoon had a population of 29,658 monks and novices. As of February 7, only 6,391 could be accounted for in these monasteries. In the aftermath of the repression, we found many large monasteries empty and locked. Some had military vehicles and barbed wire blocking access. (A recent news story from Agence-France Press confirmed this was still the case in late alansenauke Young novices and unordained boys at an orphanage school just outside of Rangoon. An equal number of girls also attend the school, which is operating with very few resources and little food.