The Silence of the Monks

By Samuels, Lennox | Newsweek International, December 3, 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Silence of the Monks

Samuels, Lennox, Newsweek International

Byline: Lennox Samuels

Burma's rebellious holy men are now off the street, out of sight. Tales of collaboration and 'monastery arrest' from inside the closed regime.

The 26-year-old monk was one of thousands who took to Burma's streets in late September. Like so many of them, he had never imagined himself an activist -- "I'm a normal monk, not a political monk," he says -- but he was carried away by the democratic fervor then sweeping Rangoon. On Sept. 25 he returned to his monastery late at night, climbing over the back wall since the front entrance was locked. The next night the soldiers came and took him away.

He was not the only monk to vanish. The few foreigners who have managed to enter Burma since the junta's crackdown have noted how empty the country's temples and monasteries seem. For centuries, Buddhist monks have been ubiquitous in Rangoon, Mandalay and other Burmese cities. Today, though they're thought to number 400,000, they are far less visible. "What has happened to all the monks?" asks Shari Villarosa, charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. "It's frightening. Something has happened. It's not like they all willingly left town."

The military junta has jailed monks it sees as ringleaders and has persuaded abbots -- some of who were already collaborating with the regime -- to get rid of dissidents. Hundreds were killed and injured. Many more have been placed under "monastery arrest," confined to quarters except perhaps to collect their daily alms. Others have been forcibly "derobed," or have fled to the countryside or to Thailand and China. "The monasteries in my neighborhood seem to be empty," says a 26-year-old monk who was jailed for 19 days. "In my monastery, we used to have 100. Now [it's] 31. I can feel the silence."

The government claims it has released all but about 90 of the 3,000 monks and civilians initially jailed. The ruling generals like to make a show of their piety, often posting pictures of themselves at pagodas, but when the monks marched in the streets this summer, the show was over. Today, few monks can be found around the Shwedagon and Sule Pagodas, the main Rangoon protest sites.

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