The Monks’ Exodus
Last September, 15 exiled Burmese monks came from all over the United States to walk in a line through Pittsburgh streets. They started on the Northside, made their way past PNC Park, the Pirates’ baseball stadium, and ended up among downtown’s rows of skyscrapers. They chanted the sutra of loving kindness in front of curious passers-by.
It was the G-20 summit and the monks and their supporters walked peacefully through throngs of uniforms of security forces. They hoped the march would catch the attention of the international community. They expected the presidents of the most powerful countries—then gathered in Pittsburgh—would consider intervening. It has been 47 years since the dictatorship came to power in Burma and changed everything, even the name of their country, which the military junta insists is Myanmar.
The final monk was 25-year-old Venerable U Ashin Kovida. From the back, his relaxed gait made him seem like a teenager without worries. However, U Kovida cracked his knuckles nervously as he remembered the Saffron Revolution.
The Saffron Revolution was a series of anti-government demonstrations in Burma that took place during the month of September 2007 and was named for the color of the monks’ robes. On September 27, U Kovida and thousands of monks were marching in Rangoon, the former Burmese capital. Security forces sprayed bullets into the crowd, killing an unknown number of protestors.
“Today I was thinking of the people desperately running and thinking of the friends we lost trying to save the country,” U Kovida said walking back to the Pittsburgh’s Northside from downtown.
The Saffron Revolution
The event that stretched the Burmese population’s patience to their limit—and triggered the Saffron Revolution—was an increase of fuel prices: the price of diesel was doubled, the cost of petrol was increased by over 60 percent, and the price of compressed natural gas went up by a staggering 500 percent.
This lead to increases in the prices of other basic products in a country where the average income has been $50 per month since the middle of 2006, according to the United Nations. People were starving and demanded better living conditions.
In order to stop the government’s actions, thousands of monks—lead by the All Burma Monks’ Alliance—marched for 10 consecutive days. Approximately a hundred thousand people followed them through the streets of cities across the country.
U Kovida was one of the leaders of that march. With a megaphone in his hands, he exhorted people to take part of the demonstration. “I really thought that we could defeat the government. I never thought they would dare to shoot; but they did,” he said, crossing the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh two years later.
While the Burmese government said that 30 people died during the Saffron Revolution, human rights groups claim the number of killings was more than 200. The photos and TV images of the September 27 stampede are terrifying. One picture only shows sandals: sandals of those who rushed away in terror; sandals of those who were caught by the police; sandals sprinkled by blood; sandals of those who stopped breathing at that moment.
Venerable U Ashin Nayaka who fled Burma in 2002 before the Saffron Revolution, led the Pittsburgh march. He said by email in May 2010: “There are many things we still don’t know after the military’s crackdown. Three years ago there were over 30,000 monks in Rangoon and now there are only approximately 6,000.”
U Nayaka said that he and other leaders of monks’ organizations know for certain that some of the monks are in prison or in forced labor camps, and that many others were compelled to disrobe and give up their vows for their own and their families’ safety. “But are all of the rest of monks alive? Where are the monks?” he asked.
The Saffron Revolution was not the first time that the monks were at the forefront of major anti-government demonstrations. In 1974 and 1988 they demonstrated in support of students’ movements.
U Nayaka explains why the monks have gotten involved in these acts during the military regime: “Monks’ uprisings are not struggles for political power. They are revolutions of spirit that aim to change Burma. With loving kindness we intended to change minds and hearts of Burma’s generals. Struggle against people’s suffering is a teaching inherited from Buddha.”
Because they shared U Nayaka’s philosophy, monks were killed and jailed during the Saffron Revolution. Nayaka estimates there are 248 monks currently in jail in Burma, almost all of whom were arrested after the Saffron Revolution.
Fled Burma for their lives
Hundreds of monks fled Burma to avoid being the target of the merciless Burmese police. The following story—U Kovida’s story—illustrates some of the adversities they faced to disguise themselves from the Burmese armed forces and the difficulties of being a monk in a Western culture.
U Kovida got a fake passport in October 2007. He changed his robe for jeans and dyed his hair, which was slowly growing in after years of being shaved in the traditional monks’ manner. The day he crossed the Thailand border, the official newspaper The New Light of Myanmar accused him of having explosives in his monastery. He was the fifth name on a list of twenty people for whose arrest the dictatorship offered a reward.
“They said that we were terrorists,” laughed the monk. “That’s the height of absurdity.”
The United Nations Refugee Agency contacted U Kovida in Thailand and arranged his trip to the United States. In March 2008, the monk landed in Oakland, California. U Kovida’s story went round the world. The New York Times published an article about him; a Burmese online publication called him “a revolution hero;” the House of Representatives’ Human Rights Caucus heard his testimony; and George and Laura Bush talked with him in a democracy leader’s lunch.
However, the cameras disappeared fast and U Kovida faced new challenges. He had to rent an apartment, survived an attempted mugging at gunpoint, and withstood crude jokes from teenagers on the streets.
He has worked in a thrift store and ridden a bike. These are unthinkable activities for the 400 thousand monks who still live in Burma and survive thanks to community alms.
In Burma, where more than 90 percent of people practice Theravada Buddhism, monks depended on community support for their day-to-day survival. Part of Theravada philosophy is that monks should not work outside the monastery.
Living in exile
A Burmese monk’s life in exile differs depending on the country where they land. They find the most support in Thailand, because it shares Theravada Buddhism’s customs. There monks can find monasteries to live in and people don’t hesitate to give funds to help the clergy.
Nevertheless, many monks have to adapt to a culture that doesn’t recognize them as spiritual leaders or share their beliefs. That is the case of those living in other Asian countries such as India, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, or those like U Kovida who live in the West.
In the United States there are over 70 Burmese monasteries and about 160 monks, U Nayaka said. Most of them live in Los Angeles, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and New York state—where Burmese immigrants are concentrated.
The Burmese monks in exile run three organizations: International Burmese Monks Organization (IBMO), All Burma Monks’ Alliance, and All Burma Young Monks’ Union. They focus on promoting peace, freedom and justice in Burma. “The three organizations are walking in the same direction. We cooperate with monks inside and outside the country to tell the world about the crisis in Burma,” said U Nayaka, who is also the leader of IBMO.
U Nayaka added that these three organizations share another concern: the situation of the monks who fled Burma after the Saffron Revolution and face the greatest challenges in this country.
“They receive financial assistances from NGOs for three months, but after that they can’t survive without work. Most of these monks have disrobed. They have faced a cultural shock,” said U Nayaka, who also was a visiting scholar at Columbia University.
Nayaka explains that 70 monks came to the United States after the Saffron Revolution. According to the press agency Reuters, some 38 monks were granted asylum in America after the 2007 crackdown. “Today, just eight of them remain monks,” the article emphasizes.
These eight monks are spread over four states. Kovida—who remains a monk and studies at the College of Alameda sponsored by the California government—is still living in Oakland; two others are in Texas; one is in Georgia, and the other four are clinging to their vocation in Utica—some 240 miles north of New York City.
27-year-old Venerable U Agga Nya Na lives in Utica. He also experienced the Saffron Revolution first hand. After being hidden for one month, he escaped to Thailand, where he testified to a delegation from the United States Congress and the ambassador from the U.S. Embassy. He has seen how his friends have been forced to swap their robes for workers uniforms and abandon their monkhood to survive. “Some are now working in chicken factories, and in glove factories. It’s so sad, because they didn’t want to quit their vows, they had to do it,” U Agga Nya Na said by phone in May.
In the United States two factors make it hard for Burmese monks. One is that the majority of Buddhists in America aren’t Theravada so they don’t follow the same traditions such as financially supporting the monks. The second is the small number of strong Burmese communities. “The community in Utica, for example, could help some monks, but not all of them,” U Agga Nya Na added.
U Kovida explained that some Burmese people in the United States are reluctant to feed monks who fled the country for political reasons. “These people still have family in Burma and they are afraid of the government’s reprisals,” he said.
Monks who have the support of the community face their own challenges; the cause of democracy consumes their time and energy. U Nayaka, for example, has testified at the United States Commission of International Religious Freedom, the Japanese Senate, the Brazilian Senate, the Indonesian House, and the Human Right Council in Geneva. He also has lectured at colleges and universities in United States to raise international awareness of humanitarian crisis in Burma. “But traditionally a Buddhist monk has to take a leadership role in providing spiritual guidance to Buddhists, particularly Burmese people,” said the monk.
The adversities for Burmese monks in exile differ from person to person, but they exist in every place the monks landed. “And our only crime was to ask for respect for basic human rights,” U Nayaka said.
Almost one year has passed since the fifteen monks walked through the Pittsburgh streets. All of them agreed with the same idea: the future of Burma will be determined not only by karma but also by the courage, faith, and determination of Burma’s people.
Nothing has changed since then in their country. Their prayer is the same: to see the end of the repression of Burma. They don’t know when that is going to occur, they just trust the Buddhist principle: “everything changes, nothing last forever.”
Read Silvia’s bio here.