Socially Engaged Buddhism at the Edge: Burmese Monks Speak of Torture, Imprisonment

Two veterans of the “Saffron Revolution” — the peaceful revolt in August and September, 2007 of saffron-robed Buddhist monks in Burma, who led thousands of people in street marches to protest the brutal military dictatorship in that nation — spoke on Wednesday, August 11 at the Zen Peacemakers’ Symposium on Western Socially Engaged Buddhism. The monks shared a harrowing account of repression and cruelty.

“We marched for freedom of speech, of writing, freedom of the press,” said one of the monks (whose names and photos are being withheld in this report to protect their families in Burma from possible government reprisals). “We marched for human rights.”

The monks, who have received political asylum in the United States after their dangerous escape from Burma, are members of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance. One of the monks explained that in the street marches of 2007 they protested with “loving compassion. Just breath and chant. We chanted, ‘May all human beings be free from killing one another. May all human beings be free from torturing one another. May all human beings be well and happy.’ We didn’t break any law. We were met with brutality and arrests. Monasteries were raided at midnight and shut down.”

These events, well documented in Western news media at the time, resulted in harsh treatment of monks detained by the Burmese police. One of the monks at the Symposium spoke of being repeatedly tortured while imprisoned. Other monks were killed.

Three years later, an estimated 450 Buddhist monks remain locked up in Burma, under terrible conditions. “We’re supporting the monks in prison,” one of the speakers said. Many other monks live in hiding, disguised as laypeople.

According to an All Burma Monks’ Alliance flyer distributed at the Symposium, the Alliance members work to achieve a fourfold mission:

1. “To support the many monks currently being held as political prisoners in Burmese jails. Prisoners in Burma are not given food, medicine, or any other sustenance. Their families must provide them with everything, and their families are desperately struggling to do this. We are helping them.”

2. “To support refugee monks who have escaped from incarceration and torture in Burma. Some live in hiding in Burma, and others are refugees in many countries, risking jail, torture, and death if they try to return to Burma. We are helping them.”

3. “To work with many groups to promote human rights and the democracy movement in Burma. We are working for a nonviolent change to democracy.”

4. “To create a Saffron Monks Buddhist Temple and Monastery to house refugee monks and to serve the spiritual and cultural needs of Burmese immigrants in the United States.”

Arrival in America hasn’t completely ended the challenges facing those Burmese immigrants, however. Thirty-eight monks escaped to the U.S., one of the speakers said; due to the hardship of living in this country as a monk, thirty of them have now disrobed.

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