Myanmar’s Monks Call For Reforms to State Sangha

2014-09-18
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Buddhist monks pray during a gathering to mark the sixth anniversary of the Saffron Revolution at a monastery in Yangon, Sept. 18, 2013.
Buddhist monks pray during a gathering to mark the sixth anniversary of the Saffron Revolution at a monastery in Yangon, Sept. 18, 2013.
AFP

A prominent monk group in Myanmar marked the anniversary of the Saffron Revolution in 2007 by calling for reforms to the country’s official Buddhist monastic committee, saying the state-appointed body does not reflect the will of the clergy.

Speaking at a rally in Yangon marking the seventh anniversary of the failed uprising by monks against the previous military junta, the groups said the State Sangha Maha Nayaka (Mahana), which oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar, had become a tool for the government to lessen the influence of monks on society.

“The Mahana doesn’t stand on the side of the monks,” Zawana of the All Burma Saffron Revolution Monks’ Association, whose members helped lead the democracy movement in 2007, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“It even removes and confiscates monasteries, and arrests monks. That’s why we are urging a reform of the Mahana today,” he said.

Zawana said that the Mahana should stand in support of Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy, but instead it has “only done what the authorities tell it to.”

The 47-member Mahana consists of a chairman, six vice-chairmen, one secretary general, six joint general secretaries and 33 ordinary members, all of whom are appointed by Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs.

A quarter of the committee’s membership is replaced every three years, rotating among senior monks.

Zawana called for a new and “fair” selection process for representatives of the Mahana to ensure they better represent the interests of the Buddhist-majority country’s monks.

“We want the Mahana to select new representatives through a step-by-step process, beginning with the village level and then at the township level, and we want the selection be fair,” he said.

“If the selections are unfair, we won’t accept them.”

He said that while members of his organization have no plan to hold protests, they are considering launching a petition seeking the signatures of monks from various regions and states in support of reforms to the Mahana.

Powerful committee

In theory, the Mahana oversees violations of the Vinaya, the traditional regulatory framework of monks representing Theravada Buddhism adhered to by nearly all of Myanmar’s Buddhists.

The committee has the power to disrobe monks who have violated its decrees and edicts as well as Vinaya regulations and laws, and expel monks from their resident monasteries.

During the Saffron Revolution, the Mahana announced new regulations to prohibit monks from participating in secular affairs.

Despite a host of democratic changes ushered in by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government after taking power from the former junta in 2011, Zawana claimed that monks have experienced more hardship at the hand of the Mahana under the new administration than during the military regime.

“Twenty-four monasteries in (the capital) Naypyidaw have been destroyed by the authorities and mango trees were planted in their place, while their monks were arrested and sentenced,” Zawana said.

He also referred to a June 10 incident in which about 300 riot police and the Mahana raided the Mahasantisukha monastery in Yangon over a longtime land-ownership dispute, while its abbot was visiting Japan.

Twenty monks were arrested, but 15 were freed a day later.

The other five, including a British national, were defrocked, charged with disobeying the Mahana and defiling a place of worship with the intent to insult Buddhism, and jailed in the country’s notorious Insein prison, before being released several days later on bail. Their court hearing has been set for Sept. 26.

Their arrests prompted threats of protest from other monks.

The controversial raid also led to the dismissal of Hsan Sint, the country’s religious affairs minister. In mid-June, he was charged with corruption for misappropriating state funds, although some suggest the charge was a pretext to remove him from office.

Marking a movement

Zawana said that the 2007 monk-led Saffron Revolution calling on Myanmar’s former military regime to adopt democratic reform had led to positive changes in the country, despite the brutal crackdown by authorities on the movement which left at least 31 people dead and saw hundreds of monks arrested.

“We are on a path towards becoming a democratic country, as our people have wanted,” he said.

But others at Thursday’s ceremony—which included former monk protesters, representatives from Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy Party (NLD) and the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students group, and religious leaders—said the goals of the movement were never met.

Shwe Tontay Sayardaw, another monk at the ceremony, said that the Buddhist clergy was still awaiting an apology from authorities for their actions against protesters during the Saffron Revolution.

“The authorities who ordered the crackdown haven’t apologized to us yet,” he said.

“I urge them today to apologize to us as soon as possible.”

Monks have refused donations of alms from the military and ceased providing religious services to them as a form of political protest since the crackdown, and say that they would not consider lifting the ban until they receive an official apology.

Buddhists have a longstanding practice of donating food and other necessities to monks, but the clergy boycotted alms from the army in 1990 when the government refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, despite a decisive victory at the polls.

Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint, San Maw Aung and Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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