Burma Arrests Buddhist Activist Nun

April 28, 2004: A Buddhist nun walks through the Shwedagon Pagoda complex in the Burmese capital of Rangoon. Photo: AFP

WASHINGTON—The Burmese authorities have arrested a Buddhist nun who returned to Rangoon for an international conference and charged her with religious offenses, her associates say.

Daw Thissawaddy, 40, had been studying for a Ph.D in religious philosophy in Sri Lanka and been ordained there as a female monk, or bikkhu , a fellow nun told RFA's Burmese service.

She was detained after returning to the Burmese capital, Rangoon, in December 2004 to attend the World Buddhist Summit, attended by Buddhists from all over the world.

Details of her case are few, and no information was available from Burmese government officials.

She went back [to Burma] because she wanted to attend the conference...When she got there, they didn't allow her to attend it. She wasn't given permission.

"She went back [to Burma] because she wanted to attend the conference," former fellow nun Daw Uttama said in an interview. "When she got there, they didn't allow her to attend it. She wasn't given permission."

Daw Thissawaddy remained in Burma because her father was ill, Daw Uttama said. She was summoned for questioning by the government-backed supreme council of Buddhist monks, the Sangha Nayaka Council.

Held for 'religious offenses'

She was detained May 27, Daw Uttama said, and charged under Section 295 and 295 (a) of Burma's criminal code. Section 295 relates to "abusing religion" while 295a addresses "desecration of religious buildings and property."

"We were told that she got arrested on May 27 after her father died. The latest news we got was that she would have to go to court," Daw Uttama told RFA.

"I don't remember whether it would be her third or her fourth time. She would have to go to court for the trial. We haven't heard anything since. We haven't received any letters from her," she said.

Sources said Daw Thissawaddy had previously written to the Sangha Nayaka Council asking for the practice of female monks—known as bikkhu and accepted in Sri Lankan traditions of Theravada Buddhism—to be reinstated in Burma, citing historical precedents.

Bikkhu was a name given to followers of the Buddha during his lifetime, without regard to the person’s gender. Later traditions evolved into separate monastic traditions for Buddhist monks and nuns, with nuns generally accorded a lower status and barred from leading others in religious activities.

A Sri Lankan tradition

As a friend of Daw Thissawaddy said: "The term bikkhu is not accepted in Burma, but [in Sri Lanka] it's like a female Buddhist monk. They have to follow the code of conduct...similar to the monks. And so even though it's accepted in Sri Lanka, it's not accepted in Burma."

U.S.-based scholar Paw Tun, Daw Thissawaddy's doctoral dissertation adviser, said her ordination as a bikkhu nun was seen by Burma's ruling junta as a powerful and provocative statement that could stir dissent among Burmese women.

"The Sangha Nayaka Council charged her with stirring up women," Paw Tun told RFA. "One of the charges is that Western countries are pulling her strings, so that she will stir up women and cause unrest in the country. The second charge is that she is threatening the integrity of the Sanghas in Burma."

Paw Tun said the authorities were forced to use trumped-up charges under the criminal code after they found insufficient evidence to charge her under the rules of the Sangha Nayaka Council.

"There's no reason for the Sangha Nayaka Council to do anything to her. But in order to keep her quiet, they had to turn to politics and say that she was stirring up trouble and disturbing law and order in the country," he said. "That's why they charged her under Section 295."

Original reporting in Burmese by Tin Aung Khine. Edited and produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.


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