Harassment Alleged at Pagoda

Buddhist pilgrims face interrogation at a famous Burmese holy site.

2010-03-01
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Shwedagon-305.jpg A man stands at the Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, Sept. 26, 2009.
AFP

BANGKOK—Religious pilgrims are being questioned by security personnel at one of Burma’s holiest Buddhist sites, according to two longtime monks.

Monks with ties to the ruling military regime who run security operations at Shwedagon Pagoda have been harassing both monks and laymen who make pilgrimages to the gold-gilded stupa, or Buddhist monument, in the former Burmese capital of Rangoon, the monks said.

Ashin Arahan Theik Di, a practitioner for 29 years from Nyaung Done in Burma’s western Irrawaddy Division, said he and six other monks were recently pulled aside and questioned in an office on the Shwedagon grounds by a monk who oversees security.

“While I was meditating and reciting my prayers, a security administrator called me into his office and asked for my identification,” he said.

“I showed him the permit I received allowing me to pray at Shwedagon, but even after doing so he demanded that we all be photographed.”

Arahan Theik Di said he and the other monks refused to have their pictures taken but agreed to sign their names on a piece of paper to avoid further harassment.

“The security checks have happened to many other monks,” he said.

Thirty-year practitioner Ashin Pan Nei Ta often prays at Shwedagon, but he said that he too had recently been harassed by security officials at the stupa grounds.

He said that in addition to visiting monks, Buddhist laymen who make the popular pilgrimage to Shwedagon from all over the country are being harassed by security personnel.

“In a Buddhist country this sort of thing should not happen,” Pan Nei Ta said.

“We didn’t do anything—we were just doing what monks do when they pray. Maybe they are trying to intimidate monks to keep them away from Shwedagon,” he said.

Pan Nei Ta said he had heard that a group of six monks visiting the site Feb. 12 had been called to the security office, told to produce identification, and forced to sign a pledge that they wouldn't visit the holy site again.

Political 'threat'

Burmese officials remain wary of gatherings by the country’s monks two years after the monk-led Saffron democracy movement of 2007 was suppressed in a military crackdown by the junta.

Protests that began Sept. 18, 2007, were led by thousands of Buddhist monks, until security forces moved in Sept. 26.

The monks later said they hadn't expected soldiers to fire on them as they prayed unarmed during a campaign for change near Shwedagon Pagoda.

Public and civil organizations joined the movement the next day in a show of support for the country’s revered monastic community.

Burmese authorities systematically plotted to crush the movement, hiring thugs to stage military-style raids on monasteries on the night of Sept. 27.

The actions of the government forced the monks to scale back their protests out of fear that the public would suffer.

But Burma's Buddhist monks are still highly politically active despite the military crackdown.

Witnesses have cited increased security in Burma to discourage protests in connection with anniversaries of the Saffron Revolution, in which monks and lay people took to the streets in the biggest show of opposition to the junta since 1988.

The United Nations has estimated that at least 31 people, including a Japanese photojournalist, were killed when the army suppressed the protests. Hundreds were arrested, and many others fled Burma or went into hiding.

Burma’s military has ruled the country without interruption since 1962. The NLD, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a general election in 1990 but was barred from taking power.

The regime has confirmed that elections will take place in 2010, although no official date has been set. The polls will be the first since 1990.

In comments to mark Burma’s Independence Day, junta leader General Than Shwe called the junta’s seven-stage "road map" to democracy “the sole process for transition.”

Original reporting by RFA’s Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nyein Shwe. Translated by Nyein Shwe. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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