The longstanding tensions between the two largest organizations in Burma (Myanmar) – the military and the Buddhist clergy – are finding new outlets as both groups confront the devastating aftermath of cyclone Nargis.
The monks have temples sheltering victims in the delta – and have begun to organize funding and supplies for victims, which they hope to deliver via an underground network of sympathetic citizens and exiles worldwide and in Thai border areas such as Mae Sot.
But nearly two weeks since the storm struck, the military, unquestionably, has the upper hand, with guns, helicopters, and relief supplies. And now, it is starting to force cyclone victims out of monasteries into tent camps, prompted by concern that the monks could help spur protests.
Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher in Bangkok with Amnesty International, says the government has the right to relocate people for their well-being in an emergency. "But if they are being moved on account of being associated with the monks," he says, "it's emblematic of the last 40 years, where the government is putting its survival over the survival of their people. Their rights are already being violated. As good Buddhists, people are used to hanging out in monasteries."
Ananda, a Burmese monk who says he fled to Thailand after leading an antigovernment protest of 270 monks in 2003, says the monks wield considerable influence. "People only have two choices: Will you demonstrate, or will you die?" he says. "If the monks organize people, there will be big demonstrations again. So the government wants to separate monks and the people."
The junta's concern about the monks stems most recently from unrest last September. After initially small demonstrations following a government price hike in fuel, monks led a weeks-long display of defiance against the regime in the biggest public protests in Burma since 1988.
The regime eventually cracked down; the United Nations said 31 people were killed and dozens were unaccounted for.
Last weekend, the junta, eager to affirm its legitimacy, went ahead with a referendum on a new constitution, an action that was sharply criticized by other countries. State radio said the draft constitution was approved by 92.4 percent of 22 million eligible voters, and put voter turnout Saturday at more than 99 percent of eligible voters in areas that went to the polls. Burmese opponents have said the government coerced votes.
Not enough supplies in camps?
This week, monks said that people in the Irrawaddy Delta were being relocated by boats and trucks into the state-run camps, where it was unclear if there was sufficient food or water to help them, according to Agence France-Presse.
About 80,000 people had sought shelter in schools and temples in the Irrawaddy Delta town of Labutta, which was left in ruins by the cyclone, they said.
"The authorities do not have enough supplies. Monks still have to take care of these victims," says a young monk from Labutta, who had traveled to the main city of Rangoon (Yangon) in search of donations. "[People] want to rely on Buddhist monks," he said.
And in a move that alienated other Burmese, security forces were also restricting citizens from directly aiding cyclone victims in the delta, reported the Associate Press.
"[The military] don't want us to stay and talk to people. They want us to leave the supplies with them for distribution," said Zaw Htin, a young medical student who visited hard-hit Bogaley town on Wednesday. "But how can I treat them if I can't talk to them? How do we administer medical care if we can't touch them, feel their pulse, or give them advice?"
Monks have little themselves
Ananda, the exiled monk, says that monks are sheltering victims, even though they also lack food and basic supplies. "Buddhist temples don't normally have a lot of food supply, because usually they go around begging with alms bowls from villagers. Monks cannot exist without the people. We depend on them in order to live. So the monks are trying to help as much as they can."
Strong Buddhist beliefs
Ananda say that many wealthy people put great stock in regular donations to monks. "[Those] from Yangon want to make Buddhist merit by donating to monasteries," he says. "This way the monks can share with the villagers. But they cannot distribute it freely. They can only give by the government authority."
But many monks, after last year's crackdown, have scattered. Though cyclone winds blew the roofs off a few monasteries in Yangon, there were few reports of serious injuries. Ananda says this reflects the fact that many monks have been afraid to return to their monasteries, because the government has forced them to reapply, with photos and background information, to return.
"The regime checks the photos to see if the monks were involved in the demonstrations, and will arrest them," he says. "So monks are afraid to live in big monasteries in Yangon and Mandalay.... Many have moved to the countryside."
He says he is communicating with monks via an underground network in the delta. "We can share the news. They have survived cyclone Nargis, but now they tell me it's very difficult to survive," he says. "People in the delta think the US will help them, but unfortunately, the military is only allowing in a little bit."
On a visit this week by this reporter to the Burmese border town of Myawaddy, Buddhist monks, normally eager to meet visitors, were noticeably reluctant to speak. But several Burmese said privately that cyclone Nargis was the result of bad Buddhist karma.
"The victims did something bad in their last life. So they have a bad experience in this life," said one man who works in the market area along the Asian Highway between Myawaddy and Rangoon. "Many Burmese people think they cannot do anything about the suffering in the delta. The Buddha teaches us that life is suffering. We cannot change that. We are simple people."
But Ananda says this view of karma, though common, does not reflect scientific reality. "If the government would have warned people, they would not have died. So this disaster is not karma; it is a natural case of cause and effect by humans. If the government was good, they could have saved the people. That is also karma."
Critics charge that the government has systematically manipulated religious belief to justify poverty and their divine right to rule. "Many Burmese Buddhists believe that they are poor because they did something wrong in their previous life," Ananda says. "They cannot compare Burma to other countries. So they don't know the truth."
He says that in addition to having few or no supplies, victims in the delta are anguished as they cannot observe Buddhist rituals for the dead. "In our culture, if somebody dies, they invite monks who recite literature and lecture about morality. Burmese believe that if they cannot have a ceremony, they cannot release the soul into the next life's incarnation."
He notes that Buddhism prevents killing. But the government, he adds bitterly, is "not allowing people to help people. So it's like killing people."