Burma clamps down on travelling monks

Suspension of passports for monks in Burma has begun amid suggestions that the Burmese government is attempting to block the influential community from going abroad in the run-up to elections.

Monks have also complained that the government’s passport issuing board in Rangoon is also refusing to extend nearly-expired passports and implementing restrictions on applications for new ones.

One monk told DVB on condition of anonymity that the new regulation required monks looking to go abroad to have the Dhammācariyā degree, which is equivalent to a Masters degree in the UK and awards status as a lecturing monk.

“Also there are three requirements when submitting the passport application: you must have the Dhammācariyā degree, you must have the sponsor’s letter and must have the approval by the religious affairs minister,” he said. “These are the requirements that cannot be achieved easily and are thus stopping the monks [from going abroad].”

The allegations were denied by Burma’s ministry of religious affairs. According to government statistics, there are some 400,000 monks in Burma out of a total population of nearly 60 million.

The community is highly revered inside the country, and rose to international attention after the September 2007 uprising in which hundreds of thousands of monks took to the streets in protest against military rule in Burma. A number were shot dead by troops, while hundreds more were forced to flee abroad.

According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP), 252 monks are currently behind bars in Burma, some serving sentences of more than 70 years. Human Rights Watch said last year on the anniversary of the September 2007 uprising that monks were still subject to oppression, intimidation and surveillance.

Prominent exiled monk, Ashin Issariya (also known as King Zero), said that monks travelling abroad to study were seen by the Burmese government to be defying the ruling generals and were able to speak freely about what they had witnessed inside Burma.

“When [junta chief] Than Shwe visited Sri Lanka [in November 2009], he was boycotted by Burmese monks studying in the country, who refused to accept religious donations from him; he was very disappointed about that,” said Ashin Issariya.

The giving of donations to monks is seen as a symbolically important ‘merit making’ act within Buddhist tradition, and the refusal of this can carry negative ramifications, such as bad karma.

“[Than Shwe] also got the same treatment from majority of the Burmese monks in India when he visited there; the government believes that monks studying abroad are becoming more defiant against [the government],” Ashin Issariya added.

He said this was due to the monks gaining international exposure, “so [the junta] began enacting various restrictions to keep the monks from going abroad”.

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