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The Role of Buddhism in the Revolution…and beyond

Originally published on Mohinga Matters

Religions play a major role in Myanmar’s political history, especially Buddhism. Buddhist monks have been involved with political movements since the colonial eras. The most notable event led by the Sanga (monks) in recent years took place in 2007 when they led the Saffron Revolution. Many monks died, were arrested, and tortured fighting for democracy in Myanmar. It remains the same in the Spring Revolution as we come across the news about monks leading rallies and supporting the resistance in many ways. However, some prominent monks who were once worshipped and respected by the major population in the country have chosen to either neglect the military’s atrocities or plainly side with its leaders. Youths have questioned and called out those monks, vowing that victory at the end of the revolution will get rid of the military dictators and the stereotypical faiths including those religious monks. Curious on what the religious side thinks about it, we spoke to Ven Zawana, a former prisoner of conscience who now resides in New York, fighting yet another battle for the people of Myanmar.

Please tell us about your involvement in the resistance movements under the previous regimes.

I have become involved with the political movement since 1988. I led some rallies in my area. After the military committed the coup, I had to hide somewhere for a few months to escape an arrest. I came back to Yangon in July 1989, becoming an abbot in a monastery in Shwepyithar Township. Since I was the head of the monastery, I had more freedom in helping the politicians who found a safe haven in my facility where they hung out there frequently. In 1990, the prominent monks in Yangon were arrested by the military for leading political movements. I was in the back seat of the activism at that time hence I did not face detention. One day in 1993, military soldiers came to my monastery, asking questions about the students who had spent a few nights in the guest room. They found and seized documents, and tapes that contained political content in the room the young men had stayed in. I was also taken into custody. I confessed that those students had spent time frequently in my monastery, and I had treated them like regular guests. Hence I was charged with multiple violations of laws that were put on those students. In November 1993, I was sentenced to life imprisonment and nine years on top of that. I spent ten months in Insein Prison, later I was transferred to Tharrawaddy Prison (Bago Region) where I did five more years, before being transferred again to serve ten more years in Taungoo Prison (Bago Region). I got released from the Taungoo facility on 18 September 2009 after being locked in for 16 years and a month. Even after the release, I did not have the liberty to move freely since intelligence officers were following me and harassing people I communicated with. I had wished inside the jail that I could visit areas around the Bago Region after my release but I realized my time was running out with military people tailing me all day. I left for Maesot, the border of Thai-Myanmar before eventually heading to the US. I was granted asylum status and have been living in New York for ten years now.   

What are your current contributions to the Spring Revolution?

Even before the Spring Revolution, I took notice of the military’s attempts to stir religious disputes by causing chaos in Rakhine State in 2012 (The 2012 Rakhine State riots were a series of conflicts primarily between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, though by October Muslims of all ethnicities had begun to be targeted.) followed by the establishment of Ma Ba Tha – Association for the Protection of Race and Religion before 2015. I published books and shared articles online that highlighted the extreme beliefs and acts of Ma Ba Tha. When the coup took place in 2021, I organized the online Sanga (Monk) Network with the intention to remind people about Dhamma (morality) and Ahdhamma (immorality). The page now has 10,000 followers on Facebook, and like-minded monks from all over the world join in to give sermons to people and support the resistance on a regular basis. In addition, I toured the USA with my followers in 2021, visiting 20 cities in 11 states lobbying for the Burma Act, organizing rallies in support of the National Unity Government (NUG), and collecting and handing over donations to the NUG officials. To this day, I am quite active in this resistance, from calling for the United States government to transfer USD 1 Billion to the NUG, to pooling funds for people in Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and the People’s Defense Forces (PDF).  

Many; especially youths have criticized prominent monks such as Sitagu Sayadaw for turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the coup leaders and not having the best interests of the public at heart. And hence they have called for the end of such exploitation of religion or religious-dominant culture along with the dictatorship, please let us know your thoughts on it.

Look, one of the core values of Buddhism is the peace and prosperity of the entire society. If you practice Buddhism, which is the symbol of love, and you turn a blind eye to injustice, that means you are doing the exact opposite of what you preach. When that happens, whatever sermons you give on the topics of peace, love, or caringness, are just plain words coming out of your lips, you don’t convince people anymore. Youths see through that. In my private opinion, I believe the perception of youths on religion has changed in a positive way compared with the past decades. The new education system during a brief period has contributed to that effect.[1]  During the previous regimes, our education system was basically a brainwashing scheme. Younger generations have dared to question the status quo, no longer taking the old road that used to lead people to believe whatever the monks preached.    

Are you satisfied with the extent of the Buddhist monks’ participation/contributions in this resistance?

Not at all. As I was saying earlier, the education system for the people changed in a positive way recently but monastic education has remained the same. I know a monk who has done very well in academics but he still believes the lie that the country will be converted into an Islamic state if the National League for Democracy (NLD), which is led by the detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, continues to govern it. His students, young and bright novices, are fed the same concept. This fake news has been systemically injected by the military into the whole country for decades, and many monks remain believing it. Hence, they consider pro-resistance people as traitors of religion and race. It is down to the monastic education system, which is not empowering monks to think freely. To this day, Sangha Maha Nayaka (the governing body of Buddhist monks) does not believe it is appropriate to teach English to monks, arguing that if monks can speak English, they will leave the country. How pathetic!

We have also observed that many monks are actively participating in the movement, backing operations of the PDF members in some cases, while we are grateful for such support, do you think it’s against the religious practices?

For myself, I don’t believe I have committed crimes that will put my own monasticism into question. Yes, I am supporting PDF but the most I can do is provide USD 20 for each ranger in a limited quantity, which is barely sufficient to get food and warmth for them. I am not buying weapons or urging them to kill so I have a clear conscience on that and I will keep doing the same. As for others, I simply see it like this: whoever is making an effort to end the military’s dictatorship is a hero to me, whether it’s a person or a monk. The country will not be peaceful and prosperous as long as these generals are at the helm. The sooner they are gone, the earlier Myanmar benefits. Hence, every single one who works toward toppling the coup leaders is doing a righteous deed. No judgment there whatsoever.

Buddhism has a significant impact on the country. What kind of role do you wish for Buddhism to have in modern Myanmar (beyond the Spring Revolution)?

Every religion will continue to have a significant place in Myanmar. The Spring Revolution has highlighted the good and the evil vividly, not just among people, but also among religious leaders. Post-revolution, faith will be restored based on actual events and beliefs, instead of brainwashing conspiracies and make-believe stories. That day will be beautiful when it eventually comes.

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