Monks trying to help,
but government gets in way
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
(05-13) 04:00 PDT Kyi Bui Khaw, Burma -- The saffron-robed monks who spearheaded a bloody uprising last fall against Burma's military rulers are back on the front lines, this time providing food, shelter and spiritual solace to cyclone victims.
The military regime has moved to curb the Buddhist clerics' efforts, even as it fails to deliver adequate aid itself. Authorities have given some monasteries deadlines to clear out refugees, many of whom have no homes to return to, monks and survivors say.
"There is no aid. We haven't seen anyone from the government," said U Pinyatale, the 45-year-old abbot of the Kyi Bui Khaw monastery sharing almost depleted rice stocks and precious rainwater with some 100 homeless villagers huddled within its battered compound.
Similar scenes are being repeated in other areas of the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon, the country's largest city, where monasteries became havens after Cyclone Nargis struck May 3 - and the regime did little.
"In the past I used to give donations to the monks. But now it's the other way around. It's the monks helping us," said Aung Khaw, a 38-year-old construction worker who took his wife and young daughter to a monastery in the Rangoon suburb of Hlaingtharyar after the roof of his flimsy house was blown away and its bamboo walls collapsed.
One of the monastery's senior monks said he tried to argue with military officials who ordered the more than 100 refugees to leave.
"I don't know where they will go. But that was the order," he said, asking for anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The government has not announced such an order, which appeared to be applied selectively. Other monasteries in Rangoon have been told to clear out cyclone victims in coming days, the monk said, but in the delta, refugees were being allowed to remain or told they could come to monasteries for supplies but not shelter.
"They don't want too many people gathering in small towns," said Hla Khay, a delta boat operator. The regime "is concerned about security. With lots of frustrated people together, there may be another uprising."
Larger monasteries were being closely watched by troops and plainclothes security men - "invisible spies" as one monk called them.
Such diversion of manpower at a time when some 1.5 million people are at risk from disease and starvation reflects the regime's fear of a replay of last September, when monks led pro-democracy demonstrations that were brutally suppressed.
Monks were shot, beaten and imprisoned, igniting anger among ordinary citizens in this devoutly Buddhist country. An unknown number remain behind bars, and others have yet to return to their monasteries after fleeing for fear of arrest.
"I think after the September protests, the government is afraid that if people live with the monks in the monasteries, the monks might persuade them to participate in demonstrations again," said a dentist in Rangoon, who also asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
Newspapers have been ordered not to publish stories about monks aiding the people, and at least one monastery and one nunnery in Rangoon were prohibited from accepting any supplies from relief organizations.
"The government is very controlling," said U Pinyatale, the abbot at the Kyi Bui Khaw monastery. "Those who want to give directly to the victims get into trouble. They have to give to the government or do it secretly. (The military) follows international aid trucks everywhere. They don't want others to take credit."
It appears unlikely that foreign aid organizations seeking to enter Burma will be allowed to use monks as conduits for relief supplies as many had hoped.
"One of the best networks already in place in the country are the monks," said Gary Walker of PLAN, a British relief group, speaking from Bangkok.