In Desperate Times, Burmese Turn to their Monks

From IHT.

It is a scene Myanmar's ruling generals are unlikely to see played out for themselves: As a convoy of trucks carrying relief supplies, led by Buddhist monks, passed through storm-devastated villages, hungry children and homeless mothers bowed in supplication and respect.

"When I see those people, I want to cry," said Sitagu Sayadaw, 71, one of Myanmar's most respected senior monks.

Recently, people who had taken shelter at monasteries or gathered on roadsides waiting for aid to arrive were being displaced again, this time by the junta, which wants them to stop being an embarrassment to the government and return to their villages "for reconstruction." UN officials said Friday that refugees were also being evicted from government-run camps.

"In my entire life, I have never seen a hospital. I don't know where the government office is. I can't buy anything in the market because I lost everything to the cyclone," said Thi Dar. "So I came to the monk."

Nay Lin, 36, a volunteer doctor at the Kun Wan clinic, one of the six emergency clinic shelters Sitagu has opened in the delta, said: "Our patients suffer from infected wounds, abdominal pains and vomiting. They also need counseling for mental trauma, anxiety and depression."

Since the cyclone, the Burmese have become even closer to the monks while their alienation from the junta grows. This bodes ill for the government, which brutally cracked down on thousands of monks when they took to the streets last September appealing to the generals to improve conditions for the people.

Village after storm-hit village, it is clear who has won people's hearts.

Monasteries in the delta - those still standing after the storm - were clogged with refugees. People went there with donations or as volunteers. Monasteries that served as religious centers, orphanages and homes for the elderly were now also shelters for the homeless.

"The monks' role is more important than ever," said Ar Sein Na, 46, a monk in the delta village of That Kyar. "In a time of immense suffering like this, people have nowhere to go except to monks."

Kyi Than, 38, said she had traveled 25 kilometers by boat to Sitagu's camp.

"Our village monk died during the storm. I felt so good today having my first chance to talk to a monk since the storm. Monks are like parents to us," she said. "The government wants us to shut up, but monks listen to us."

"Meditation cannot remove this disaster. Material support is very important now," Sitagu said. "Now in our country, spiritual and material support are unbalanced."

However, like other senior monks here he must strike a careful balance. He has the moral duty to speak out on behalf of his suffering people but he must also protect his social programs and hospitals, which provide free medical care to the destitute in a country whose government views such private undertakings as a reproof.

But, speaking at his shelter as an afternoon monsoon rain drummed against the roof, Sitagu sounded frustrated with the government.

"In my country, I cannot see a real political leader. General Than Shwe's 'Burmese way to democracy?"' he said, referring to the junta's top leader. "What is it?"

Still, a 40-year-old monk at Sitagu's camp said that "monks are very angry" about the government's recent move to evict refugees from monasteries, roadside huts and other temporary shelters, even while the state-run media are filled with stories of government relief efforts. "The government doesn't want to show the truth."

A young monk in the Chaukhtatgyi Paya monastery district in Yangon predicted trouble ahead. "You will see it again because everyone is angry and everyone is jobless," said the monk, who said he joined the September "saffron revolution" and had a large gash over his right eye from a soldier's beating to show for it.

A monk from Mon State in southern Myanmar, who was visiting the delta to assess the damage and arrange an aid shipment, said: "For the government, these people are no more than dead animals in the fields."

The interdependence between monks and lay people is age-old. Monks receive alms - food, medicine, clothes, cash to buy books - from the laity. In return, they offer spiritual comfort. In villages without government schools, a monastic education is often the only one available for children.

"There is a relationship of reciprocity between monks and the lay people," said Desmond Chou, a Burmese-born scholar of comparative religion in New Delhi. "If a fire breaks out in a Myanmar village, it is usually the monks, not firefighters, who arrive first to rescue the people."


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