Monks bring call for change in Burma

5 August 2008

Monks in Burma lead protests to against the regime last year.
Monks in Burma lead protests to against the regime last year.

Following the military crackdown in Burma last year, a group of monks took an extraordinary decision. When members of the Burmese military came to make merit, the monks overturned their alms bowls - only the second time in history they had taken such a symbolically powerful step.

According the Venerable U Uttara, the monks' action was the strongest possible protest they could make. "In the Buddhist belief giving alms is part of your journey to nirvana and to refuse someone alms or gifts is to deny them nirvana. It shows the disrespect the monks have for the Burmese military and the way they attacked their fellow monks during the Saffron Revolution last September," he said.

U Uttara is general secretary of the International Burmese Monks' Organisation (IBMO). Formed after the Saffron Revolution, members of the organisation have undertaken a global campaign to inform people of human rights abuses in military-controlled Burma. So far they have travelled to 22 countries for meetings with political leaders, NGOs and government bodies.

On his visit to Australia U Uttara spoke at a multi-faith gathering attended by University of Sydney students, members of the Burmese community and the University's Uniting Church chaplain, John Hirt. He will also meet members of the NSW Parliament in a bid to push the organisation's message.

"A lot of Burmese people are angry with the military government because we still don't see any democratic reform. We don't have time to be patient any more. 2008 is a good chance, our last chance for unity and democratic change in Burma," he said.

The Saffron Revolution was led by Burmese monks in response to a military-instigated spike in petrol prices. U Uttara calls this the "spark" that ignited the protests, describing it as the culmination of more than four decades of economic mismanagement and human rights abuses. Thousands of monks, and later ordinary Burmese civilians, took to the streets chanting for peace. Many were arrested or killed in the weeks that followed the protests and Burma's monasteries are still largely deserted.

According to U Uttara, in the 16 monasteries they have been able to visit since the Saffron Revolution, 2000 monks have disappeared. "We don't know if they are in hiding or if they have been killed," he said.

IBMO has taken on an additional role since Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma's Irrawaddy delta in May. It has raised more than US$400,000 to be distributed through informal networks inside Burma. The money will help to rebuild more than 40,000 homes destroyed in the cyclone.

Contact: Claudia Liu

Phone: 02 9351 3191