Monks jailed, disrobed by junta

In military-ruled Burma the jails are filling up with Buddhist monks. Currently, 136 members of the clergy are behind bars, most of them in the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon, the former capital. That is the largest number of monks jailed at one time by the oppressive regime, say activists living in exile.

But that is not all. “The monks have been disrobed by the authorities,” says Aung Kyaw Oo, a member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP), a group of former political prisoners monitoring the activities within the vast network of jails in the country. “They are being treated like the other prisoners.”

There are also reports of torture, Aung Kyaw Oo said. “Some of the monks have been beaten with sticks, punched, kicked after they had protested. Some have their ankles in iron shackles.” The ‘crime’ they are alleged to have committed was leading tens of thousands of fellow monks in peaceful anti-government protests through the streets of Rangoon and other urban centres in September 2007. They are among the 1,004 political prisoners who have been arrested in Burma, or Myanmar, since the protests.

Till the protests, the first anniversary of which falls this week, there had been 1,150 political prisoners, some of them in jail on spurious charges since 1989, says the global rights lobby Amnesty International. “Now there are more than 2,100.”

The protests were triggered by the junta suddenly raising oil prices in August. For nearly a week in September last year, thousands of monks led people in a procession, chanting the ‘metta sutta,’ a prayer for ‘loving kindness’. But on Sept. 26, the junta struck back with ferocity.

The UN estimated that at least 31 people were killed and 74 had gone missing. But opposition groups place the death toll in the hundreds, including monks. The junta’s abuse of the clergy, despite the country’s deep Buddhist history, where over 85% of its population are followers, is not new. Buddhist monks were also victims of a brutal crackdown in 1990, when they came out in protest after the regime refused to recognise the results of a general election held that year. Since then, 212 monks have been jailed and disrobed.

A similar pattern is also playing out in the secret trials that have begun to try the jailed monks. The trials are being held in the special courts set up within the compound of the sprawling Insein Prison. So far, 46 monks have appeared at these trials, held away from the public eye, and include U. Indika, the abbot of Rangoon’s Maggin Monastery, a hotspot during last September’s protest.

“U. Indika and another monk appeared in Rangoon’s Insein Prison (on Friday, Sep. 19), according to relatives of the detained monks. They are facing numerous charges for alleged criminal offences related to their involvement in the protests,” reports The Irrawaddy, a current affairs magazine published in northern Thailand by Burmese journalists living in exile.

The monks, some of whom have no access to lawyers, have been charged under Section 295 of the penal code for the “deliberate and malicious act to outrage religious feelings” and “insulting religious beliefs”. Section 505 of the penal code faults the monks for issuing “statements that induce public mischief”. — IPS