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Will the Burmese regime launch another monk 'purification' campaign?

Irrawaddy - February 23, 2010

Wai Moe Dissident Burmese monks could face more repression from the regime that could resemble the 1980 crackdown under the late dictator Ne Win's campaign under the motto "Purification of Sasana [religion]."

Ashin Kumara, the chairman of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, said during his concluding address to the State Working Committee for Sangha on Saturday that in 1980 the government examined monks to determine who were "fake and who were real Buddhist." The effort was undertaken through the state monastic discipline committee, he said.

"Ah-Dhamma (unrighteousness) ideologies were banned by force and the campaign was successful," in sidelining activists monks, Ashin Kumara said, according to the state-run-newspaper "Myanma Ahlin" on Sunday.

The 1980 campaign had similarities to the pressure that has been applied on the Sangha since the 2007 Saffron Revolution, which saw monks in the forefront of anti-regime demonstrations.

Ashin Kumara's remarks were interpreted by observers as a warning to activist monks in the run-up to the national elections this year. He vowed to crackdown on elements of ideology, similar to 1980, that he says are destroying Thravada Buddhism.

The official repression of activists monks in 1980 cast a negative light over the Sangha and thousands of monks were disrobed or arrested during the crackdown that followed.

Well-known monks who were involved in social issues at the time included the abbots of Htoo Gyi Monastery and Thein Phyu Monastery, who were forced to disrobe or arrested by then Minister of Home and Religious Affairs Sein Lwin.

Under the Ne Win campaign, all "alternative" Buddhist ideologies and writing as well as many smaller Sangha sects were banned. Nine Buddhist sects were approved by the state at the time, and the law is still in effect.

As part of the purification campaign, many influential monks such as Ashin Ukkahta were forced to sign statements that their books and pamphlets were in error and their publications were banned. Many monks who practiced Buddhist ideologies other than the state-approved Theravada ideology were banned from wearing saffron colored robes and now wear different colored robes, such as sky blue.

"At the time, the situation was terrifying for monks. Everyone wondered when their turn would come," said Ashin Javana, a former abbot of Shwepyithar Monastery in Rangoon, recalling the 1980 crackdown.

"Many abbots were accused of having relations with woman and disrobed," he said. "The government used women as a trap to promote character assassination on monks. If women came to a monastery, monks had to consider if they were government agents."

The 1980 purification campaign drew a mixed response from the public. Some argued that the campaign was good because Buddhism in Burma needed purification because many monks lived in violation of the Vinaya or monastic discipline rules.

However, most observers agreed that the campaign was used by Ne Win to silence the monks' opposition to his policies following the military coup in 1962.

Burma expert Gustaaf Houtman wrote that Ne Win's regime was tested by monks throughout the 60s-70s. The first occurred in April 1963 when monks successfully protested against the state taking custodianship of Mahamyatmuni, a famous pagoda in Mandalay.

Over a 20-year period, hundreds of monks, nuns and novices were arrested and disrobed. In one outlandish case, the regime discredited Ashin Laba, a monk who was a critic of the regime, by accusing him of murder and cannibalism.

The abbot of Su Htoo Pan Monastery in Rangoon, Ashin Nayaka, died during interrogation in the late 1970s. Since Nayaka's death, the family of Sein Lwin, who was in charge of the 1980 crackdown, has become a main taga [sponsor] of the monastery.

Since 1980, Burmese monks have been targeted frequently under Burma's penal code section 295 for malicious acts insulting religion or religious beliefs. Section 295 was created by the British during colonial rule in 1860 to deter religious riots, said Nyi Nyi Hlaing, a Burmese lawyer living in exile who represented monks in trials during 2007-2008.

"However, since 1980 section 295 has been used by the regime to imprison monks who disagree with them," he said.

In 2006, 37 novice monks were imprisoned under section 295 after a dispute with local authorities in Thingangun Township in Rangoon. One of the monks, Ashin Sobhita, was sentenced to two years with hard labor and then forced to be a porter in a military offensive in Karen State.

In an interview in Mae Sot, he told The Irrawaddy, "It was very terrible. The soldiers did not treat me as a monk, but as their slave."

Since the monk uprising in 2007, the military junta has jailed 253 monks as political prisoners, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma.

Nyi Nyi Hlaing said that all 253 monks were charged under section 295, among other charges.

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