‘I hope I will never see monks in prison again’ Skip to main content

‘I hope I will never see monks in prison again’

 Mizzima News 

(Interview) – During the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007, the army and police raided Ngwe Kyar Yan Monastery in South Okkalapa Township in Rangoon and arrested many monks. U Ithiriaya (Ngwe Kyar Yan), one of the monks, was charged as one of the leaders of the Saffron Movement. He was disrobed and sentenced to six and one-half years in prison. He was released from Kengtung prison on Wednesday under the presidential amnesty after serving four years. Mizzima reporter Kyaw Kha talks to him about the monk- lead movement, politics and his future.

More than 100,000 people protested against the military government in Rangoon during the 2007
More than 100,000 people protested against the military government in Rangoon during the 2007
Question: What is your monk name and how were you arrested and imprisoned?

Answer: My monkhood name is U Ithiriya and my layman name is Aung Ko Nyein. I was arrested in 2007 for joining a peaceful march during the “Saffron Revolution.” Our monastery was raided on September 26, and I was arrested along with many other monks. Then they selected six leading monks in the movement, and we were each given six and half years prison terms.

Q: Can you tell us how you were arrested and your experiences in interrogation?

A: The army raided our monastery around midnight on September 26 and the scene that night was terrible and miserable. They brutally beat us and took us away. Some of us had no robes when we were forcibly taken away. Some young monks were treated like animals. They were taken away without footwear and robes. They were naked. They were given robes only when they were interrogated in the prison.

We were disrobed as soon as we were interrogated in the prison. We had no footwear for about three months. They did not recognize us as monks. They ordered us to mimic riding motorcycles and frog leaping during the interrogations. Almost all of us were kicked and severely beaten. We were black and blue from the torture. I cannot revisit these terrible things. All the monks arrested from Ngwe Kyar Yan Monastery were severely beaten. The monks who were captured in their photo records were also arrested and beaten later.

Q: Now it has been four years since the “Saffron Revolution.” Has the monks’ boycott of accepting alms from the military expired?

A: It will never expire, because the regime brutally cracked down on this peaceful demonstration that expressed the will and desire of the people. The monks and the people will never forget the brutal scene and the killing of the peaceful demonstrators on the roads. I firmly believe the “Saffron Revolution” generation will never disappear.

Q: Who else was released with you on Wednesday? Who remains in prison?

A: Among the total of 144 prisoners released from Kengtung Prison, the prisoners of conscience are I, Win Swe (Insein NLD), U Thuta Nyarna a.k.a. Than Zaw and Soe Min Oo from the Shwepyitha NLD Youth. Four monks from the ‘Saffron Revolution” are left in Kengtung prison.

Q: The international community and Burmese opposition forces frequently urge the government to release prisoners of conscience including monks. But the Burmese government always says that there are no prisoners of conscience in the prisons. What is your comment on this government policy?

A: I don’t know much to say about politics, but I like the words belief and conscience. All people including monks are struggling for their freedom. Freedom is for all including a bus driver and a rickshaw puller. Everybody wants freedom. We were arrested and imprisoned for working for the people to be freed from their daily hardships and sufferings. We did this work with belief and good conscience. The government does not want to use the word “political prisoners” but they must accept the word “prisoners of conscience.”

Q: Did you face difficulties in healthcare, reading and daily food in prison?

A: All of these things were quite good before the general election, but we faced difficulties after the election. Senior jailor Zaw Oo did not want to give us these rights anymore after that. He gave us only more restrictions and obstructions.

A jail staff member once brought monhinga (a traditional Burmese food of rice vermicelli with fish soup) into the prison for himself but Zaw Oo didn’t allow the food inside. He forced the jail staff to eat it at the prison gate instead; otherwise it could be given to the political prisoners. He acted like that. Before the election, our life in the prison was quite good and convenient, and I have no idea why they changed.

I wrote about 60 poems in the prison but they kept all of them. I asked them to give back the poems when I was released, but they passed the buck to each other and said that the poems were not in their hands, and maybe kept by either the jail superintendent or a jailor. I will wait until I can meet the senior jailor and hope to get all the poems back.

Q: Were you allowed to read daily papers, journals and books in the prison? What do you think of the new government led by President Thein Sein?

A: In my opinion, they are good. In the past, we could do nothing, but now he has halted the Myitsone Dam project. This sort of thing was unimaginable in the past. Listening to the people’s voice and fulfilling their desire is a good sign. I think it will be slightly better in both politics and economics in the future.

In the past, we rarely saw Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, usually only on the occasions of Martyrs’ Day and Independence Day. Now we can see her picture frequently in the weekly journals. So I think this is a good sign.

Q: What is your opinion on the meeting between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein?

A: I liked it very much, their adjusting differences and working on a common ground with the opposition. As a monk, I don’t like to say much about other issues. I like it if the authorities work together with Daw Suu in negotiations and consultations.

Q: After being released from prison, how will you live? As a layman or as a monk? Will you continue to work in the political and social areas?

A: They forcibly disrobed us in the prison, but we are still in the monkhood. Even at the time of Lord Buddha, a monk named Bahiya Darusi was robbed by dacoits of everything he had including his robe, and he had to wear wood plank instead. The clothes I am wearing now can cover my entire body. I had to wear these clothes in difficult times. But I am still a monk anyway. I will be a monk until death. I am determined to be a monk forever.

Q: What would you like to say about prison life, especially for the monks?

A: The prison is not a place for monks. Prison imprison everything. According to the Buddhist canon law, we were still in the monkhood but the jailors and prison staff did not treat us as venerable monks with due respect. We had to sit in prescribed forms when the jail superintendent came to our wards. The discipline is everywhere; the prison will have prison rules and discipline and also the monastery has its own rules and disciplines. So treating us as laymen is a big sin for them. I hope I will never see monks in prison again in my life.

Q: How do you see the release of prisoners by this new government?

A: In our Buddhist scriptures, a deer called Pada laughed and cried in the presence of Lord Buddha. We have to laugh and cry at the same time too now, because some of us are left in the prison. We feel very sorry for them, and we have to cry for them. At the same time, I can meet my family and relatives soon so I feel happy and laugh.

Q: Tell us about the difficulties of the monks in the prison where life is not in harmony with the Buddhist canon laws.

A: The prison life is quite different from normal life. In normal life, monks can have a good meal easily but in the prison they have to finish their meal with tarlabaw soup on most days. I was born in Monywa in upper Burma but brought up in Rangoon and then imprisoned in Kengtung in Shan State. So you can imagine how difficult life was. Many families and relatives could not visit us during imprisonment. These are some of the difficulties of monks in prison.


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