Burma Monks

Shots of Buddha and pagodas

BEN BOHANE: This region is home to Theravada Buddhism, which means “School of the Elders”, one of the two major Buddhist codes in the world. Yet Burma is also home to Southeast Asia’s last true dictatorship.


General standing in car

The Generals have been in charge since 1962 and with China’s backing, continue to cling to power.



When Siddharta Gautama, known as The Buddha, preached two and a half thousand years ago that life was nothing but a continuous cycle of suffering, he would not have expected Burma’s generals to take him quite so literally.


Footage of General

Not for the first time, monks are now taking on the Generals.


Rambo monk

RAMBO MONK: The best way to remove this evil government is to use force like in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is the only way.


Burmese monks

BEN BOHANE: Many of Burma’s monks have found sanctuary over the years in Thai towns like the northern city of Chang Mai.


U Wera walking to alter

I’m put in touch with one Burmese monk studying here who, like many, didn’t want to be identified.


Pagoda and Buddha

U Wera says he is anxious about the safety of many of his friends inside Burma.


U’Wera praying

U WERA: I feel very so sad, because most of my friends were in jail and some are dead.


U’Wera in silhouette

They come at night, they come and shoot and arrest the monks, other monks and destroy the monastery. Yes, so I feel very so sad


Monks walking in streets and protesting

BEN BOHANE: Since Buddhism is fundamentally based on non violence there are few weapons available to the monks in their standoff. During the most recent protests, monks were chanting not anti-government slogans, but reciting the Metta sutta, a Buddhist mantra to spread “loving kindness” to all, including one’s enemies.


U’Wera in silhouette

Christianity has holy crusades, Islam has jihads, is there something similar in Burma and Buddhism?


U WERA: No, it is very different from Christianity or Muslim.. We in Buddhism never use the violence to spread our religion.


Wat Sai Mon entrance

BEN BOHANE: U Wera claims most of Burma’s 400,000 monks and nuns support the pro-democracy movement, but it is possible to find at least one monk who is prepared to toe the government line and stay out of politics.


Monk sitting in chair reading

Wat Sai Mon, a 450 year old Burmese Buddhist temple in the heart of Chiang Mai, is a monastery well known for its pro-government stance. I’m eager to hear how its 87 year old abbot, U Arthipha, can justify the government crackdown on fellow monks.


U Arthripa

U ARTHIPHA: I’m not interested in these protests because it is none of our business. It is not the monks’ business to be involved in these things. Our role is not politics. Our role is to promote Buddhist literature and pray to Buddha. Monks should keep away from politics.


Shots of temple

BEN BOHANE: Buddhism preaches compassion but U Arthipha says the ultimate level of compassion is a sublime indifference to all worldly affairs, even justice.


U Arthripa

U ARTHIPHA: There are four kinds of compassion love, kindness to others happiness without jealousy and detachment. The fourth level ‘ubika’, means total ignorance, detachment. We cannot always help, so we must let go.



BEN BOHANE: But many monks are not content to remove themselves from the injustice around them.


Monks with rebels travelling

15 years ago while reporting from Burma, I got to know a rebel Buddhist group called the All Burma Young Monks Union. They were openly operating with ethnic and student guerrilla groups trying to overthrow the government.


I’ve heard that many have since gone back to Burma or found refuge abroad, but I head for the border anyway, hoping to reconnect with those who are left.


Driving past paddy fields on rough roads

We’re heading for the border town of Mae Sam Lep, which is right on the Salween river demarcating the border between Thailand and Burma.


Monk walking to shrine

We’ve been given a contact for some monks in a monastery and so we’re hoping to take at least one of them upriver and perhaps they can introduce us to some other monks on the border and see what’s going on with the influx of refugees.


Monk with translator

When we get to the border, our contact says he is forbidden to accompany me upriver to one of the rebel camps.



MONK: Even if I could travel it is dangerous Along the borderline, the Burmese soldiers in every camp can see everyone who goes down the river with their binoculars. They are always ready to shoot, so watch out.


Heading down to the boat

BEN BOHANE: With a Burmese army camp directly opposite, my translator and I head down the bank to a boat waiting to take us upriver, to one of the few areas in Burma still controlled by the resistance groups.


Travelling shots from boat

As all the latest media focus is on the uprising in the cities, it’s easy to forget that dozens of ethnic hill tribe groups like the Karen have faced persecution for 50 years.


Walking into camp

There are a hundred thousand refugees living along this border alone.


At the camp

At this Karen camp just inside Burma no new monks have arrived but I meet Saw Tar Ker and his family of 9 children who’ve arrived just this morning.


Saw Tar Ker and family

SAW TAR KER: We were forced out of our village by government troops.


BEN BOHANE: They are Christian, but do they support what the monks are trying to do in Burma?


SAW TAR KER: Even though we are Christians, we support the uprising and what the monks are doing. The government makes life so hard for everybody, so we support the monks.



BEN BOHANE: Further down the border is a monk who’s become something of a legend for his rather militant approach.


U Wizana praying

67 year old U Wizana is nicknamed the Rambo Monk since in his earlier days he used to roam frontline areas with a pistol.


U Wizana outside pagodas

U WIZANA: If possible, our mission as Buddhist monks is not to carry guns or use violence, but circumstances push us, push the people, to carry guns


U Wizana and monkey

BEN BOHANE: During the 1970s the Rambo monk was jailed for 4 years for his association with rebel Buddhist groups.


U Wizana reading

Once out, he fled to the border where he continues to help co-ordinate an underground campaign against the regime.


U Wizana under the tree

Buddhism preaches non-violence, so as a monk how far can to confront this regime?


U WIZANA: Buddhism is a peaceful religion, but we cannot send compassion to these kinds of people, these crooks, the Generals. They are not the sort of people you can stop by sending compassion.



BEN BOHANE: Were there any stories or teachings of the Buddha where he can justify action against harsh rulers?


U Wizana under the tree

U WIZANA: There is a story from Lord Buddha about a monk who has to tame a wild dragon king. He does this by creating an even bigger dragon king. Buddha says when confronting evil, sometimes we have to create a bigger evil to confront the smaller evil, so that Lord Buddha wins.


Aung Zaw at computer

BEN BOHANE: Aung Zaw is Editor for Irrawaddy magazine, a leading source of news on Burma. He says the current uprising is not the first time monks have led popular revolts.


Super: Aung Zaw
Editor The Irrawaddy magazine

AUNG ZAW: The monks have played a very important role even under the British, we had two prominent monks, U Wisara and U Ottama, they both were involved in the struggle against the British colonialists.


Monks begging for alms and food

Buddhist monks in Burma they have to go out every morning to receive alms, donations and foods. They go to each household to receive alms, they are the ones who constantly keep in touch with the people, which means they witness what is going on in the country it is not the military leaders.


Aung Zaw

They see the conditions in the country and they decided to lead this uprising.


Monks carrying banner

A monk told us “we had to” he said, a monk said “we had to” and we knew that we were going to die, but we were going to sacrifice for our country.


Aung Zaw

BEN BOHANE: Even the Generals would consider themselves to be Buddhist. Do you think any of them are worried about the karmic implications of what they are doing?


AUNG ZAW: It’s karma; whatever goes will come around.


Army marching

BEN BOHANE: The frustration of so many years under a military regime is clearly testing the core value of non-violence among many devout Buddhists in Burma.



The goal of Buddhism is to break the cycle of constantly being reborn into lives of suffering.


Trees in the mist

This is the state popularly known as nirvana.


Monks praying with candles

During the struggle against the British, some monks equated the struggle for nirvana with the struggle for political independence. Once again, some are saying that by taking part in protests


Trees in the mist

and confronting the regime, they are getting closer to nirvana.



U WERA: We have to do good deeds, not only for nirvana, but for people, yes.


U’Wera in silhouette

We did peacefully. We protest peacefully, that is right fashion..


Trees in the mist

We can say that is the way to get Nirvana





Reporter: Ben Bohane

Camera: Ben Bohane

Editor: Garth Thomas


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