Cover story -- Myanmar after the crackdown
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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

-- Matthew Peters

In a photo taken by a Catholic missioner on one of his visits to Myanmar prior to the September 2007 protests, a monk rests after completing the customary triple walk around the great golden chedl believed to house relics of the Lord Buddha at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
Inside Myanmar

An overview of a troubled land

Teresa Malcolm, NCR special sections editor, visited Thailand in January, where she interviewed a Canadian-born Catholic missioner for a firsthand account of life inside Myanmar, a place hard for foreign journalists to access since a government crackdown on Buddhist monk-led demonstrations last fall. Malcolm, who previously lived in Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer, reports on the missioner’s observations and describes his work in Bangkok.

Bangkok, Thailand

Where thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns walked the streets for alms, now a visitor to Yangon, Myanmar, saw not 50 altogether, and barbed wire surrounded the great Shwedagon Pagoda. Monks who once extended friendly invitations to their temple now shied away from a foreigner on the street, making no eye contact. And a shocked people were struggling to survive, drawing on a deep reservoir of faith that has sustained them for more than 45 years under a brutal military dictatorship.

-- Source: CIA World Factbook

Such were the impressions of Br. Matthew Peters, a Catholic missioner who has traveled to Myanmar -- formerly Burma -- and worked with refugees in Thailand for more than 15 years. He spoke with NCR in late January, just days after he had returned to his home base in Bangkok from a two-week visit around Myanmar, his second since the country’s military regime brutally crushed demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September.

“Matthew Peters” is a pseudonym that the Canadian-born Catholic brother requested because he fears that if he were identified publicly criticizing the military junta, he would not be able to continue his longtime ministry in the country. Lately, visas are even more difficult to come by, and Peters had not been able to enter the country as a missionary on his recent visits. Instead, he entered on a business visa, granted thanks to a letter of invitation from a Korean plywood company.

In November Peters distributed relief goods to Buddhist temples in Yangon and Mandalay, relying on the assistance of a United Nations official, rather than his usual contacts with Buddhist monks. “It was just too dangerous,” Peters said. “That monk, for contacting a foreigner, he would be in prison that night.” (Peters still drew some attention from the authorities in the far northern town of Myitkyina, which has a sizeable Christian population. Military intelligence officers questioned the rector of the Catholic seminary there for more than two hours while Peters stayed upstairs.)

The aid -- food, clothing and blankets -- was given to Buddhist monasteries that care for small children, as well as Muslim schools and old folks homes, and Hindu and Catholic groups in Myitkyina.

“What’s startling, if you go to Yangon, I’ve never been to a place that’s greener or more peaceful,” Peters said. “Everybody seems quite cheerful and happy. Unless you know someone very well, they won’t talk to you. If they do know you well, they’ll say how shocked they are about what happened to the monks. And about the despair -- when will there ever be any change?”

Declining economic conditions sparked a series of demonstrations and arrests earlier in 2007, culminating in August with the military junta’s decision to remove subsidies on fuel prices, causing an overnight increase of 500 percent. Even though demonstrations in Yangon were broken up by police and more than 150 political dissidents arrested, protests spread to other towns. Following the beating of monks holding signs denouncing price hikes in Pakkoku Sept. 5, monks took to the streets by the thousands, marching with overturned bowls to indicate they would accept no alms from the military officials and their families, which in this society meant their excommunication. By Sept. 24, an estimated 150,000 people, including 30,000 to 50,000 monks, marched in Yangon.

For the sake of the poor

Speaking to NCR, Peters emphasized that the heart of the monks’ protest was not political, saying that a monk who escaped told him, “We did not ask the government to resign. We asked that the fuel increase be rescinded because it was breaking the backs of the poor who are already hungry and who are no longer going to be able to feed themselves. It [the protest] was done out of compassion for the poor.”

Lay worshipers at Shwedagon Pagoda: The site would later be the gathering point for monks to pray before embarking on their massive demonstrations last fall.

Later, it became political as laypeople joined and “people again saw their hopes for the possibility of democracy raised,” he said. After nearly two weeks of demonstrations, the military junta began a violent crackdown Sept. 26. Human Rights Watch documented security forces’ brutal raids on monasteries following the protests. On Jan. 25, Amnesty International said that 700 people arrested during and since the protests are still behind bars.

None of the monks Peters knew in Yangon remained in the city. He learned that they were alive, but had been forced from their temples, de-robed, given lay clothes and sent back to their villages. But stories reached Peters of monks who had been rounded up at night and taken to the countryside, where protest leaders were shot and burned, some while still alive. One abbot told Peters that some of the monks who were forcibly returned to their villages never arrived -- their whereabouts unknown.

Phra Panya, a monk from Myanmar’s Shan state, had heard tales of invitations extended to 10 to 20 monks to perform a merit-making ceremony, and then “the bus comes to take the monks to the ceremony, but after they get into the bus, it is locked, and then nobody knows their fate. They don’t come back.”

Panya, 28, has recently returned from Sri Lanka, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Buddhist philosophy. He is now at Samnuk Wat Mai, a small meditation center, a peaceful island of green tucked away amid the noise and traffic of Bangkok.

Unlike other ethnic groups from Myanmar, the Shan have not been granted refugee status, despite reports of widespread human rights abuses in the state. Human rights organizations say the Burmese army has used forced relocation, extrajudicial killing, torture and rape as weapons to cut off civilian support to Shan insurgents.

Panya left his home when he was 7 years old and went to the Thai border, in an area controlled by the Shan insurgent army, with the intention of becoming a child soldier. “But after I came to the camp, I saw a lot of children being trained very hard,” he said. “I thought, it’s not suitable for me.” So he headed for Thailand to become a novice monk instead. “Fortunately,” Panya added with a laugh.

No visit this year

He has canceled plans he had to visit his family in Shan state this year. “Before, monks were quite free to do anything,” he said. They could cross the border with Thailand back and forth easily, without papers, without being searched or questioned. “But after the monks demonstrated in Yangon, monks are being questioned by the military whenever they move from place to place. Even in Yangon, you cannot go anywhere after six o’clock,” Panya told NCR.

He said he had heard nothing from his family because telephone lines had been cut. But the Shan monks of Samnuk Wat Mai had heard news “that the standard of living is decreasing every day,” Panya said. “The people have no jobs, no income. They just depend on relatives who work in Thailand to send money back.”

An economic symptom that Peters has seen develop over the past 10 years are “pint-sized monks and nuns” -- children not older than 6 or 7 years who are left at Buddhist monasteries by parents unable to care for them. At the monasteries, the children will be educated and “they’ll go on the alms rounds and the public will feed them,” Peters said.

-- AFP/Getty Images

Supporters join hands to forma a protective chain as they march with Buddhist monks in Yangon, Sept. 23, 2007.

In Myitkyina, a priest who runs an orphanage told Peters that parents will come to Mass and leave a child behind. “Parents have to decide: Which of the seven kids are we leaving in the pew on Sunday?” Peters said. “It’s the mother’s job to pull the kid aside and say, ‘After Mass, when we leave, you stay. Stay in the pew, don’t leave.’ What does that do to a child’s mind, for the rest of his or her life saying, ‘What did I do that you chose me?’ What does that do the woman who made that choice?”

People aren’t starving in Myanmar, because there is still enough rice to go around, Peters said. “But for some, all they are eating is rice, and that isn’t enough to supply the nutrition that is necessary for a child to grow up in a healthy manner.”

The United Nations’ World Food Program reports that malnutrition of children under 5 is at 32 percent, and that there are at least 5 million people in Myanmar who are short of food. In January, the organization announced a three-year program to feed a total of 1.6 million people, but noted that aid is constrained by the government’s complex system that controls movement of goods from state to state.

Peters described the plight of the Catholic seminary in Myitkyina, which has a supply of rice laid in for the year, but beyond that only has an average of 4 cents a day per seminarian for food. They buy vegetables and boil them to mush to spoon over the rice -- which is still eating better than most villagers, the rector told Peters.

Phra Utara, a Buddhist monk, said that in his native Mon state, only elderly people are left. “They can’t raise enough rice to feed themselves because what they raise and set aside, the military comes and takes big portions of it,” he told NCR through an interpreter. “The cost of vegetables and other things is too high. For that reason, all the young people come to Thailand to work in factories and construction.” Utara himself left Myanmar 20 years ago and now lives in Bangkok at Wat Prok, a temple for Myanmar’s Mon ethnic minority.

Peters arrived in Thailand in 1990 intending to work with AIDS patients -- but his mission took a detour when the abbot of Wat Prok pressed the Canadian to teach his monks English. After two weeks, the abbot determined that he could trust Peters, and so asked for his aid with the illegal Mon refugees staying at the temple, in need of medical care. From that abbot’s insistence has sprung a 15-year-plus ministry in cooperation with Bangkok-based monks from Myanmar, and with other Catholic missionaries and volunteers. Trips to Myanmar to teach English at the Myitkyina seminary and at Buddhist monasteries have led to the establishment, three years ago, of a permanent mission there as well.

Home to brotherhood

Since Peters entered his order in 1964, for much of his missionary life -- in countries from Latin America to the Middle East -- he worked with teams in which he was the only brother. That changed when he came to Thailand. “The day I walked into a Buddhist monastery, I felt like I had come home to brotherhood,” he said. “And I had.” The Mon and Shan Buddhist monks “have helped me to understand the meaning of compassion, and to recognize that it lay at the very heart of Jesus’ own vocation as a brother.”

-- Matthew Peters

An ethnic Kachin boy eats plain rice at the Catholic orphanage outside Myitkyina.

Peters has financed the monks’ trips from Bangkok to Thailand’s northern border with Myanmar to teach Buddhism to refugees in their own language and ordain boys there. Sometimes, Peters said, he is asked how he can “promote another religion.”

“I say, ‘Excuse me? Religion is a strength within you. These people are being denied that strength. They are Buddhist. It’s very important that they have the monks and their culture -- that is a psychological help.’ ”

Buddhism is a grounding that serves those still living under the military junta as well, he believes. “There’s such a spirituality that is really quite unusual in Burma. I find it everywhere -- a very deep calm and acceptance and joy and patience and an ability to withstand long suffering that you don’t have unless you have something to draw on that’s an inner strength. They’re going to be denied any help from the outside, that’s obvious.”

He recalled going up to Myitkyina, a “frontier town with no electricity, nothing. And we have minders, military minders who keep an eye on you. We weren’t allowed to go far. We went out at night in the dark,” he said. “Let’s give the minders a little bit of a run for their money. And everywhere people would be singing in the dark -- small groups of people sitting together, singing.”

Aside from the material aid his order provides, Peters sees the mission in Myanmar as one of accompaniment. Catholic volunteers in Myanmar were asked to walk alongside during the demonstrations last fall, and did so. “That’s all the people said, ‘All we want you to do is just walk beside us, so we’re not alone,’ ” Peters said. “I thought there’s something about that, even though we’re quite limited in what we can do right now in Myanmar, our being there with people lets them somehow feel they’re not completely abandoned.”

Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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