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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Burmese monks advocate democracy, civil rights

Published: October 23, 2009
Section: News

‘doing’ civil rights: Burmese Monk U Agga advocates for democracy and civil rights in his homeland with fellow monks U Pyinya Zawta and U Gawsita.  All three were exiled from Burma after participating in pro-democracy protests.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Yuan Yao/The Hoot</i>

‘doing’ civil rights: Burmese Monk U Agga advocates for democracy and civil rights in his homeland with fellow monks U Pyinya Zawta and U Gawsita. All three were exiled from Burma after participating in pro-democracy protests.
PHOTO BY Yuan Yao/The Hoot

Three Burmese monks spoke about Burmese civil rights and democracy to a packed room in the Usdan International Lounge in an event sponsored by the Brandeis chapter of Amnesty International Wednesday night.

Monks U Agga, U Gawsita, and U Pyinya Zawta participated in the 2007 Burmese Saffron Revolution in which monks led anti-government protests against the ruling military junta after an economic crisis.

The Burmese military violently suppressed these protests, killing and jailing numerous monks, students, and activists who took part. The three monks, like many others, fled the country in order to spread their message.

“We are so happy to speak about human rights and democracy here,” said U Agga. “We could not do this freely in Burma.”

Each of the monks shared his own story about the work he has done to foster democracy in Burma.

U Pyinya Zawta, the eldest monk, has been involved in civil rights movements within Burma for over 20 years. Before going into exile in 2007, he served nine years in prison for leading various pro-democracy movements.

Though no longer allowed in his home country, Zawta has continued his involvement in the cause. In 2007, he founded the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, which supports monks currently held as political prisoners, as well as other monks who went into exile. Most importantly, the Alliance has worked with other groups to promote human rights and democracy within Burma.

U Gawsita shared a similar narrative about his foray into political activism.

“[One day I asked] Why is Burma so poor? Why are there so many problems? When I looked for an answer, I saw there was no freedom of speech, no freedom of press. There were no human rights in Burma,” he said.

Gawsita presented a slideshow depicting him leading a protest march consisting of monks from his monastery as well as students. He repeatedly stressed the nonviolent nature of his march, but it made little difference to the ruling junta.

He illustrated this through a series of slides in which a Japanese journalist can be seen in the background taking pictures of the march. Over the course of several pictures, the crowd around him dissipates as soldiers attack.

In the final shot, the journalist is shot dead at pointblank range.

In addition to telling the audience about the history of their struggle, the monks also spoke about what Americans can do to end the military junta in Burma.

“If the international community speaks with one voice and the people of Burma rise up, Burma can change,” said Zawta.

He praised recent sanctions imposed by the United States against the Burmese government after the government chose to extend the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize- winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi earlier this year. He also called on American businesses to stop dealing with Burmese firms.

The event was sponsored by the Brandeis chapter of Amnesty International, which worked in partnership with an Amnesty chapter from Somerville to bring the monks to Brandeis.

Catholic chaplain Reverand Walter Cuenin and Professor Andreas Teuber (PHIL) briefly introduced the monks before they spoke.

Cuenin cited Buddhism as a “way we to deepen our own spiritual connections,” while also praising the monks for their bravery and courage.

Teuber discussed the revolution’s role in encouraging positive rights in Burma, which is in contrast with the United States, where negative rights—instated to protect the people from the government—are stressed. He also attested to the monks’ courage.

“I study civil rights, but these three people do human rights,” said Teuber.