THE mystery of what happened to Burma’s saffron army, the thousands of monks who inspired a nation to rise up against a brutal regime, then vanished overnight, has been unlocked.
Taken from their monasteries in a wave of midnight raids, they have been held in primitive, humiliating conditions designed to break them down physically, emotionally and spiritually.
The account of an 18-year-old novice, who was taken from the Mingalar Rama monastery in Rangoon, reveals that while the military may be in physical control, the monks still wield a powerful spiritual weapon.
He said soldiers at the Government Technical Institute in Insein, one of four detention centres set up to handle the thousands of people arrested, broke down in tears when monks warned them they would go to hell for the way they had treated the detainees.
The treatment that has angered the monks includes lack of medical care, lack of sanitation, brutality in detention and disrespect for the Buddhist robes.
In seven days of detention, monks and civilians who were injured during the fighting received no medical attention, the young monk said.
“One monk from Nywe Kyar Yan monastery, you could see the bone in his arm but they never treated it,” he said.
Another monk who had hurt an eye in fighting had now lost it. Three civilians who did not receive medical attention died at the technical institute, the young monk said.
The monk was taken by the junta at 4am on September 27. “The soldiers invited us to come and have breakfast with them. We knew it was not breakfast, but we did not fight them like they did at Nywe Kyar Yan,” he said. The monastery’s 99 monks were put in canvas-covered army trucks and taken straight to the Government Technical Institute, close to Insein prison, where political prisoners are detained for decades at a time.
Once there, the monks were put in rooms where they had to sit in lines, cross-legged without moving, hands clasped at the back of their necks, heads bowed in the submission pose.
They were beaten if they looked up or, as they became weaker, if they toppled over.
“Some soldiers were told by the monks, ‘you are committing a very serious crime, serious enough to go to hell’. Some of them were crying, saying they were just doing what they were told,” the young monk said.
On day two of the detention, the monks were ordered to take off their robes and wear the traditional Burmese dress of shirt and longyi, a type of sarong. For a monk to change to civilian clothes is to break faith with Buddha.
The prisoners were given one meal a day, a small amount of water and no toilet facilities over seven days.
He estimated there were at least 1000 monks in the area where he was detained, most from Nywe Kyar Yan and other Rangoon monasteries, but he believed other areas on the campus were also being used to house more prisoners.
“After a week, some monks were very weak; their hands were trembling,” the monk said.
The only time the monks were allowed to move was when they were called for interrogation. Then soldiers would come into the hall and call for 10 people, not by name, but randomly.
The monks would be taken to another room where they would squat, heads still bowed in the submission pose before a table of 10 plain-clothes interrogators.
They were asked about their participation in protests, their background, whether they had been involved in earlier protests, details about their families, their names, work and where they lived.
“When you were being interrogated, if you don’t say things straight, they will hit you,” the monk said. “Some monks admitted it, but most didn’t. Most said they were not in it.”
Each prisoner was interviewed two or three times, and if their story remained consistent, they were more likely to be released. The monks began to be separated into groups, smaller ones seemingly headed for prison, larger ones for release. The first releases from the Government Technical Institute came on Wednesday.
“Some people were scared, so they told them what they knew,” the monk said.
The young monk was too scared to meet a foreign reporter, but told his tale to an intermediary, a Burmese journalist, at a safe house in the suburbs.
The Herald’s team spent eight days in Rangoon, covering the protests and the ensuing raids, arrests, detentions and political scrambling by the Government as it realised it had to deal with the international fallout. In that time, we saw the fear return to Rangoon. People who would agree to see you, but never show, or those who were brave enough to meet you, constantly watching over their shoulder for government informants.
In the streets, the military propaganda machine fuelled the fear. Trucks with loudspeakers trawled the suburbs warning: “We have the evidence, we are coming to get you, do not shelter the monks and protesters.”
“They have won militarily,” said the Burmese journalist, but people were angry at the way the monks were treated: “Spiritually, they have lost everything.”
FOR eight days, Herald writer Connie Levett and photographer Andrew Meares have filed reports from the Burmese capital, Rangoon.
For their safety, and for the protection of the people who have risked their lives to share their stories, the Herald, like other media outlets, has not identified its journalists by name, instead using the byline Special Correspondent. Levett and Meares have now left Burma.
Today, we are able to publish their words and pictures under their own names.