|Images: Benoît Cros|
On the fifth floor of a building in Mae Sot, Thailand, King Zero welcomes young visitors. Like him, they come from Burma. Dressed only in a saffron robe, he fulfils one of his duties as a Buddhist monk: the transmission of the Dharma, the teachings of Buddha. He recites some traditional prayers and gives blessings to the young. They kneel before him three times. They may not know, but this thin, small man is on the Burmese government’s list of most wanted persons.
In September 2007, panic seized the junta that had been ruling Burma since 1962. Without weapons, without violence, Buddhist monks took to the streets, dragging with them thousands of students and citizens in the largest popular movement since the 1988 protests. In its 50-year history, the regime had faced guerrillas of all kinds, and dealt with popular uprisings including the challenge of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This time, it was different. In few other countries is the veneration of Buddhist monks as significant. In Burma, a country of 50 million, the clergy is 400,000 strong. The protests, when they happened, were suppressed with bloodshed. Some of the leaders were arrested. King Zero, meanwhile, managed to escape.
King Zero, whose real name is Ashin Issariya, was born into a humble family of peasants across the border. His political consciousness dates back to his childhood: ‘I was very concerned about the misery of the people, and so I was very restless and slept badly. I had to take sleeping pills.’ His concern about the difficulties of his country’s people transformed itself into a critical discourse. ‘Since the days of General Ne Win – the dictator between 1962 and 1988 – military commanders have been stealing the money while the people remain poor. I asked questions to the teacher but he did not like it, and he hit me. In Burma, the teacher requires students to learn their lessons by heart, but they do not understand what it means.’ He continues: ‘Buddha taught us that this is not the way. We have to criticise. If something does not seem right, you can say so.’
A monk and an activist, King Zero takes on both roles. To him, religion and political struggle are two sides of the same coin. Opposing the discourse that sees Buddhism as a source of passivity, King Zero defends its progressive dimension: ‘Buddha said that the present time is very important.’ Following this idea, King Zero decided to create a network of libraries, the Best Friend’s Library, to train and encourage young people to think critically. Among other activities, he organised workshops to teach people to confront their ideas. To King Zero, debates are ‘the basic tool of democracy’.
At the same time, he expanded his political activity, writing under the name of King Zero. ‘“King” because I want to be a leader for the people – of course, not a traditional monarch, but a leader that can be criticised, following Buddha’s teaching. “Zero” because I need to learn a lot and act more and more,’ he explains. One of his main tasks consisted of informing young monks of the political situation in Burma. ‘At that time, the novices were only focused on learning Pali, the holy language of Buddhism, and they didn’t have the opportunity to read books on other subjects,’ King Zero says. He became one of the leaders of the Sangha Union in Mandalay, the Burmese monks’ alliance.
In August 2007, the government decided to double the price of gasoline and natural gas, triggering a series of protests. Initially, none of these seriously threatened the regime. But the violent suppression of a demonstration by monks in the town of Pakokku opened the door to an escalation of the popular movement. ‘We gave [the government] an ultimatum to apologise,’ King Zero says. But the government did not respond in kind.
For months, King Zero had been working with other monks to revive political opposition among Burma’s religious ranks. In the early months of 2007, he had gone to Bangkok and New Delhi to meet with opposition leaders in exile. He came back from these trips with lots of books. ‘My friends warned me of the danger and told me I could go to jail, but I noticed that more and more monks were interested,’ he recalls. Together with his colleagues, King Zero began secretly handing out political pamphlets – he often hid them in his alms bowl – which defined the monks’ nonviolent strategy and their commitment to a peaceful transition away from the military regime. Stickers with images of a stop sign, a symbol of the new resistance movement, began to be seen on the streets of Rangoon.
On 17 September, the ultimatum expired. As announced, King Zero and his companions called on all the country’s monks to take to the streets of Rangoon. The protesters were summoned to the Shwedagon pagoda, which is the most sacred of Burmese Buddhist shrines. Located on a hilltop, the Shwedagon is visible from practically anywhere in Rangoon. It also has a political connotation. There, 19 years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to a crowd of a million people. That speech was part of the protests of 1988 that, for two months, had threatened to topple the dictatorship, and did succeed in overthrowing Gen Ne Win. Military repression on that occasion caused over 3000 deaths. Supposedly, the government had then initiated a process of democratisation, but the subsequent victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) ended the junta’s political openness.
On 18 September, the monks responded to the call and, simply armed with the multicoloured Buddhist flag, expressed their ‘loving kindness’ for the people while reciting the Metta Sutta:
May all be well and secure, may all beings be happy! Whatever living creatures there be – without exception, long, huge or middle-sized, or short, minute or bulky, whether visible or invisible, and those living far or near, the born or those seeking birth – may all be happy.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
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