Monks Watch Burmese Politics Shift From Brooklyn

The Burmese monk Ashin Vimala relies on email to communicate with people back home. (Photo by Jane Teeling)

Chief Monk Ashin Indaka sits cross-legged in an armchair, his voluminous robes gathered around his frail 72-year-old frame.

On the table to his right is a flip phone, a Merriam-Webster pocket dictionary and a small radio. To his left is an altar with a large gold statue of the Buddha surrounded by bright bunches of carnations and chrysanthemums, apples and papayas, cans of Coca Cola and gallon jugs of Deer Park spring water — offerings from laypeople. A box nailed to the wall reads “Donations.”

Indaka cleans his glasses on a corner of his robe. In a few minutes, he’ll sit with other monks for a midday meal of fish and goat curries, chicken salad and rice. In accordance with Burmese tradition, the food the monks eat is brought by laypeople who take shifts cooking their only meal of the day.

The altar at the American Burma Buddhist Association in Brooklyn is piled with offerings from the faithful. (Photo by Jane Teeling)

Indaka lives the austere lifestyle of a typical Burmese monk, with one exception: for Indaka and the six monks who live with him, Brooklyn, not Burma — not yet — is home. The American Burma Buddhist Association, located in Prospect Heights, is one of a handful of Burmese Buddhist centers in a city that is home to 3,000 or so Burmese immigrants.

With an historic election set for April, all eyes are on Burma (also known as Myanmar) to see what direction the country will take. In recent months, Burma has undergone dramatic political and social changes which have given activists hope that the ruling military regime of 50 years is loosening its grip. In a move that has great symbolic significance, the popular opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi recently announced that she would rejoin the political system, after years of persecution and imprisonment by the military junta.

The shift comes after decades of political and social struggle in which Burmese Buddhist monks have had a prominent role. In 2007, thousands of saffron-robed monks joined the wave of political protests that was sweeping across Burma, only to be brutally attacked and detained by military forces in what became known as the Saffron Revolution. In January, the government freed about 50 of the imprisoned monks as part of a highly publicized release of 631 political prisoners.

Still, Indaka and his fellow expatriate monks are in no rush to move back, despite the promising signs. And while their reasons for staying vary, the consensus is that it the best way to fulfill their humanitarian and religious duties for the Burmese people is to remain in the United States.

That is not because there is no need for their services in Burma, a country where 90 percent of the population is Buddhist and a third lives in poverty.

“Monasteries are such an important part of civic life in Burma/Myanmar,” said Paula Bock, communications and development director at Community Partners International, a nonprofit that partners with indigenous local groups to improve health and education in Burma. “Poor children often don’t have any other opportunities for education except through the monasteries. Many monks take in all children — whether or not they can pay — and provide them with what might be their only meal that day.”

Every day at 11 a.m., the monks at the American Burma Buddhist Association in Brooklyn eat a meal prepared by lay people. It is their last meal of the day. (Photo by Jane Teeling)

Often, monks fill voids left by inadequate government services. At no time was this more obvious than in 2008, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. Monks removed fallen trees, sheltered the homeless and searched for the missing. Their speed and efficiency was a stark contrast to what many in the international community saw as the military government’s failure to act in a time of crisis.

Still, from their base in Brooklyn, a four-story walk-up on a quiet street, Indaka and his fellow monks are able to pursue similar missions. A few years ago, they raised $2 million to build a pagoda in Manalapan, N.J. They also collect donations to build schools and hospitals and repair roads back home.

“Monks should look at it as Buddha’s way,” Indaka said. “Our life is dedicated to promoting happiness.”

Indaka travels to Burma once a year to check the projects, he said. Because he’s not politically active, going in and out of the country isn’t a problem. For other monks, their political activities in the U.S. make it impossible to visit home.

Monk Ashin Nayaka said he has not been back to see his 80-year-old mother in 26 years. He’s been in Queens, where he is secretary of the U.S. headquarters of the International Burmese Monks Association.

The association formed in October 2007 in response to the Saffron Revolution. Its mission is to monitor and convey the struggles of Burmese monks and nuns, about 200 of whom are imprisoned or held in forced labor camps.

Since the mass release of prisoners, some monks have tried to return to their monasteries, only to have the government shut them down days later, Nayaka said. His group is raising money give each ex-prisoner monk $100, since many are now homeless.

In the past, associates have testified before Congress and written open letters to newspapers about the plight of the Burmese people. Nayaka said he believes advocacy work is a part of a monk’s duty.

“We have a spiritual obligation to speak out about what is happening,” he said. “As Buddhist monks, we believe life is suffering. But suffering under military is not natural. It should be removed.”

Indaka said he believes that whatever happens in April’s elections, the role of monks in Burma will change little.

“People still trust monks,” he said. “We have power. They look up to us. I tell my monks, ‘Do not sleep! Do not be lazy! The poor people support us. We should support them.’”

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