USA Day 4: Saffron Robes and Revolutions

With New York City bracing itself for the mother of all snow-storms slowly making its way up the East coast, our fingers were crossed that we’d manage to make it to JFK before it struck. But before leaving we had one last person to see – in fact the only former political prisoner in NY who I had had previous contact with some time ago. Thankfully the timings have worked out well to allow us a visit to Metta Parami Monastery in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and a meeting with U Pyinya Zawta, a founding member and the Executive Director in exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (ABMA). The organisation was formed by a group of senior monks in response to the events of August 2007 when the military junta raised fuel and food prices overnight to astronomical levels. The leaders are recognised as the primary organisers and co-ordinators of the activities of the Saffron Revolution in September 2007 that ended in bloodshed as thousands were arrested with many more forced into hiding or fleeing to the border. One of the most famous leaders, U Gambira is currently serving a 63 year sentence in Kalay prison. However 3 other leaders, U Pyinya Zawta, U Gawsita and U Agga Nyana (below) escaped from Burma and were granted asylum in USA and are now living in the Brooklyn borough of Bedford Stuyvesant at the Metta Parami Monastery.


U Gawsita, U Agga and U Pyinya Zawta. Leaders of Burma’s Saffron Revolution.

We were welcomed to the monastery by U Pyinya Zawta who had just arrived back from an advocacy trip in Georgia – the 3 monks continue to play a crucial role on raising awareness and educating people about the situation in Burma and their trip to Los Angeles in 2010, despite Burma VJ not winning the Oscar, brought Burma’s plight right to the very heart of the world’s celebrity stage. The monastery, an ordinary building by appearance on a very normal Brooklyn street, is a hive of activity and is the headquarters of the ABMA. It was also a nice and unexpected opportunity to finally meet Aung Moe Win who is also living here at the monastery. Having met U Zawana and other monks on the Thai Burma border at various times over the past years it was a great opportunity to now be finally sitting with U Pyinya Zawta.

U Pyinya Zawta was jailed for a total of 10 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons

U Pyinya Zawta entered a monastery at the age of 11. When he was 20 he was ordained as a monk and began attending Swedawsyin Pali University. Now an instructor of Buddhist literature, he moved to Rangoon Aloan Aung Mingala Pali University. In 1988 U Pyinya Zawta became President of Aloan Township Young Monks Union. In 1990 he completed his formal religious study. Having received a degree in Dharmasaria, he helped found the Zawtanarama teaching institute for the further study of Buddhism. That same year he was imprisoned in Insein Prison for his involvement with the first monks’ protest against the military, in 1988, that had usurped power from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party after the military’s landslide election loss. Released from prison, in 1993, U Pyinya Zawta became an instructor at Zawtanarama Monastic Institute. He was rearrested again in 1996, but released after being interrogated. In 1998 he was sentenced to seven years in Insein. In 2005, U Pyinya Zawta moved to the Maggin Monastery and opened another study hall and an HIV/AIDS patient support center. In 2007 he helped form and led the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (www.allburmamonksalliance.org) to protest military rule in Burma. Tens of thousands of saffron-robed monks marched through the streets with thousands of civilians, chanting the Buddhist Metta Sutta invocation for loving kindness and peace in the world. As a result, Maggin Monastery was padlocked by the regime and the sitting Abbot was imprisoned. To evade arrest, U Pyinya Zawta fled Rangoon, resurfacing in Thailand in January, 2008. Granted refugee status, he resettled in the US in September, 2008. As Director in Exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, U Pyinya Zawta has spoken extensively around the US, promoting awareness of the Burmese people’s struggle for democratic freedom.

Still today Maggin Monastery remains locked and under the control of the military authorities. In December 2007, just one month after the monastery was raided and locked I visited Maggin Monastery and you can see the video footage below:

With the clock running down we paid our respects, said our thanks and had to head back into Manhatten to collect our bags and leave New York before the storm arrived… I think we’d have both been very happy if the storm came early but unfortunately it wasn’t to be and despite my efforts at stalling in the airport which resulted in a not unusual announcement over the tanoy for certain passengers to hurry up or risk missing their flight we kissed New York a fond farewell and finally USA has made its mark on this work.

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