The ruling junta in Burma is focusing its efforts now on the real threat to its rule: victims of the HIV virus. The most recent salvo in their ongoing attempt to silence the Burmese pro-democracy movement is the shuttering of Maggin Monastery in Rangoon, a temple that has long housed HIV patients seeking treatment in the city. Military officials have relocated the HIV patients to a hospital in another township, and have ordered the monks living in the monastery to find new quarters.
Why close this prominent monastery? For one, the abbot is believed by the military government to be a leader of the monastic protests that shook the government in September. Abbot U Indaka has already been arrested, and now authorities want to prevent his monastery for becoming a rallying point for more protests. Doubtless some of the monks in his monastery share his views on the military government, and one of them could step up to become a leader in his absence.
Finally, the junta has been taking steps since September to try and move monks out of contact with the public. The presence and example of monks- a visible reminder of opposition to the military government, and of the government’s abdication of the traditional government role of protectors and supporters of Buddhist institutions- helped galvanize lay dissidents. Direct service projects- like the Maggin HIV/AIDS hospice- provide opportunities for monks to spread pro-democratic ideas among the public in the form of sermons and talks.
The Burmese junta is in a difficult position. Without giving at least the appearance of support for Buddhist institutions, they may be forced into an increasing number of violent confrontations with the public. At the same time, the monastic institution has shown itself to be an unpredictable ally; while certain temples and monks are content to accept alms from the government, conveying legitimacy on the military government, other monks have proved a thorn in the government’s side, threatening to disrupt the junta’s ongoing rule.
The optimal solution for Burma’s military rulers would be to create a visible but remote ‘show sangha‘, one that can grant legitimacy to the military by serving as a recipient for highly publicized gifts without serving as the nucleus of a challenge to the government. Shutting down institutions where there is significant contact between monks and the public- such as having monks at significant public shrines in Pagan, or the Maggin hospice- is a first step in such a process.