Amu Peter and U Gasta [ Photos by Steve Latimer ]
A little background: I’ve been working as a volunteer activist with Amnesty International since, oh, forever. One of the things Amnesty does is take up the cases of people who’ve been imprisoned (or persecuted or disappeared or otherwise had their lives and human rights trampled upon) because of their beliefs, speech, affiliations, identity, political activities, and so forth.
For the last ten or so years I’ve been part of efforts on behalf of political prisoners in Burma (these days officially called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar), which is run by one of the most despotic, despicable regimes on earth. You may recall the Saffron Revolution of 2007, in which many Burmese, include thousands of Buddhist monks, took to the streets; these protests were put down violently. Some of the monks escaped to the Thai border and were granted refugee status in the U.S. U Pyinya Zawta’s story is the stuff of movies–the difference, of course, being that his story is all too real. While he was making his way out of the country in disguise, the authorities arrested his mother and siblings; fortunately, they were let go once Pyinya Zawta let it be known he had crossed the border. You can read more about U Pyinya Zawta and some of the monks now living in the U.S. in a fascinating article by Susie Poppick.
A handful of people from my New York City Amnesty Group had a chance to visit with U Pyinya Zawta and U Gawsita, who live in a house in Brooklyn (along with a third monk who wasn’t there during our visit). The conversation was helped along by Aung Moe Win, serving as translator.
Despite the difficulty of their situation here (though the monks are living at a very reduced rent, they need financial support, food, and other necessities), the men are doing what they can to assist their brethren still in Burma, including those in prison. They hope to build a monastery in the U.S. that could serve as a home for those who’ve been dispersed around this country. (As Susie Poppick’s article explains, some, placed in regions where there’s no Burmese community, have had to de-robe and take jobs in order to survive.) Our conversation ranged from our efforts on behalf of Myo Min Zaw, a student leader currently serving a 52-year sentence in a remote northern prison, to U.S. relations with Burma, to the realities of the men’s lives in New York City.
I’ll leave this post here and urge you to read Poppick’s article (downloadable above), to find out more about Myo Min Zaw and other prisoners of conscience in Burma (including a simple way you can help), and to see Burma VJ, an Academy Award-nominated documentary about the Saffron Revolution.
[ Photos by Steve Latimer ]
The purpose of the meeting was for the two groups to get to know each other better and to see ways of helping each other. The history of the development of AI Group 9/280 and the history of how the monks arrived in Brooklyn were shared.
In addition, over the course of approximately two hours, we discussed a range of topics including U.S. policy toward Burma, what life is like for the monks who received asylum in the U.S., the likelihood of a fundamental change to the government in Burma, the monks' efforts to assist monks imprisoned in Burma, the monk's hope to build a monastery in the U.S. that could house those who've been dispersed around the country, and Group 9/280's efforts on behalf of AI-designated prisoner of conscience Myo Min Zaw (MMZ).
Knowing of the monks' network within Burma, we asked if it would be possible for the monks to help us discretely deliver our gift to the family. The monks told us that they had been able to confirm that MMZ is indeed in Patao prison, and to secure the address of MMZ's family in Yangon (Rangoon). They said it could take a week for the family to travel to the prison, unless they were able to travel by plane.
Responding to a question about what sort of gift might be meaningful, U Pyinya Zawta, the head monk, suggested that a trip to the prison, the purchase of supplies for MMZ, and the cost of sending and converting money, might be about $300 (to cover approximately 3 months). A report about how the funds were actually spent would be forthcoming.
We also asked what the immediate needs of the monks were. We came to understand that their needs are many. While they are living at a very reduced rate in a house owned by Stephan Poppick, they do need financial support. In Burma, monks survive by begging. Here, they need money for food, and food preparation as well as for supporting the goals of their Alliance.
While they're taking English classes, they also need additional practice. Several AI members including Gayle Johnson, Jennifer French, and Paul Pavese volunteered to set up a schedule to visit the monastery weekly so that U Pyinya Zawta, U Gawsita and U Agga Nyana, the third month living there (who was not present at the meeting), can practice English conversation.
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