A Man Escaped

How one Burmese monk escaped the clutches of his country’s military dictatorship—and found refuge in an India that continues to pursue close relations with his country’s repressive regime

Ashin Panna Siri, A Burmese Buddhist monk who played a key role in the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution,’ at his new home in Vikaspuri, Delhi. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SAMI SIVA
Elections 2024
01 November, 2010

"I USED TO LIKE WALKING in the jungle, even when I was young. I would go mostly with my friends. We would climb trees. We had this game, you may know it, you cut the bamboo and you fill it with water and seal it, and throw it on the fire—it would explode. I was about 10 or 11 years old.” Ashin Panna Siri was giggling, revelling in his memories. Then he went silent, and withdrew into himself.

“What kind of questions do you want to ask me?” he said, after a long pause. I told the 30-year-old Burmese Buddhist monk that I wanted to know about his life, about his future, and the future of his country.

“My life and my future, they are not important,” he replied. “The future of my country is.”

The nightmares still pierce through Ashin Panna Siri’s dreams and stain his sleep. They drag him back to the dark cells where he was beaten and sexually humiliated by men from Burma’s Military Affairs Security.

“Sometimes I am in prison again. I meet the police and soldiers in the dream. Sometimes I am running and they are following me,” he said. “Sometimes I get the nightmares back, especially when I feel depressed and disappointed.”

“On my right side, one man, and my left side one man, holding my arms, the questioner was in front of me,” Panna recalled. “One of the men behind me would kick me. One of the men in front of me would kick me. They would crush my toes with their boots. They handcuffed me with my hands behind my back. It was really terrible, really shameful…what to say? Cruel, very cruel. They speak to each other, ‘What kind of person is a monk?’ Whether I have male or female organs. They would say to each other, ‘I will test.’”

Khim Maung Si, a leader of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, holds a portrait of General Aung San, father of the jailed leader Aung San Suu Kyi. {{name}}

He stopped talking, taking care to avoid eye contact. Silence filled the room. This torture is probably still happening—right at this moment, as I’m writing these words—to some of the 2,200 men and women currently imprisoned in Burma for speaking out against the country’s ruling junta. In the hard labour camps located right across the Indian border—just as in North Korean internment centres or Iranian prisons—detainees are stripped of their rights and their hope. Guards and interrogators can do pretty much as they like: beat, torture and interrogate you, work you to death, starve you, sexually abuse you. And that’s what they did to Panna—until he escaped.

Panna’s crime, in the eyes of the Burmese junta, was to have helped lead the sea of more than 20,000 monks, chanting Buddhist prayers, who poured into the monsoon-drenched streets of Burma’s cities to protest against the regime in September 2007. He was among those who organised the mass pro-democracy demonstrations that took place in Mandalay, the former royal capital and Burma’s second-largest city. The monks called on the junta to address the country’s crippling poverty and end its political repression, and their demands were clear: the regime should publicly apologise for beating and arresting protesting monks; reduce fuel prices; release all political prisoners including detained National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and negotiate with the NLD and other ethnic opposition parties.

Images of the peaceful protests—dubbed the Saffron Revolution—appeared around the world, and soon the uprising swelled as tens of thousands of laypeople joined the demonstrations. The monks had clearly tapped into the seething resentment of 57 million Burmese toward their ruling military dictatorship. The protests intensified as the more radical members of the Sangha, or monkhood, refused to accept alms from the government and the military. This seemingly insignificant gesture spoke volumes. By refusing donations from the regime, some elements of the Sangha—Burma’s most revered institution—cut ties with the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), effectively denying the junta any moral legitimacy to rule.

The regime did not expect the monks to stand their ground. But they did, and in late September, the government exacted its revenge: martial law was imposed and tanks, trucks and helicopters were deployed to frighten the monks back into their monasteries. As military helicopters hovered overhead, soldiers, armed with teargas, water cannons and live ammunition, were given orders to shoot. On 26 September, around lunchtime, troops in Mandalay opened fire on protestors marching near the junction of 84th street and 35th street.

“They were aiming their guns at us. Later my voice started shaking because they said, ‘We are ready to shoot,’” Panna recalled. “They were becoming angry. The soldiers were shouting, ‘Go back to your monasteries and to your houses.’ The people were clapping and making jokes because we did not want to hear their voice. The atmosphere then was not so serious. We did not realise what was going to happen.” The bullets met the monks and nuns head on. Official figures vary, but it is estimated that more than 31 people were killed. Thousands more were dragged off into waiting army vans. In the weeks that followed, the army began to systematically arrest those suspected of being involved in the protests. Panna had no choice but to flee. He and fellow monk U Gambira, another leader of the pro-democracy group that spearheaded the uprisings—the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (ABMA)—spent almost three weeks on the run in central Burma, sleeping rough and in safehouses. But one evening in October 2007, Panna’s luck ran out and he was captured. After a week of relentless interrogations in a police station in Monywa, military intelligence officers transferred him to the city’s prison and he was charged with illegally holding foreign currency. In January 2008, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in a hard labour camp.

Panna paused as he recalled the memory of being sent to Lin Dan labour camp in remote northwest Burma, around 50 kilometres from the Indian border. Every day was the same; prisoners were chained together and forced to work on repairing a mountainous highway. Armed officers with guard dogs made sure the chain gangs did not slack off. “The police followed the prisoners everywhere,” he said. “If you went outside for work, they will guard the prisoners. They had guns. The food was really horrible. Even breakfast, one glass of rice, no more. We had to be satisfied with that. The rice was a red colour, mixed with rat faeces and mostly stones. We had no time to remove the stones. Some prisoners wanted to run away. If they [runaways] were arrested, they were terribly beaten and kicked. Some prisoners were beaten to death.”

Realising he would not survive the camp, Panna decided to escape. Two years ago, at around 1 am one freezing September night, while armed prison guards were asleep in a sentry hut, he scaled two barbed wire fences. The journey westward to India and freedom took two days and nights across mountains and dense jungle. Alone and on foot, Panna stayed away from main roads and highways for fear the Burmese authorities would hunt him down. He is the only detained member of the ABMA to have escaped.

“I just ran and ran and when I feel exhausted, I climb trees and take a rest for ten to 15 minutes,” he said. On the ground, he explained, “there were a lot of leeches.” “I was a little afraid,” Panna continued, “but I felt wonderful, amazing.”

A woman points to the map of Burma. {{name}}

It was a journey that led him to the Indian capital. Two years on, he has official refugee status from the United Nations refugee agency, one of 3,700 Burmese officially seeking refuge in India, though the number of unofficial Burmese refugees is likely to be far higher.

It seems strange that Panna’s story rests here, in the unremarkable suburbia of Vikaspuri in west Delhi, where most of the 5,000-strong exiled Burmese community in the capital live. A white sign with the swirls of the Burmese script above the door to Panna’s new home reads ‘Shwe Wa Yaung’ (Golden Saffron) Monastery. In one of the rooms at the back, he pointed to a photo on a desktop computer of some monks gathered in Mandalay when the ABMA was created in 2007: “He is missing; he is missing,” Panna motioned, pointing to two monks in the image. Around 4,000 people disappeared or were jailed after the junta smothered the demonstrations three years ago. Today, around 255 monks are political prisoners in Burma. Many more remain in hiding or have been forced to leave.

Burma’s recent history reads like a glossary of state-sponsored brutality. Human rights groups have catalogued the regime’s merciless retaliatory campaigns against ethnic insurgent movements in the country, as well as its systematic use of forced labour, child soldiers, rape, torture and murder. In September, the US and the EU backed calls for the UN to set up an international commission of inquiry to investigate whether the SPDC has committed crimes against humanity.

When Burma gained its freedom from the British in 1948 with the revolutionary leader Bogyoke Aung San at the helm of the new Democratic Republic of the Union of Burma, its people had high hopes. But the country was torn apart when a group of generals seized power in a coup in 1962. The military government forced through a disastrous mix of political and economic policies known as the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism.’ Fast forward almost half a century, and largely thanks to their greed and mismanagement, resource-rich Burma is now the poorest country in Southeast Asia and among the most corrupt in the world.

This is where the monks come in. Parts of the country’s 400,000-strong Sangha have a long history of standing up to repression, a radicalism that stems back to the 1920s, when dissident monks were vocal opponents of British colonial rule. More recently, monks who spoke out against the country’s military rulers were detained and tortured by the regime from the 1970s to the 1990s. Buddhist doctrine dictates that monks should remain apolitical, so they normally shy away from politics and have no direct influence over the junta. But what they say and do matters in a country in which around 80 percent of people are Theravada Buddhists. Theological tradition also demands that the Sangha must intervene if it fears that the wellbeing of the people or the faith are in danger.

Today, renewed surveillance of radical monks, the razing of some monasteries and the junta’s refusal to atone for the brutality of 2007 means the generals have not been forgiven. The boycott of donations from the military continues and the Sangha still fears that the regime is out to destroy the faith and Burma’s future prosperity. In this sense, the protests that Panna helped lead marked a radical change, because the regime’s attacks on the demonstrating monks led many Burmese to fear that the future of Buddhism was at stake. This perception of a threat to the faith, coupled with further deterioration in the country’s economy, has convinced many analysts that more monk-led mass demonstrations may take place.

Burmese refugee families share a tiny apartment in Vikaspuri. These men and women escaped from Burma to avoid reprisal for their involvement in the freedom movement. {{name}}

“The monks are seen as the last refuge of truth,” says Professor Ingrid Jordt, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, “so when the regime goes after them, no longer even making a show of respect to the monks or religion, the monks feel that this is a sign of the destruction of their religion. What is at stake now is not just that a monk be able to practice the religion, but the religion itself. Once that dynamic has shifted, I think we may see the possibility for a spontaneous uprising but probably connected to some kind of economic pressure.”

When soldiers started killing monks three years ago, India’s petroleum and natural gas minister, Murli Deora, was in Burma signing deals worth 150 million dollars with the junta-led Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise. The deals meant that the Indian state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation could carry out deep-sea gas exploration off Burma’s Rakhine coast.

Despite sharing a huge border and close historical, cultural and religious ties, the two countries have had a rocky relationship. From 1962 until the early 1990s, New Delhi’s view of state repression in Burma was rooted in Nehruvian principles of morality. India gave sanctuary to Burmese dissidents and was a vocal critic of the slaughter of more than 3,000 men and women in Burma in 1988, gunned down when millions peacefully protested for economic and political change. But that all began to change with India’s financial reforms of 1991, when the Indian government decided the country’s economic growth was tied to bilateral trade with nations like Burma. The advent of India’s ‘Look East’ policy also coincided with Burma’s decision to legalise cross-border trade. The U-turn in policy that followed has led to a shift in Indo-Burmese relations characterised by India turning a blind eye to the SPDC’s brutality. Flashes of despotism in Burma are regarded as ‘internal’ matters. Now, when ministers in the world’s largest democracy look across the border at their neighbour, a few factors dominate the skyline; they want to build on India’s economic growth by securing stable access to energy via Burma’s massive supplies of hydro-electricity, oil, minerals and natural gas; they want to deal with the insurgents on India’s northeastern border and they want to check China’s expanding influence in Southeast Asia.

In a clear sign of the radical shift in New Delhi’s stance towards Burma, Senior General Than Shwe, the 77-year-old SPDC chairman, was in India this July for his second state visit. After a visit to Bodhgaya, presumably intended to atone for his sins against the monks, the main item on Than Shwe’s agenda was the pursuit of new gas, oil and mining deals with India. Annual bilateral trade between the two countries is currently only worth around 1 billion dollars—a tiny amount that both governments appear eager to increase. While India needs energy, Burma wants foreign currency: supplying its military costs money—around 330 million dollars a year, according to the estimates of economists. Billions of dollars in gas revenues are also siphoned off by the Burmese regime, which means money earned from its lucrative international energy deals that should pay for schools, hospitals and roads ends up in bank accounts in Singapore. These are huge stashes of cash that avoid scrutiny from international sanctions. Never mind that the average father or husband in Burma struggles to feed his family, earning barely more than a dollar a day, with GDP per capita now at 400 dollars.

Ashin Panna Siri at Saffron Vihar in Vikaspuri, Delhi. {{name}}

India isn’t the only country doing business with Burma: China is Burma’s biggest political, military and financial ally, and Sino-Burmese trade is almost three times the size of Burma’s commerce with India. Burma is also a convenient shortcut for China to the Indian Ocean, the vast expanse of water that New Delhi regards as its own and that Beijing wants to muscle in on to improve its trade routes. When two Chinese warships were for the first time given access to Burmese waters this September, the foray was a clear sign of Beijing’s growing strategic and military designs in India’s backyard and strengthening ties between Naypyidaw and Beijing. So the reasons for India to turn a blind eye to Burma’s excesses keep stacking up. It’s a stance that doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.

While India and China jostle to do business with the Burmese regime, the junta is savvy enough to play its two burgeoning neighbours off each other, though the regime realises that for reasons both economic and political, it can’t afford to antagonise Beijing, whose permanent seat on the UN Security Council has been used to protect Naypyidaw. Meanwhile, Russia and the Ukraine also sell arms to Burma’s regime. The Burmese Air Force recently bought 50 Mi-24 combat helicopters from Moscow. It’s not clear how much the SPDC paid for them, but there’s little doubt that the money came from its gas and oil profits. The gunships—Naypyidaw’s first combat-equipped helicopters—are reported to be for counter-insurgency operations, but they are almost certain to be deployed against unarmed demonstrators when the regime next deems it necessary.

While it’s clear India isn’t doing much to try to push the SPDC to reform, even if it did, would the generals listen? Probably not. Burma really doesn’t need India that much—China, Singapore and Russia are more valuable allies. And thanks to its treasure trove of natural resources, Naypyidaw won’t retreat into self-enforced economic isolation, as it did in the past, and won’t take kindly to be being bullied by anyone. Dr Marie Lall, a South Asia specialist at Chatham House in London, says: “Burma needs both countries [India and China] economically, especially China. I don’t think economic isolation is on the cards. Given the natural resources that they have, I don’t think they will ever let either country, China or India, dictate what they do.” Burma’s dictators, in other words, will not wall themselves off from the world—as they have sometimes done in the past—when they know they can do business with China, India and Thailand.

Burma’s generals have spent decades ignoring both the carrot of Asian governments and the stick wielded by Western countries demanding reforms. The SPDC has preferred to spend its time fine-tuning a way to institutionalise its political power. This month, Burmese citizens will head to the polls for the first time in two decades to vote in legislative elections, which could have been an occasion for a return to some semblance of democracy and for the devolution of power to the country’s diverse array of ethnic groups. But it seems pretty clear this isn’t what the junta has in mind. Rewind the tape not so far back, around two decades, and you’ll see why.

Once upon a time there was a young woman, the daughter of a national hero. Her name was Aung San Suu Kyi and as leader of the NLD, she won an election in 1990 to rightfully lead her country. But that didn’t fit in with generals’ endgame. So they ignored the results and locked her up. More than 20 years on, she’s still there, waiting. So this month’s polls were never going to be ‘free and fair’ as the international community—including India—pointlessly insisted they should be. The regime decided beforehand that the playing field wouldn’t be level by barring anyone currently in jail from standing in the elections, annulling the 1990 elections results and forcing through a constitution that guaranteed the military 25 percent of all seats at national and local levels. It was a thinly veiled attempt to stop Aung San Suu Kyi and scores of other detained opposition political leaders from contesting any seats. But the question of whether this month’s elections could usher in any positive change, no matter how small, is a debate that has divided analysts. There are no easy answers. But influential NGOs like the International Crisis Group have argued the elections may be a way to implement slow change. The real debate, they and other experts—including Lall—say, should focus on whether the polls have put in place an electoral structure that in time could lead to gradual reform; Burma’s constitution means opposition candidates could for the first time have some influence in Burma’s 14 regional legislatures.

To be fair, it’s clear that change in Burma, if it does happen, will be a painstaking transition rather than spontaneous regime-change. Burma isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan. Suicide bombs don’t go off and foreign armies don’t come trundling through rushing to save the day. Every couple of years, Aung San Suu Kyi’s plight flashes onto the international radar screen and makes a small blip. Western officials make their statements, while behind the scenes, governments like the Chinese apply a little pressure on the SPDC, and then it’s back to business as usual. The rest of the world looks the other way while people who rock the boat in Burma are followed by the military intelligence, threatened, and then disappear.

Panna managed to escape this fate, but his comrade U Gambira was not so lucky: in November 2007, he was sentenced to a 68-year prison term (later commuted to a mere 63 years) for his part in helping to organise the 2007 protests. Now Panna is piecing together a new life in Delhi, working to improve his English and his computer skills.

He is a child of this regime, born into a country ruled by one of the world’s longest dictatorships. He remains, despite all that he has suffered, a sharp young man: bright, funny, vulnerable, thoughtful and, despite his regular refrain—“my English is not so good”—articulate. The boy who hadn’t seen a car until he was 14 years old, who entered the Sangha as a teenager to fulfil the wishes of his grandmother, grew up to lead a revolution in his land, one that briefly stirred the conscience of the world before it was crushed by the regime that tortured him and drove him into exile.

But his home is a beautiful country, and one that he hopes he can return to. As I trespass into the minefield of his memories, there is no visible trace of the scars all those beatings left behind. But the imprint is there; carved into him so that it is as much a part of Panna as his commitment to his faith. “Sometimes, it’s incredible. If I think [about] my experience again…it’s too [much] for me but now I

can overcome. I have no choice. I don’t regret, I do for the benefit of my people and my country,” he said. “I do the things as best as I can. That’s why, even if they kill me, it’s worth dying.”