A Visit To the Monks of Bed-Stuy

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. (More about Amnesty International here.)

Helen Thomas Williams, Susan Forste, U Pyinya Zawta, U Gawsita, Aung Moe Win. Photo by Steve Latimer.

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.

Puta-O, where Myo Min Zaw is imprisoned at "A"; the remote location means it's very difficult for his family (in Yangon, near the southern tip) to visit and bring him necessities.

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.

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