From the Archive

Confessions of a Bogus Monk

By Aung Zaw 8 August 2017

In commemorating the 29th anniversary of the 1988 Uprising, The Irrawaddy revisits the personal account of its founding editor-in-chief Aung Zaw on how he avoided the arrest of authorities by living as a monk in Kayan on the outskirts of Yangon, then known as Rangoon. It was originally posted in August 2010.

When my mother visited me in Kayan that day in June 1988, I could see she was nervous and that something had made her afraid. As we sat down in the living room of our relatives’ house, where I was temporarily staying, she whispered: “They came and looked for you last night at our house.”

“They” were military intelligence officers. A friendly local official had already tipped me off about a possible visit after the officers showed him my photograph and asked him if he knew my whereabouts.

I had taken part with student comrades in a week of campus protests. The regime had shut down all colleges and schools again after clashes in which scores of students were killed. My friends and I decided to go into hiding—it was a choice between going underground and probably returning to Insein Prison, where I had been briefly detained and roughly interrogated in March.

I sought shelter with my relatives in Kayan. But I still felt insecure, and concerned about my relatives, particularly after the news my mother had brought.

By chance, a respected abbot from Day Pauk village was visiting my relatives’ house when my mother called. When he heard that military intelligence were after me he immediately offered to accommodate me at his monastery, the well-known Day Pauk Kyaung. I gratefully accepted the offer.

Within the hour, I was aboard a boat with the abbot, heading along a small creek to the monastery. As we passed people on shore or in other boats respects were paid to the revered abbot.

Day Pauk Kyaung sits in a beautiful location, in the midst of paddy fields, a few kilometers from Day Pauk village.

The abbot was excited to have a new guest at his rundown monastery, which housed only a few student monks. The morning after my arrival, he shaved my head, gave me set of monk’s robes and I breakfasted on the alms we had received.

“You are now koyin gyi,” he said with a broad smile, “Don’t worry, I will protect you. Just don’t say who you are and where you come from.” Young novice monks danced around me as my hair was cut, welcoming a new friend to the monastery.

The abbot offered me a mantra to chant every morning to keep danger at bay and avoid capture by military intelligence. He was clearly political although he kept his thoughts much to himself.

When news of the bloody suppression of the student protests in August reached the monastery, however, the abbot told an assembly of local villagers openly that they had to fight for justice.

I felt lonely and restless at the monastery, and meditation offered no help. A visit by my mother and relatives cheered me up briefly.

My mother told me that some of my former student comrades were also in hiding in Upper Burma and that a number of them were in monasteries. Some had been caught and were in prison. Student activists were still holding small, sporadic protests in Rangoon, my mother said.

I yearned for news from Rangoon and elsewhere in the country and rejoiced when a local man brought to the temple an old radio on which I was able—after repairs by one of the monks—to hear broadcasts by the Burmese service of the BBC.

There were very few radios in Day Pauk and most villagers wanting to hear news of outside events gathered at the house of the village headman to listen to his. In candlelit corners of his home, they sat and puffed on their cheroots while reports came in of the bloodshed in Rangoon.

I joined them once when my radio needed repair, and while the villagers greeted me with respect the village headman seemed suspicious.

I suspected that they had seen through my disguise and I certainly gave them cause. At one religious ceremony attended by monks and abbots from other monasteries, I was unable to join in the chants. Villagers stared at me and began to whisper and laugh.

The abbot seemed unconcerned by the possibility that I might be exposed as a bogus monk—and the next day a woman and her young daughter came to the monastery and handed me a meat dish, a pleasant change from the daily diet of beans.

The owner of my old radio visited me most evenings and puffed away on a long cheroot.

I was sure he wondered why a young monk was so interested in listening to BBC broadcasts and never talked about monastery life, but he never asked.

The abbot also followed the news from Rangoon very closely and he often engaged in heated political debates with other monks.

When the abbot was absent, I sometimes joined an assistant monk on boat trips to other villages. We often arrived just as families were settling down to their evening meal and my companion asked them to prepare some tasty dishes for his hungry young activist friend—unable himself to partake of the food because of his monastic routine.

I wanted desperately to return to Rangoon when I learned news of the shooting and violence there but all roads leading to the city were blocked. I set out, nevertheless, leaving the monastery without informing the abbot.

Before I left, and still in my monk’s robes, I addressed rallies of students and villagers in Day Pauk, where a school principal and a teacher were organizing a mass protest. I finally confessed that I was not real monk.

The owner of the old radio set on which I had been kept so well informed smiled and applauded. He had known of my disguise all along. Evidently, the uprising had spread everywhere…