In Person

‘Power is a Dangerous Thing’

By The Irrawaddy 8 August 2017

Kyaw Zwa Moe: I am at the monastery of Sayadaw U Khaymar Nanda, who is better known as the 8888 Sayadaw, in Taunggyi. He served as the chairman of the Young Monks’ Union during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, and was arrested immediately after the military mounted a coup and imprisoned for six years. Today, he still believes—as he once said in a speech—that cows are the only creatures that don’t want democracy, and he has continuously supported the cause. I will discuss his confidence in democracy, the involvement of authorities in the Depayin Massacre, and his views on today’s political landscape. I’m Irrawaddy English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

You are widely known as the 8888 Sayadaw in Taunggyi, and for the time being, I think you are the only person in the country who dares to claim that title. You served the cause of democracy long before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government came to power. Would you explain how you became known as the 8888 Sayadaw?

Khaymar Nanda: During the 88 uprising, young monks from every monastery in Taunggyi gathered and formed the Shan State Young Monks’ Union. The union had 11 executive committee members. We decided to serve our country and told ourselves that politics was not about getting power for ourselves; we monks had to take part in issues of livelihood, health and education for the people. I said, “If we get engaged in politics, we will die or be jailed. If we are unlucky, we die. If we are lucky, we’re jailed.” So, we prepared for the worst. As soon as we formed the young monks’ union, we occupied the office of the Burma Socialist Programme Party in Taunggyi. So, [party cadres] had a grudge against us. They threatened and swore at us over the phone.

KZM: At that time, the government was the Burma Socialist Programme Party.

KN: Yes, it was the BSPP. They swore at us and we let them swear, telling ourselves that they would stop when they got tired. Then, BSPP party members from the entire township handed us their party membership cards, saying they were no longer party members. We accepted the cards. We actively engaged in the 1988 democracy uprising in Shan State and my name became known as the chairman of the young monks’ union.

As chairman, I had to advise junior monks. I told them that we were Buddhist monks and that there are both commandments of the Buddhist Order as well as secular law, and that we must not break those laws. We took actions that would not breach either of these laws.

The whole country wanted democracy. In a speech I said blatantly that “only cows don’t like democracy.” Every human likes democracy. The junior monks avoided breaking the laws, and they listened to me. The [BSPP] party cadres treated people unfairly while they were in power. And when they were about to give up their power, they didn’t dare to sleep in their own houses. They asked us to protect their lives and property. I told people: “What we want is democracy. We don’t want violence, death or torture. Democracy has to follow laws and discipline.” There must be respect for these values in a democracy. So, none of their homes were destroyed and none of the party cadres were attacked during the 1988 uprising

Shan State was peaceful at that time. I dare to say that Shan State enjoyed real democracy then. So, it was convenient for us to do our tasks. At that time, soldiers were not allowed to leave their camps. Some of the soldiers had been outside the camps [before the order was issued], and we members of the young monks’ union systematically brought them back to their battalions. We walked on the path to democracy with optimism.

KZM: So you have the title 8888 Sayadaw. But you were arrested immediately after the military staged a coup on September 18 after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

KN: Soldiers came to our monks’ union building on September 19 and opened fire on us. We had blocked the gate. When I heard the shooting, I told my junior, including Maung Ottara, who is in London now: “When we formed the young monks’ union, we already knew the two outcomes. Lucky, we’re jailed. Unlucky, we die. We knew the ending. So, if I am lucky, I will be jailed because many people have already been killed on the roadside.”

It was about 6 a.m. We turned ourselves in and said, “You may arrest us now.” But, the commander of that military column, Lt-Col Aung Hsan of Light Infantry Battalion 17, said he didn’t want the other monks, he only wanted Sayadaw Khaymar Nanda.

KZM: They wanted to arrest only you.

KN: Yes. So, I said, “It is me.” I don’t eat meat during the Buddhist Lent and at that time I had a small blanket draped over my shoulders and was counting Buddhist prayer beads brought from Bodh Gaya [the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, in India]. Cpt Myint Lwin and Lt Naing Oo [of the Myanmar Army] pointed their guns at me. I still remember their names although I don’t know their service numbers. I asked them why they were pointing their guns at me when I had no weapon. I undid my robe and only then did they put down their guns. Then, I saw a boy named Yin Maung Than dying in front of us. He ran errands for our young monks’ union. He was shot from the right side and the bullet tore through his left cheek.

KZM: Was he shot in front of you?

KN: Yes. He was in ninth grade, I think. I was sad to see him dying, blood pouring out of his cheek. But I could do nothing, as I had been arrested. Then, soldiers took me. Lt-Col Aung Hsan walked in front of me and Cpt Myint Lwin and Lte Aung Naing Oo were behind.

We had a monk, U Pinnavumsa, who was responsible for security in the monks’ union. Monks in the union had different duties. U Pinnavumsa was an ex-military officer; he understood military affairs and guns. So, we assigned him the responsibility of security.

At that time, police were not allowed to take their guns when leaving their stations. But the previous night, a policeman named Ko Nu took a B-52 Sten gun. My disciples in charge of security were suspicious of him, so they arrested him and seized his gun, which they handed over to U Pinnavumsa. He knew nothing about my arrest but there were many people on the street. So, when he saw the soldiers, he told them that there was a brawl between some young men and the police last night, and asked them if he was to give the gun back to the policeman or to the soldiers. Lt-Col Aung Hsan took the gun and when we got near the Shan Mintha Teashop—today it is called Shwe Keinnar—Lt-Col Aung San told the military intelligence official that I was found with a gun and arrested.

I said, “You are a military official, why do you lie? I engaged in the democracy uprising because I don’t like dishonesty. Don’t lie. You brought the gun. I had nothing to do with it. Tell him the truth.” The intelligence official said he would handle it, and put me into a prisoner transport vehicle. Then, there was an announcement on the radio that the chairman of the Shan State Young Monks’ Union was arrested with B-52 Sten gun. I can’t accept lies, so I pushed back aggressively. They didn’t like it. At that time, the commander was Maj-Gen Maung Aye.

KZM: Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye who retired with Snr-Gen Than Shwe? He was the commander there then? How was he involved in your arrest?

KN: Yes, he was primarily responsible for my arrest. He was the most accountable person in Taunggyi. I was put into a prisoner transport vehicle along with Dr. Tin Win, the leader of the strike [in Taunggyi], U Cho of the EPC, bank manager U Win Maung, and teacher Ko Myint Than. They had been arrested before me. Their heads were covered in bags.

KZM: They were covered in balaclavas?

KN: Yes, but I recognized them from their clothing because they were familiar to me. U Win Maung heard my voice and asked, “Sayadaw, is that you?” I said yes, and he told me that he could not breathe. I removed his balaclava and a soldier on guard asked me why I did that. I said, “Because it is humane. He’ll die if it isn’t taken off. You can arrest and imprison people but you should not treat them like this.”

We were brought to the Eastern Command [of the Myanmar Army]. When we arrived, they covered my head with a bag used to pack dried fish. And the balaclavas of the others were also changed. A soldier asked his senior if he had to cover the head of the monk, and he replied that I was no longer a monk after getting on that vehicle. The bag they put over my head smelled so bad that I could not breathe. Whenever I see dried fish, I remember that day. If I am offered fish curry, memories of that day come flooding back.

KZM: Were you put behind bars immediately? How many years were you imprisoned?

KN: I was released in 1993 and imprisoned for about six years. I had many troubles while in prison and during the interrogation process. I heard that military officers didn’t use force on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during the interrogation process in consideration of her father.

KZM: It has been almost 30 years since 1988, and the eras have changed – the Burma Socialist Programme Party, two military regimes, and U Thein Sein’s administration, which was a government of ex-generals. Now, the government is led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who you supported. What is your assessment of the political situation today? Do you find it satisfactory?

KN: No. Many reforms remain to be done in respective sectors of our constitutional democracy. We’ve only seen the dawn of democracy; the light has yet to come out.

KZM: Which parts need reform and how can those changes be introduced? As everyone knows, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the State Counselor and U Htin Kyaw is the President, proposed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But three ministries – home affairs, defense, and border affairs – are still held by the military. Looking at the overall administrative mechanism, only the top positions are held by the NLD and the rest are the old guard. Where do you think that change should start?

KN: Of the many things to be changed, the Constitution should come first. Only after that happens, can other changes be introduced according to the new Constitution. Otherwise, the results will not be good.

KZM: Like the fact that 25 percent of seats are reserved constitutionally for the military in Parliament?

KN: Yes, we are building a democracy and it should be democratic.

KZM: I’m afraid it won’t be that easy or practical. The Tatmadaw [Myanmar Army] is a powerful institution that has engaged in and taken control of all sectors including politics and the economy. It used to have complete control of these. It has reduced its control but still maintains a large hold due to the Constitution. It’s not easy, is it?

KN: Rather than thinking about whether it’s easy, we have to work for what we want. The Tatmadaw maintains its grip on key sectors, but I believe that it will let go and transfer it someday.

KZM: But how long will it take?

KN: It is difficult to predict. We will have to wait and see. Sometimes unexpected things happen. For instance, [NLD Muslim legal adviser] U Ko Ni was assassinated. It was an extremist act. As a Buddhist monk, I don’t discuss race or religious issues. They have their faith and I have mine.

A ritual was held here to mark the seventh day after U Ko Ni’s death. Most of the attendees were Muslim. The ritual involved pouring water into a container [done in the manner of sharing merits for the deceased], and I asked Muslim attendees to recite after me. I told them that I was not asking them to recite the five precepts of Buddhism, but to pray and share merits, and therefore followers of any religion could do it. They were satisfied with my explanation and recited willingly after me.

There will be harmony when there is an understanding of each other. U Ko Ni was Muslim. But his death means that we lost a legal expert in our country and we regret this because he could have contributed greatly. This has nothing to do with race or religion. How smart ambassador U Pe Khin was, and how smart U Ko Ni was! We’ve lost the scholars who the country could use. This is a loss for the country.

KZM: U Ko Ni continuously talked about amending the 2008 Constitution. And he was also a legal adviser to the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. His assassination raised questions. The assassin was arrested, but people speculate that there was a mastermind behind it. What do you think?

KN: As soon as I heard about the assassination, I told my laypeople that the killer was a contract killer, paid to kill U Ko Ni. This is something that requires caution in our country. I have always wanted to urge Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to take caution. She loves people and people love her.

We Myanmar people have a habit of giving away gifts and flowers as a token of love. But this is worrying from a security perspective. U Ko Ni’s assassination is an example. He was shot during the day at the airport in Yangon. This is concerning. There must be a mastermind and he needs to be held accountable to avoid such cases in the future.

KZM: In our country, there were assassinations in successive periods, Gen Aung San and his colleagues were assassinated in 1947. Karen ethnic leader Saw Ba U Gyi was killed and there were also reciprocal killings between split communist groups. In 2008, Karen National Union (KNU) leader Padoh Mahn Sha was killed, and nine years later U Ko Ni was killed. Is this inclination for assassination really linked with political extremism? It has persisted for a long time. When do you think it will end?

KN: Myanmar people are not inept, but they are naïve. We need to be able to distinguish between incompetence and naivety. Ko Kyi Lin killed U Ko Ni and Galon U Saw and his accomplices assassinated Gen Aung San. They were not incompetent people, I assess. I’m not praising them. They were competent people but they were extremists. Regarding the question of how to end this inclination, I’ve always said that the majority in our country is Buddhist. Our first commandment is to abstain from killing, even insects. Killing is shameful to us. Followers of Islam did not call out when U Ko Ni was assassinated, but what would have happened if a Buddhist lawyer was killed instead of a Muslim? Our people need to have a mature mentality. Unless they are enlightened, this inclination will continue.

KZM: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo visited your monastery in 2002. It was before the Depayin Massacre in which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade was attacked. What did you know about the attack, and what did you talk about with her prior to it?

KN: The political storm was quite strong at that time because military intelligence was so powerful. I was quite pleased that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited me. I warmly welcomed them. There was a Union Solidarity and Development Association office near my monastery. I heard them say they would attack her if she came to the ward. The person I heard say that is still alive. I was not shocked by what he said. They had their own views. But, I tried to provide security for her.

Some police and military intelligence officials were my disciples. They told me that her visit was worrying. I asked why, and they told me to think about it but that they could not provide details. I understood but I said there was nothing to worry about because she served the people.

Police were conducting drills with sticks and shields and I asked the police chief what they intended to do. He said they were following orders from the home affairs minister. I said she had been allowed to leave Yangon freely; what would they do to her in Taunggyi? Police said she could leave Taunggyi safely. But I told her and U Tin Oo that I was worried for their safety. Then, I heard about the attack in Depayin.

A junior monk from Amarapura Township called and asked me if anything had happened in Taunggyi. I said no. He said some 100 monks were asked to gather in his township to attack Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I was shocked and told him not to join or else history will remember him badly. I asked when the attack would occur and he said on the Sagaing Bridge.

KZM: So, they were asked to gather by the authorities?

KN: He said that authorities from the township peace and development council asked the monks to gather. Think about it. If someone was attacked on the Sagaing Bridge, he would die falling off the bridge, if not from the beating. Those in power used even monks in this way. Power is a dangerous thing. Those who indulge in power do not care about Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, or their parents and teachers. They do not hesitate to exploit the Sangha to maintain power. This is evil and unacceptable.

KZM: Thank you.