News at Tipitaka Network
Monk's protest efforts lead him to Utica, Oscars acclaim
By CASSAUNDRA BABER, Observer-Dispatch, Saturday, February 27, 2010
(UTICA, Oneida) A Utica resident is a key figure in an Oscar-nominated documentary about civilian protest in one of the world’s most repressive nations. In September 2007, U Gawsita led fellow monks and tens of thousands of Burmese residents through Rangoon in Myanmar (formerly Burma), in opposition to the country’s longstanding military regime.
“We young monks who follow Buddha’s teachings must now join the protest,” U Gawsita shouted into a bullhorn, demanding reconciliation, dialogue and the release of political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
It would all be captured by undercover video journalists whose footage would be spread throughout the country and the world.
That video and other secretly filmed footage became the basis for the 2009 documentary “Burma VJ,” which has earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Documentary Feature.
The Oscar ceremony airs Sunday, March 7.
For the people of Burma, the dissemination of those videos meant the world would become aware of their country’s suffering. For U Gawsita personally, however, it brought the threat of death and ultimately brought him to Utica.
Last week, U Gawsita recalled the protests and their aftermath from his home in Utica where he lives with fellow monk Agga Nya Na and two other monks who fled Burma a year ago.
“It was very clear they would come for him,” Agga Nya Na said. “He couldn’t keep living in the monastery, so he had to run away.”
Hiding meant unwinding his burgundy robe and replacing it with civilian clothes. Removing the sacred robe – always worn in public – was a clear symbol of his level of fear.
“If he lived in Burma, he’d be dead for sure,” Agga Nya Na said, as U Gawsita, who speaks little English, listened.
While U Gawsita fled, traveling from village to village under the cover of night, military police raided monasteries, beating the men and destroying their simple homes and few belongings.
“It was very clear they would come for him and find him, so he had to keep moving and hiding,” Agga Nya Na said. “No matter where he went they would come for him after a few days.”
For more than a month, U Gawsita found refuge in jungles and fields by day; his sister would send him food when she could.
Soon, he found his way - at night and by foot - to Thailand, where he’d pose as a bus fare collector.
“When he would pass a check point, he would shake so hard,” said Agga Nya Na. Eventually, U Gawsita’s fears of being caught in Thai land as an illegal immigrant would be realized.
“He didn’t have refugee status, so he got arrested,” Agga Nya Na said. “I was already in Thailand when we heard he was arrested. We did what we could to find him, but it took two days and we had to bribe a police officer with currency.”
Days afterward, the U.S. Embassy would assist the displaced monks and offer them resettlement in the United States.
The monks would accept. Agga Nya Na estimates that 25 monks would be sent to various states.
Four, including himself and U Gawsita, would come to Utica.
Refugees from the Southeast Asian country of Burma (known as Myanmar) have become the largest recent group of refugee arrivals in Utica, according to the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.
The first Burmese began arriving here in 1997 about 50 people at a time. There are now an estimated 1,800 in Utica — the majority of which are of the Karen ethnic group.
While the monks have found refuge here, they have not forgotten their home.
In their Elm Street apartment, posters of Aung San Suu Kyi hang on the walls.
Photographs of that fateful 2007 protest cover half a wall in an entry way that’s decorated with religious flags.
A smaller room houses a statue of Buddha surrounded by smaller ones and offerings of fruit and incense - a shrine at which the monks pray several times a day.
Frequent travels to universities as far away as California give the monks an opportunity to raise awareness about their country’s plight.
“We didn’t reach the main goal, but we are still trying,” Agga Nya Na said.
An Oscar-nominated film might be an answer - or at least part of one.
“We hope this movie can bring awareness,” he said.
As U Gawsita led the monks through the streets in the protests featured in the documentary, citizens spilled from their homes and crowded around him, shouting sentiments of joy and hope.
“May all beings living to the East be free; all beings in the universe be free, free from fear, free from all distress,” the people chanted under U Gawsita’s encouragement.
Last week, U Gawsita attended a screening of “Burma VJ” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and a dinner party at Osteria del Circo, nytimes.com reported. He also went to the Oscar nominees lunch eon, the Web site said.
Being away from family and warm weather makes life difficult – especially when word reaches them of the violence their countrymen are enduring.
“We are homesick. Very home sick,” Agga Nya Na said. “But we will continue to struggle for what we believe is truth – that is democracy, freedom for our people.”
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