Burmese monks who fled to U.S. a vanishing breed

UTICA, New York (Reuters) - Burmese monks were beaten, jailed and killed while protesting Myanmar’s military regime in 2007, and dozens found refuge in America.

Forty-seven-year-old Burmese monk U Pyinya Zawta, leader of the "All Burma Monks Alliance", a group of exiled monks who fled the protests of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, stands in the stairwell of the makeshift monastery he shares with three others in a small rundown apartment house in the economically depressed upstate New York city of Utica April 27, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Segar

But now most have been forced to swap their saffron-colored robes for blue-collar workwear and abandon their monkhood out of a need to scratch out a living in their adopted land.

The few remaining monks are clinging to their vocation in this rundown former textile mill town some 240 miles north of New York City, trying to adapt.

Among them is U Gawsita, who sits quietly in an English class, still wearing his robes, one of many immigrants learning U.S. history in Utica.

At dawn he prays with three fellow monks crammed into one floor of a clapboard house, now his makeshift monastery. But Gawsita, 30, who is seen rousing monks with a bullhorn in the Oscar-nominated film “Burma VJ,” showing on U.S. cable channel HBO this month, is part of a dying breed.

Some 38 monks were granted asylum in the United States soon after the Saffron Revolution, the 2007 protests during which barefoot, shaven-headed monks shielded and led civilians to march against rising fuel prices which snowballed into the biggest challenge to military rule since a 1988 uprising.

Today, just eight remain monks.

“The monks couldn’t survive here. They were forced to change, to become regular civilians,” a soft-spoken Gawsita said in a recent interview surrounded by Buddhist flags and a montage of photos including Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.


Some monks were sent to Utica to resettle. Others went to more remote places that provide refugee education and seek population growth as well as low-skilled immigrant workers.

Ko Tay Lwin, 40, who lives in Moorefield, West Virginia, earns $10.90 an hour packing ice or hanging dead chickens on a factory assembly line for Pilgrim’s Pride Food Company. Sometimes he is unable to move his fingers after his overnight shift.

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“I feel very sad to leave (the) monkhood,” Lwin, who stopped practicing last year after arriving in the United States in August 2008, said in an e-mail. “It’s challenging to maintain a monkhood here in the U.S. since there’s nobody or nothing to support in order for me to continue.”

Other former and current monks say a lack of financial and food assistance made it impossible to live without a job. In Myanmar the monks are revered and given daily food donations and assistance at morning alms from the local community.

“I didn’t even have $1 in my pocket when I came here,” said Ashin Janita, 32, who stopped being a monk four months after being sent to Georgia, where without a job he could not live on food stamps and $150 per month assistance.

Now he makes $11.13 an hour in a pig factory in Marshalltown, Iowa, on an assembly line slicing the skin off ham. His work day begins at 5:30 a.m.

“Life as a monk is very peaceful, there’s no need to worry too much,” he said. “I worry a lot more now.”


U.S. Buddhism experts say the many types of Buddhism and the small number of strong Burmese communities in America make it hard for the Burmese monks, who practice a strict kind of Buddhism called Theravada, to find financial support.

Robert Buswell, professor at the UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies, said U.S. Buddhist groups support their own and “wouldn’t understand” giving assistance to another branch.

The Utica-based monks have formed a group called the All Burma Monks’ Alliance to raise funds to build a proper temple.

One of the monks, U Pyinya Zawta, 49, who spent more than 10 years in Myanmar prisons where he says he was beaten, said culture also plays its part.

“Some (monks) want to experience the American life,” he said. “The young people, they want to enjoy many pleasures and the monkhood has many rules so it is difficult.”

All former and current monks said they were grateful to their adopted country, if wistful that one day soon Myanmar would become a democracy and they could return.

“I have a freedom and I have many opportunities in the U.S.,” said Gawsita. “But if I think about my partner who was in jail and who was dying in the revolution, I feel bad for them. Even as I live here in freedom, I still cannot feel fully free.”

Editing by Mark Egan and Xavier Briand