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

Fri May 14, 2010 11:32am EDT
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By Christine Kearney

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.

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.   Continued...

<p>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</p>