The saffron-robed monks who spearheaded a bloody uprising last fall against Myanmar's military rulers are back on the front lines, this time providing food, shelter and spiritual solace to cyclone victims.
The military regime has moved to curb the Buddhist clerics' efforts, even as it fails to deliver adequate aid itself. Authorities have given some monasteries deadlines to clear out refugees, many of whom have no homes to return to, monks and survivors say.
"There is no aid. We haven't seen anyone from the government," said U Pinyatale, the 45-year-old abbot of the Kyi Bui Kha monastery sharing almost depleted rice stocks and precious rainwater with some 100 homeless villagers huddled within its battered compound.
Similar scenes are being repeated in other areas of the Irrawaddy delta and Yangon, the country's largest city, where monasteries became safe havens after Cyclone Nargis struck May 3 — and the regime did little.
"In the past I used to give donations to the monks. But now it's the other way around. It's the monks helping us," said Aung Khaw, a 38-year-old construction worker who took his wife and young daughter to a monastery in the Yangon suburb of Hlaingtharyar after the roof of his flimsy house was blown away and its bamboo walls collapsed.
Military orders refugees to leave
One of the monastery's senior monks said he tried to argue with military officials who ordered the more than 100 refugees to leave.
"I don't know where they will go. But that was the order," he said, asking for anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The government has not announced such an order, which appeared to be applied selectively. Other monasteries in Yangon have been told to clear out cyclone victims in coming days, the monk said, but in the delta, refugees were being allowed to remain or told they could come to monasteries for supplies but not shelter.
"They don't want too many people gathering in small towns," said Hla Khay, a delta boat operator. The regime "is concerned about security. With lots of frustrated people together, there may be another uprising."
Larger monasteries were being closely watched by troops and plainclothes security men — "invisible spies" as one monk called them.
Keeping monks away from villagers
Such diversion of manpower at a time when some 1.5 million people are at risk from disease and starvation reflects the regime's fear of a replay of last September, when monks led pro-democracy demonstrations that were brutally suppressed.
Monks were shot, beaten and imprisoned, igniting anger among ordinary citizens in this devoutly Buddhist country. An unknown number remain behind bars, and others have yet to return to their monasteries after fleeing for fear of arrest.
"I think after the September protests, the government is afraid that if people live with the monks in the monasteries, the monks might persuade them to participate in demonstrations again," said a dentist in Yangon, who also asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
Newspapers have been ordered not to publish stories about monks aiding the people, and at least one monastery and one nunnery in Yangon were prohibited from accepting any supplies from relief organizations.
"The government is very controlling," said U Pinyatale, the abbot at the Kyi Bui Kha monastery. "Those who want to give directly to the victims get into trouble. They have to give to the government or do it secretly. (The military) follows international aid trucks everywhere. They don't want others to take credit."
It appears unlikely that foreign aid organizations seeking to enter Myanmar will be allowed to use monks as conduits for relief supplies as many had hoped.
"One of the best networks already in place in the country are the monks," said Gary Walker of PLAN, a British-based international children's group, speaking from Bangkok. "So we'll be exploring ways in which we can see whether the monks can start distributing supplies throughout the country."
Monks and villagers share supplies
At the Kyi Bui Kha monastery, located on the banks of the Pyapon River deep in the delta, U Pinyatale glanced anxiously at the remaining 10 bags of rice.
"At most, we have enough for the week. We will have to find a way to get more food," he said as monks and villagers worked together to try to dry the sodden rice, even as rain clouds gathered above the largely roofless monastery.
In Yangon, monks have been able to go out on their traditional morning rounds to accept food donations from the faithful and then share these with refugees at their monasteries. But in devastated areas of the delta that is not an option.
About 90 of the 120 houses in Kyi Bui Kha have been totally destroyed. Gaps in the monastery's storm-riddled wooden walls revealed a 360-degree view of ravaged rice fields.
U Pinyatale said the sanctuary's two dozen monks and nuns were also trying to offer spiritual comfort to the traumatized villagers.
"We pray with them. We pray for the dead to go to the peaceful land of the dead and for the living to rebuild their lives," he said.
"When the cyclone came, all of us hid in the rice warehouse. I saw one person holding tightly onto a tree but he did not make it," the abbot added. "After the storm, there were dead bodies floating everywhere. Some people get nightmares. Some hear voices at night that their dead children are calling for help. Some haven't spoken since."