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Interviews : Ashin Issariya

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Interviewed August 2010

Venerable Ashin Issariya (“King Zero”) is a Buddhist monk from Burma. In 2007 he was a principal organizer of the nationwide protests that became known as the “Saffron Revolution.”

After the Burmese military regime used violence to break up a peaceful march by monks who were calling attention to poverty and starvation in the town of Pakkoku, Ashin Issariya and other monks organized nationwide protests against the violence. Over 100,000 monks and tens of thousands of ordinary citizens demonstrated in Rangoon, Mandalay, and other places throughout the country, often chanting Buddha’s teachings on “loving kindness”. The government responded with more violence, killing dozens of monks and other protestors and inflicting serious injuries on hundreds more.

Ashin Issariya became widely known in Burma and around the world under the name “King Zero”— which, as he explained in his Freedom Collection interview, meant that Burma should have no kings and no dictators. But it took the government some time to uncover his real identity, so he was able to spend several months assisting victims of Cyclone Nargis before fleeing to Thailand in 2008. He now lives in a monastery near the Thai-Burma border and remains in close touch with democracy advocates inside and outside Burma. 

Okay. Before, I attended government school and I’m 18. 1988 at the time our school was closed by the government at that time. My father asked me – my father wanted me to be an educated person. At that time he told me, now our school was closed by the government, so I want to send to the monastery. I want you to learn the monastery education.

So at the time, okay. I agreed. My father was -- So at that time I went to the monastery. So until 1998, at that time that I am in novicehood. And then later, then I study Buddha’s teachings a lot. In my village I attend the Buddha’s teachings in three years. And then I moved to the big monastery to study Buddha’s teachings a lot.

So at that time I started our library. Our library’s name is the Best Friend Library. And because in our country most of the monks hadn’t had a chance to learn about the political and also the real situation, so I founded a library in the state university. I always organized a lot of monks. They are interested more and more about our country’s real situation. I explained a lot. And I copied a lot of political books. And I opened it two years in that state university.

And in 2000 I went to Dala because I want to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi went to our native place. They blocked Dala city. So I was trying to meet with her, but I cannot meet with her because the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, official title for the Burmese military regime] cannot allow to meet with her, they blocked. And then I asked him, "Why? I want to meet with her."

So at that time that the senior soldier in, ”Okay, we only understand about our orders. So our senior ana [authority] cannot allow to meet with her, so you need to go back to your place.” So at the time we cannot say more.

So at that time that we came back to our state university. But the SPDC sent the information [about] where we arrived in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s place. So at that time that they discussed about where we arrived in that place, and the professors or lecturers all lectured and discuss[ed] about our case.

So at that time they told me, “Okay, we cannot allow you to open your library any more in our state university because they can close our university also.” So at that time – “We don´t assist your library, cannot allow it to open here.” So at that time, I’m trying to close our library in that state university. And then I moved to my village. And I don’t want to live in that university, because they can try to fail [me] in the examinations. So at that time I can leave from that university. So I decided to leave from that state university. So I moved to my village, and then I opened a library again in my village. And then I want to study more and more. So at that time I moved to Mandalay. And I lived in New Masoeyein Monastery – a very big monastery, over 3,000 monks live in that monastery. And I studied Buddha’s teachings.

My pen name is – Burmese name -- is Minthunya. Min is King, Thunya is Zero. And I used “King Zero” because King is “good leader,” Zero is “nothing.” When I use this as a pen name – in our country, it’s never had a good leader. So when they see my pen name, they need to try to remember, okay, we need to try to get a good leader for our country. So I used that name. I always remember when I see my pen name: okay, I need to try to get a good leader for our country. So I decided to choose that King Zero name. 

Burma, a Southeast Asian country with about 57 million people, is ruled by a military regime that seized power in 1962. Although the reformist National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly in a 1990 election, the country’s military rulers ignored the results and arrested NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights.” The military government held a referendum on a new constitution in 2008 and a parliamentary election in 2010, neither of which was regarded by international observers as free or fair, and both of which resulted in overwhelming majorities for pro-government positions and candidates. The military regime has committed widespread and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, and denial of freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion.

Throughout its existence, the regime has been at war with a number of Burma’s ethnic minority groups. Ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly supported the NLD in the 1990 election, and after the suppression of the democracy movement several of these groups continued or resumed armed resistance to the de facto government. Although the government signed cease-fire agreements with several of these groups ostensibly granting them autonomy within their respective regions, the Burmese military has used a range of brutal techniques, including the killing of civilians, forced labor, rape, and the destruction of homes, crops, and villages, in cease-fire zones as well as in areas where there is still armed resistance.

In 2007, as on several previous occasions, there were mass demonstrations throughout the country demanding freedom and democracy. The 2007 demonstrations were led by Buddhist monks and eventually became known as the “Saffron Revolution” after the color of the monks’ robes. The armed forces brutally suppressed these demonstrations—estimates of the number of protestors killed range from 31 to several thousand—and intensified popular dissatisfaction with the government by the killing, beating, and public humiliation of monks.

The nominally civilian government resulting from the 2010 election has been widely regarded as a façade for continuing military rule. However, in October 2011, the government released 206 of Burma’s estimated 2,000 prisoners of conscience. The next month, the government announced that it would soon release all remaining political prisoners. The NLD, which had declined to participate in the 2010 election, registered to participate in the next election and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be among the NLD candidates.

Although the military regime announced in 1989 that it had changed the English name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar,” the United States government and other international supporters of democracy in Burma have generally continued to call the country Burma because this is the name preferred by Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy advocates who won the 1990 election. 

More from Ashin Issariya

Ashin Issariya: Becoming "King Zero" Discusses how, as a young monk studying Buddha’s teachings, he became the pro-democracy writer “King Zero”. Ashin Issariya: Misdirected Aid Discusses how the Burmese military regime manipulated UN agencies, foreign governments, and international NGOs who sought to assist victims of Cyclone Nargis. Ashin Issariya: Organizing "Saffron Revolution" Explains why he and other Buddhist monks organized the 2007 “Saffron Revolution”. More + Ashin Issariya: Burmese Monks in Society On the role of Buddhist monks in Burmese society. Ashin Issariya: Exile Explains why he decided to go into exile. Ashin Issariya: Inspired by Nonviolence Recalls how Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama inspired him to choose the way of nonviolence and loving kindness. Ashin Issariya: Communicating Under Repression Discusses how the democracy movement uses old and new technologies to communicate with the people of Burma.