AT THE TEACUP on Queen Anne, the Venerable U Pyinya Zawta and his local Burmese hosts marveled at two things: all the teas lining one wall (“We only have one kind in Burma,” one host chimed, “strong!”) and the embossed Burmese tableaux on another. One doesn’t see many traces of the monk’s homeland—currently a hermit military dictatorship—in Seattle. Certainly not emissaries wearing the distinctive brick-colored robes of a Burmese monk.
Pyinya Zawta is out to change that, and to end five decades of worsening oppression and misrule in a land once celebrated as a tropic Shangri La. He had just spoken at a Seattle University screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ (about the uprising he led in 2007).
In a quiet, commanding voice, he recounted the torments he endured in the notorious Insein and Thayawaddy prisons, where he spent nearly 10 years for advocating democracy.
“They shackle us with iron bars and chains. They cover my head when they beat me, so I can’t tell who is punching. They smash my”—his translator struggled for the word: “His testicles. His balls.” Worst of all, the soldiers “tried to dishonor our religion, to get us to break our oaths as monks. Took away our robes, tried make us kill flies. They fed us only a little food before noon”—the only time monks may eat—“and tried to make us eat in the afternoon, threatened to rape us if we didn’t.”
Pyinya Zawta was only two in 1962, when the military seized power. But he read about democracy and nonviolent action in surreptitiously translated foreign texts and shared that knowledge as a teacher. He started an HIV clinic, confronting a rampant epidemic the regime denied existed. And finally, three years ago, he coordinated the “Saffron Revolution,” in which once-quiescent monks spearheaded a people-power uprising and then suffered a Tiananmen-style crackdown.
Even Gandhi admitted nonviolence couldn’t stop Hitler. Can it overthrow Burma’s junta? Yes, Pyinya Zawta said smiling, and it will—when the soldiers, who are just as much the regime’s victims, join the students and monks in resisting it. But for now he had another priority. It was almost noon, and he still hadn’t eaten.