The Last Burmese Abbot of Wat Sri Chum

Wat Sri Chum

During the early ‘80s, I had the opportunity to interview the Burmese Abbot of Wat Sri Chum in Lampang (Northern Thailand) – U Pyinya Wuntha – on several occasions. He was a charming gentleman in his seventies at the time who was most reluctant to talk about his former life as a teak trader, the objective of my visits.  However, he never hesitated to discuss the mysteries of Buddhism, which led to my eventual conversion but has nothing to do with this story.

U Pyinya Wuntha remained the official Burmese Abbot for this temple until just after a fire destroyed the main viharn (prayer hall) in January 1992. One rumour says that the fire was started by a monk whose blanket accidentally caught on fire while sleeping too close to an electric heater.  Another rumour is that the fire was lit after a verbal altercation between the temple’s trustees and the Abbot. It was soon after this fire that U Pyinya Wuntha returned to Burma and passed away in 1995. After a century of Burmese tradition in Lampang, he was to be the last Burmese Abbot of Wat Sri Chum.

Below are a couple of articles from English newspapers printed in Thailand in 1996 that tell of the on-going conflict his absence caused.

NAMING OF NEW ABBOT CAUSES STIR IN LAMPANG by Nussara Sawatsawang Bangkok Post April 10, 1996

Thai authorities have taken the unusual step of appointing a local monk familiar with Burmese ways to head a revered Burmese temple in Lampang province. The move is seen by many as an attempt to avert a potential conflict , with Rangoon over the maintenance of the century-old succession of Burmese abbots at Wat Sri Chum.

Phra Maha Saengthong will officially assume the position of acting abbot tomorrow if the temple trustees, who are predominantly Burmese descendants , cannot come up with a better choice to succeed U Pyinya Wuntha (a Burmese) who passed away last December.  The Burmese government has intervened by nominating its own abbot and vice abbot -Ashin Nyana Thiri and Sudhamma, respectively and has also asked Thai authorities to grant permanent residency to U Thummana, a Burmese monk who has been at the temple for four years and the original choice by temple trustees to succeed the late abbot, when his study visa expires this July.

Thai authorities turned down the Burmese nominations on the grounds that this would violate Thai religious laws. Privately, they have expressed mistrust of Burmese monks, who could pose a national security threat by spying for the Rangoon military regime or by sheltering illegal Burmese immigrants.

An informed source in the provincial clergy admitted that Phra Mahaaengthong’s nomination on February 28 was done “in a rush” under pressure from security police and this had caused bad feelings among the local community.  The temple trustees favour a Burmese succession to carry on the tradition at Wat Sri Chum, which was largely rebuilt and expanded in 1893 by Burmese merchants and since then has been frequented mostly by Burmese descendants in this northern province.

Tensions have run high, prompting Phra Maha Saengthong to say he will assume the post of acting abbot until confirmed or just leave if the trustees cannot find anyone better within two weeks.

Burmese Ambassador to Thailand U Tin Winn defended his government’s intervention on historical grounds and the desires of the trustees.  “Throughout the monastery’s 150-year-old history, the abbot has always been Burmese. Even the trustees want a new Burmese abbot, that’s why we asked the Thai Government to consider the matter,” he said.

In fact, the intervention by Rangoon is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1993, Rangoon asked to send a Burmese monk to head Kyaung Kha temple (or Chaimongkol in Thai), also in Lampang province. The temple was build in 1919 by Burmese merchants.  Thai authorities at the time went ahead with their own nomination without informing the Burmese.

This time around, Thai authorities rejected the nomination of U Thummana even though he has received the full backing of the Wat Srichum trustees.

The deputy director-general of the Education Ministry’s Religious Affairs Department, Charuay Nookhong, said all temples and monks on Thai soil excluding Vietnamese annum and Chinese sects are subject to Thai law.  He said the monk law of 1962, amended in 1992, requires abbots to be Thai nationals of any ethnic descent and to be ordained by a Thai preceptor.

The only Burmese temple headed by Burmese monks and falling under the authority of the Burmese Embassy is at Prok in Yan Nawa, Bangkok, which comes under an agreement signed by the late Field Marshal Pibul songkram and the Burmese government headed by U Nu.

One can only speculate on the true intentions of the Burmese government in intervening they also donate funds and materials to renovate important Burmese temples in Thailand but Thai authorities have a real concern that Burmese monks might act as intelligence agents for their government in Rangoon.

Observers say the Burmese military junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, has never failed to use religion as a political tool.  They cited last year’s downfall of the ethnic Karen rebels, who had fought Rangoon for four decades, after Buddhist Karens broke away from the main Christian Karens to set up the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army, reportedly at the instigation of Rangoon.

Burmese monks also are believed to report on the movement of ethnic rebels, said the observers.  While there is no concrete evidence to prove this, Rangoon’s nominee for the abbot of Wat Sri Chum, Ashin Nyana Thiri is said to be fluent in Thai, Shan, English and Burmese.  The monk, who is in his early 30s, is from Keng Tung province in Shan State. He was reportedly told by the Burmese authorities to prepare to go to Lampang to spend his fifth year of Buddhist education before graduating from the government-sponsored Sangha University.

The intervention by the Burmese government earlier this year, through an official letter to Education Minister Sukhavich Rangsitpol and by summoning Thai Ambassador to Rangoon Poksak Nilubol for talks, prompted the local clergy in Lampang not only to hurriedly nominate Phra Maha Saengthong, 43, but also to scrutinise the status of all Burmese temples and monks in the province.

According to a senior Thai monk in Lampang, there are 172 temples in Muang district. However, only 138 temples have abbots; 12 have acting abbots, and the others have none. Four of the temples have also been built without proper permission.  Another two of the eight Burmese temples in Lampang Wat Pafang and Wat Sri Rongmuang are also in the same situation as Wat Srichum.  The senior monk said there are now only 15 Burmese monks staying in Lampang legally. From time to time, Karen monks flee to the province claiming persecution at home, but they are repatriated, he said.  “This year, we have had found 39 illegal Burmese monks in Lampang,” he said, adding that they have all had to leave because they did not possess the proper papers identifying the temple they were attached to in accordance with Thai Law.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Surapong Jayanama suggested that a cultural agreement between Thailand and Burma was one means of solving the problem. The agreement would also allow Thailand to operate Buddhist temples in Burma on a quid pro quo basis.  Mr Surapong said Burmese Ambassador to Bangkok U Tin Winn would be summoned to the Foreign Ministry soon to hear Thailand’s position on the issue and to discuss the possibility of concluding such an agreement.  The spokesman is also expected to visit Burma early next month to further explore the idea.

In the meantime, the Burmese descendant community in Lampang is watching how Phra Maha Saengthong manages the temple, especially after the trustees objected openly to his nomination.  The trustees are unhappy about the haste involved in his nomination. They have suggested that if U Thummana’s qualifications were unsuitable, then a Thai monk educated in Burma was the best option.  “We want to preserve Burmese rituals and want Thai and Burmese monks to live together peacefully, speaking the same language,” said a Burmese trustee who has been living in Thailand for 20 years.

Phra Maha Saengthong was ordained at 13 years old. Though he spent some time teaching at the Burmese temple Wat Tha Ma Oo, he cannot speak Burmese.  The same senior monk said the local clergy had full authority to appoint acting abbots at any temples falling within their responsibility.

If no one challenges his appointment by today, Phra Maha Saengthong will begin preparing his predecessor’s cremation and manage the budget allocated by the Fine Arts Department for the temple’s renovation.  After the cremation, consultations will be held between the temple trustees and the sub-district and district clergy to find a suitable successor, the senior monk said.  Phra Maha Saengthong said the local clergy was concerned how to make Wat Sri Chum more open.

“In the past, Wat Sri Chum has been closed to the world because the local community regarded it a Burmese temple. Only about 10 families come here, and its monks have never been invited to perform religious ceremonies outside,” he said.  The acting abbot believes the appointment of a Thai monk to head the temple will facilitate contact with the local clergy.  He also said there were plans to, open a religious studies centre at the temple to educate Thai monks, similar to what he did at Wat Tha Ma Oo.

BURMESE RENOVATED TEMPLE AS PART OF MAKING MERIT IN THEIR ADOPTED COUNTRY

NATION: April 10, 1996

IT was not until the mid-19th century that Burmese people, who were then subjects of British colonial rule, arrived in what today is northern Thailand. The Burmese is arrived under the auspices of a Siam-British pact, the Bowrng Treaty of 1855, granting them extraterritorial rights and allowing them to engage in logging activities.

Burmese merchant U Maung Gyi was one of those who came and then stayed, living in Lampang after marrying a Thai woman from Chiang Mai. He and his friends sought permission from the provincial governor to renovate and expand the ageing Wat Sri Chum, Nyaung Wine Kyaung in Burmese, in 1893 as a means of making merit.

According to U Maung Gyi’s granddaughter, Penchan Thammavongse, her grandfather bought additional land to build a new chapel, monks’ quarters, a vihawra and a pond. Skilled Burmese carpenters from Mandalay and northern Thailand were brought in to build the central temple, which has elaborate teak carvings and decorations.

Mrs Penchan, although not opposed to the temple being headed by a Thai monk, said it was her grandfather’s desire to preserve Burmese culture under the Thai banner. What she is afraid of is that some Burmese monks might be expelled by Thai newcomers, as has been the case at some other Burmese temples in Lampang when Thai monks were appointed abbot.

Sri Chum temple is a tourist attraction. Its chapel and vihara were registered with the Fine Arts Department several years ago, and HRH Prince Maha Chakri Sirindhorn visited the temple in November 1990. In January 1992, the vihara where the previous abbot lived was burned down and Burmese technicians were invited to redesign the building in accordance with the old architecture. The Fine Arts Department has already secured 10 million baht in both the 1995 and 1996 fiscal years to fund the renovation.

Post Script (anonymous from Burma)

For four years after U Pyinya Wuntha’s death, a series of acting abbots were in charge of the temple and its community of Thai and Burmese monks while trustees appointed by the Burmese embassy in Bangkok and leading Thai clergy wrangled over the choice of a successor.

Despite the intervention of the Burmese government, a Thai monk was eventually chosen, and he in turn was succeeded five years ago by the present Thai abbot, Wanchai Sanchayo, a 66-year-old former Bangkok businessman.  When Abbot Wanchai took over, Wat Sri Chum had 19 Burmese monks, but they progressively left, most of them returning to Burma, because of problems obtaining visas enabling them to live permanently at the monastery.  Today, Wat Sri Chum’s six monks, one nun and 10 novices are all Thai.

Nevertheless, Abbot Wanchai nurtures the Burmese history and traditions of his temple. The ex-businessman mixes entrepreneurial skills with Buddhist tenets to boost the evident prosperity of Wat Sri Chum, raising income from market traders who are allowed to set up their fruit stalls outside the temple gates and from a nearby herb garden.

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