World Buddhist conference opens in Myanmar despite boycott call

Channel News Asia (AFP), Dec 9, 2004

YANGON, Myanmar -- A world Buddhist summit has opened in Myanmar amid pomp and ceremony, despite a boycott call, with the new premier using the occasion to call for an end to "the bullying of the weak".

An estimated 1,500 people, including monks and officials, were at the ornate venue in Yangon for a ceremonial ringing of 108 bells to open the three-day event that lost its main sponsor after the sacking of the then-premier Khin Nyunt in October.

Myanmar said the fourth summit of its kind would still be a "landmark in the history of Buddhism" with Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, making a rare public appearance on Thursday.

In a conference venue filled with columns and gold leaf, Myanmar's new premier, Lieutenant General Soe Win, said the conference could help promote Buddhist teachings to prevent the things that are "appalling us all".

"In the international arena, men are frightened and shocked by arms rivalry, the gap between rich and poor and bullying of the weak by the strong," he said.

Soe Win did not elaborate. Myanmar in the past has strongly criticised the international community, notably former colonial ruler Britain and the United States, for sanctions imposed on the impoverished nation.

Delegates were mainly from Asia and included the premiers of Thailand and Laos, but there were also representatives from nations such as the United States, Britain, and Australia.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was due to use his visit to make a rare courtesy call on Than Shwe, extended his "warmest congratulations" to Myanmar on hosting the event during his address to the summit.

"As a country where Buddhism has long taken root and flourished, Myanmar is indeed qualified as one of the most suitable venues for the world Buddhist summit," he said.

The summit is a rare showcase for a nation isolated by international sanctions because of its hardline policies and the continued detention of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The government has been trying to promote religious tourism to the "Land of Pagodas" where 85 percent of the 50 million people are Buddhists. Many delegates sought to distance the summit from the political situation in Myanmar.

"We don't want to talk about politics. We don't know anything about this country," said Jay Shree, from India.

But one European delegate, who declined to be named, said: "When he (Soe Win) talked about converting bullies through compassion and understanding I had to suppress laughter."

Japan's Nenbutsushu sect, which has held the summit every two years in a Buddhist nation, withdrew its sponsorship after the sacking in October of Khin Nyunt, who was put under house arrest for corruption.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based rights group, called for a boycott of the conference because of the continued detention of an estimated 300 monks by the government.

Myanmar's outlawed Young Monks' Association has supported the boycott amid concerns among the international community that the government could use the event for political grandstanding.

Monks played an important role alongside students during 1988 protests against military rule that were bloodily suppressed.

The military has ruled Myanmar since a coup in 1962 despite Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy winning elections in 1990 by a landslide.