In this photo taken on May 25, 2017, Buddhist monk novices hold their alms bowls before dawn as they line up before heading out into Bagan, Myanmar, to collect daily alms from devotees.
YE AUNG THU—AFP/Getty Images
December 6, 2018 2:30 AM EST

In a whisper, barely audible above the monsoon rain hammering her family’s hut, Aye Chan May (whose name has been changed to protect her and her family) describes an ordeal that she and three other children endured at the hands of a monk in Pathein, a city of nearly 300,000 people in southern Myanmar.

The twelve-year-old tells TIME that the monk forced her and the three others to “massage” him nearly every night for the several months she lived in his monastery, before sending all but one child home. That child, Aye Chan May says, was then raped.

The alleged perpetrator disappeared in April when the victims’ parents approached local police, but he was known to and trusted by the parents before he joined the monkhood. They had been struggling to afford the cost of sending their children to public school and gladly accepted his offer of free accommodation and schooling for them.

Aye Chan May’s case, and others like it, bring into focus the issue of clerical privilege in this deeply Buddhist nation. Monks have long been Myanmar’s moral compass, but in recent years many have used their positions to stir up hostility against the country’s Muslim Rohingya, emboldening the military to launch a genocidal campaign against the ethnic minority.

Now there are fears that some clerics are preying on the thousands of children receiving free or low-cost education and accommodation at monastic schools, while sheltering under the almost blanket immunity that monks enjoy. How that immunity is handled has the potential to become a vital issue in a youthful, rapidly changing society described as “Asia’s final frontier.” It also serves as a reminder that the issue of clerical abuse is not limited to Catholic churches in the West.

In a country where two-thirds of the population live rurally and one-third lives in desperate poverty, Aye Chan May’s parents are typical of many relying on a monastic education for their offspring. They earn a meager income cutting and selling firewood in a small village near Pathein and say they could never have imagined that a monk would commit abuse.

“We are not educated. We want our children to be educated. So, we sent our daughter to the monastery,” her mother tells TIME. “I did not expect this would happen at a monastery.”

Read more: A Backlash Against Burma’s Islamophobic Buddhist Monks Has Begun

To be sure, for many if not the majority of children a monastic education is a lifeline to a more promising future, provided by decent monks and nuns as a compassionate service. Bonds between novices and their elders can be long-lasting and loving. But for some youngsters, monastic life is a traumatizing experience. It is impossible to say how many are abused, since few records are kept, but there are as many as many as 300,000 children living in monasteries according to some estimates by child safety organizations. There, the unlucky ones can find themselves under the close supervision of unscrupulous individuals who have taken monastic vows but have no training in, or experience of, caring for children and whose personal or criminal histories may be unknown.

The red robe affords such monks a kind of protection that renders law enforcement often unable, or unwilling, to investigate alleged wrongdoing. When TIME visited the local police station to seek comment on the status of Aye Chan May’s case, a junior officer could not confirm whether the search for the suspect was ongoing. The officer, who did not give his name, refused to summon his sleeping superior, claiming he was “afraid” to wake him.

Harsh physical punishments are also a problem at monastic schools. On April 26, a video from a small village near Mandalay, in the north of the country, went viral. In it, a young boy cries out, pleading with a monk who is delivering a savage beating with a stick that ultimately left the youngster hospitalized.

San Lae, the victim’s aunt, has called for the monk to be held to account, telling local media she wanted him to be disrobed and “sent to jail”.

“No one is going to tolerate their family member being treated like this,” she said. “It is unforgivable.”

A sub-inspector from the Mandalay police station, who requested anonymity, told TIME the suspect was never detained. A deputy commander at the same station said they had been barred from speaking to media and referred calls to the regional information department, which also declined to comment.

‘Sooner or later it has to be addressed’

Myanmar law does not explicitly allow differential treatment for monks, but when a monk is accused of criminal misconduct, police begin the investigative process with considerable restraint. In most cases, they contact the regional branch of Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture (MORAC) for advice on how to proceed. The ministry may then notify the local clerical body. This is where police involvement often ends.

Several calls made to MORAC for comment on this story were redirected within the ministry, which ultimately declined to comment. Attempts to get comment from the Sangha, or organization of clergy, were also unsuccessful.

Tin Shwe is the director of the Yangon Justice Centre, an NGO that provides legal aid to the poor. He describes the hypothetical arrest of a monk as complicated and fraught with religious sensitivity.

Read more: Burma’s Hard-Line Buddhists Are Waging a Campaign of Hate Nobody Can Stop

“In the Mandalay case, the monk is [an] abbot and he said he gave punishment to his students because [wrongdoing] happened in the monastery … It is a bit delicate to handle cases related to monks,” he says.

Kyaw Myint, co-director of the center, says that throughout the judicial process police and legal officials are at pains to show their respect for accused monks. Judges even stand while addressing a monk in court, instead of sitting at the bench.

Such deep cultural respect for monks, combined with gaping holes in the nation’s education system, leaves children in monastic care uniquely vulnerable. The emphasis given to harmony in monasteries can also work to gag victims and would-be whistleblowers. Anthropologist and researcher Ward Keeler says it creates an environment in which infractions—even sexual abuse—are routinely overlooked. Laity and parents are even more unlikely to report concerning behavior due to a perceived inferior moral status.

While MORAC looks the other way, it appears unlikely that other branches of the government will take action. According to Sandar Kyaw, a child protection officer with Save the Children, children in monastic care will remain vulnerable to exploitation until authorities address the “challenge” of these schools.

“Are you going to register a monastery? How are you going to monitor [them]? Because the real religious focus is just on Buddhism. The monks aren’t encouraged to get involved in social welfare,” she says. “I don’t know how the Ministry of Religious Affairs is going to address it, but sooner or later it has to be addressed.”

Back in Pathein, Aye Chan May’s mother is still struggling to come to terms with what happened, but wants the family’s experience to serve as a warning to others.

“What I want to tell parents,” she says, “is to be aware of the risk to their children.”

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