Ashin Issariya is one of the young Buddhist monks who, in September, 2007, led peaceful demonstrations in Burma that were crushed by the country’s military regime. I met him a few months later, in a sweltering monastery in Rangoon, where he had gone to hide from the authorities. Following the custom of many Burmese, he had adopted a pseudonym, King Zero, while underground. By then, many of his friends had been arrested. Restrained and bookish, he was still trying to organize his fellow-monks. “Democracy is something similar to the Buddha’s teachings,” he told me. Poverty and oppression have made Burma’s monks anything but otherworldly—they are among the regime’s most determined opponents. In late 2008, Ashin Issariya exchanged his saffron robe for civilian clothes and fled the country, one step ahead of arrest. He is now among the two hundred thousand Burmese refugees living in Thailand.
In May, Human Rights Watch sent the photographer Platon to Thailand, where he made portraits of Ashin Issariya and other Burmese. At first, I didn’t recognize the face. Platon, who often photographs celebrities, turns the hunted monk I met in Rangoon into an icon of glowing defiance—a true king. It’s as if only in exile could Ashin Issariya give full expression to the personality that had to be kept under wraps in the generals’ Burma. On November 7th, the military rulers will hold national elections designed to perpetuate their grip on power. Both the American and the British governments have condemned the vote as a sham, and the opposition, led by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, is boycotting it. The country’s real leaders remain in prison, in hiding, in exile, under wraps, waiting for their chance. —George Packer