Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Keeping the Faith: Burma's Monks Carry On Democratic Fight


Keeping the Faith: Burma's Monks Carry On Democratic Fight

Protesters stand near a road block in Rangoon, Burma, on September 27, 2007
Protesters stand near a road block in Rangoon, Burma, on September 27, 2007
Christian Holst / Getty Images

The abbot leaned in but didn't bother to lower his voice. Around us were sitting half a dozen local Buddhist worshippers, including one man whose aggressive curiosity about my presence made him a likely informant for the notoriously repressive Burmese junta.. No matter — the abbot had no time for fear. "This is a very famous monastery," he said, as I, the first foreign visitor to the monastery in many months, nodded. "Important people have come here throughout history: Nehru, Indira Gandhi and, of course, the Lady."

It was, in fact, the connection to Aung San Suu Kyi — the democracy icon known simply as "the Lady" in Burma, who on Aug. 11 was sentenced to 18 months of house arrest on charges condemned by leaders worldwide — that had led me to the Shwe Zedi monastery in the first place. Located in the crumbling Indian Ocean port town of Sittwe, Shwe Zedi was the monastery of U Ottama, one of Burma's most famous monks, whose pacifist resistance against the colonial British inspired independence hero Aung San, father of Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi. The political activism of the Shwe Zedi monks has continued into modern times; in 2002, this was one of the few places Suu Kyi visited in between stints of house arrest, and she called for political change from its lawn. In September 2007, Shwe Zedi was among the first in Burma to organize peaceful prodemocracy rallies, a doomed effort that ended in the junta gunning down unarmed demonstrators on the street. "At first, I was scared to join the protests," recalls a teenage monk who participated in the mass rallies. "But I had faith that even if it failed, it was better than doing nothing."
(Read "Burma Court Finds Aung San Suu Kyi Guilty.")

The generals who have ruled Burma since 1962 may have a harder time keeping the faith. Most Burmese are devout Buddhists, and the junta tries to burnish its image by plastering state-controlled newspapers with articles about its cash contributions to religious causes. But no amount of merit-making can erase the specter of regime goons massacring monks, as they did in 2007 and, even more violently, in 1988. Although a frightened hush followed the most recent crackdown, Suu Kyi's trial has ignited speculation that this time, the generals have gone too far — and that religious harmony has been disturbed. "Signs that the government in Burma is losing its power are everywhere," opined a June editorial in Mizzima, a leading Burmese dissident news website. "Why [is] a military government armed to the teeth very afraid of the gentle lady who speaks softly from behind bars, as well as barefoot monks who pray peacefully?"

Certainly, the signs from the heavens haven't been auspicious of late. On May 30, the revered Danoke pagoda on the outskirts of Rangoon suddenly collapsed, killing three and injuring dozens of others. Burmese with an eye for otherworldly coincidences noted that a recent ceremony for the pagoda had been presided over by none other than the wife of Than Shwe, the junta's supremo leader. Many ruling generals are known to consult astrologers — a previous junta head once denominated the Burmese currency by nine because he considered the number lucky — and the collapse of a pagoda after being blessed by a junta family member surely dented their sense of divine right. Then, on June 4, an elevator inside a 32-story Buddha statue in Sagaing division rapidly lost altitude, injuring several passengers. "Burmese people take omens very seriously," says a newspaper editor in Rangoon. "I can assure you that the generals are very worried."

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.

In the aftermath of the crushed 2007 protests, Shwe Zedi, like many monasteries across the country, was forced to shutter for a month. Cautiously the faithful returned, but dozens of Sittwe monks are still missing, believed either to be toiling in labor camps or to have slipped into foreign exile. Yet the monks I spoke to seemed curiously unafraid to talk. "It is our responsibility to try to change our country," said a monk who sat cross-legged on the burnished teak floor of the 19th century monastery. "If the monkhood doesn't do it, who else will?" Another monk padded over to a bookcase and pulled out a Burmese-English dictionary, flipped through it and pointed to a word: democracy. Perhaps their outspokenness is the legacy of their monastery's activism — or the knowledge that they carry far more legitimacy in the eyes of the Burmese people than does a clutch of army men.

In September 1988, in Burma's precursor to the Tiananmen Square massacre, hundreds — if not thousands — of people were slaughtered when troops opened fire on monks, students and other peaceful protesters in Rangoon, just days after predictions had abounded that the junta was on its last legs. Two years later, the ruling generals lost badly in elections to Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, a clear indication of the public's disenchantment with army rule. The junta ignored the poll results and tightened its grip on power. In 2010, the regime promises another nationwide poll, the final step to building what it calls a "discipline-flourishing democracy." Few doubt that the generals will ensure their victory this time through intimidation or ballot-box-stuffing. (Read "Burma's Agony.")

So what can the monks of Shwe Zedi do, besides silently point at words in a dictionary? I posed the question to the abbot, who replied, "Pray." The snooping man sitting near us, who had whipped out a camera to take photos of our meeting, smirked. As I left Shwe Zedi, the abbot handed me a slip of newspaper on which rolled a tiny ivory-hued bead. It was, he said, a bone relic of the Buddha, or at least it symbolized as much. I thanked him for the gift of luck. But I couldn't help thinking that the monks of Burma — not to mention the impoverished citizens kneeling around me in their frayed sarongs — will need the relic far more than I.

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.


Education for Liberation! Venceremos Unidos! We Will Win United!

Peter S. Lopez ~aka: Peta

Sacramento, California,Aztlan

Yahoo Email: peter.lopez51@yahoo.com  


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1 comment:

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Practicing buddhism sustain a wholesome life that brings good karma in our daily living. All positive enlightenment is attained if one focuses on right words, thoughts and deeds. Establishing the right mindset, anyone can live a happy and blessed life.
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