I went to Burma accidentally. This was almost exactly a year before the September 2007 violence against peaceful demonstrators, many of them Buddhist monks, made the country front-page news. I was traveling by ship, circumnavigating the globe as a teacher on the academic program Semester at Sea; I hadn’t chosen the itinerary. For me and the 600 other Americans on the ship, Burma was one stop on a whirlwind tour of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
At the time I was, like most Americans, woefully ignorant of the dire state of affairs in Burma. I learned only weeks before my arrival that tourism in Burma was controversial, and that activists, including world leaders I admired, discouraged travel to Burma. The country now officially known as Myanmar was ruled by a brutal dictatorship whose only philosophy concerned the maintenance of its own power. (They’d also “reclaimed” Myanmar — the country’s name before the British named it Burma—making the simplest discussion of the place controversial. Was calling it Burma supporting Imperialism? Was calling it Myanmar bowing to the junta?) The junta used rape as a weapon, forced their citizens into labor camps, and displaced thousands of Burmese from their homes. Any word against the government was punishable by imprisonment and torture. It had been like this for decades.
In 1988, on the 8th of August — 8/8/88 — a protest led by monks and students in Burma ended in disaster. Like the protests of 2007, the 8/8/88 Uprising was peaceful. Exhausted by poverty and oppression, the people of Rangoon and other major cities streamed into the streets, demanding democracy. Soldiers opened fire on the crowds. When this had gone on for several days, nurses walked out of a hospital, begging the soldiers to stop the killings. The soldiers shot and killed the nurses.
The people fought until they found themselves beat. Their one hope was the junta’s promise of a legitimate democratic election, which took place in 1990. National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi won by a landslide. The junta responded by ignoring the election results and placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she had been for the better part of 14 years.
Aung San Suu Kyi was one of the activists who discouraged travel to Burma. Tourism, she said, only fueled the junta, primarily by funneling money into their coffers. But there was another, also convincing, side to the argument: An international presence in Burma is important in keeping the international community informed. Tourists inside the country exposed the Burmese people to alternate ways of life. There were ways of getting money to the people — buying traditional longyis at the weaver’s home instead of from a hotel gift shop, or hiring a private truck instead of traveling by government-owned bus. And, by and large, the people wanted us there.
At least this is what I chose to believe when our ship dropped anchor, releasing 600 Americans into a country that had spent a good deal of its recent history isolated from the rest of the world.
I arrived in the city of Rangoon feeling enthralled, but also nervous and guilty. My greatest concern was the possibility that buying anything — noodles at the market stand, a $1 mala made of red plastic beads, a bed to sleep on for the night — would be an act of support for the evil junta. So I wandered — wandering is free — and found myself swept into a sea of saffron robes. Monks were everywhere in Rangoon. They browsed at book stalls and strolled in pairs on the busy, smoggy streets. Some peered curiously at the flood of young Americans. Some went from business to business, asking for alms. There were child monks, called novices, who ran around in packs, acting like regular kids.
Inevitably, I found my way to the Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s largest temple complex. The Pagoda is a virtual city of glittering gold, where thousands of Burmese go every day to pray. I kicked off my flip-flops — shoes are not permitted inside the complex — and entered the world of Buddhas and gold. The stupa is tipped with thousands of diamonds and rubies, and genuine gold plates cover the walls, roofs, and Buddha statues. The stupa houses a number of important Buddhist relics, including eight hairs of the historical Buddha, Gautama. Monks and civilians mingled in the plaza, prayed to various representations of Buddha. Some sat around. Kids played tag. The place was magical. It was from this place of worship that both rebellions began.
A monk approached me and said hello. He couldn’t have been older than 25. His English was excellent. “Do you want to talk with us?” He motioned toward himself and his friend, who didn’t speak English, and smiled. I said yes. His friend, though speechless, smiled hugely, and continued to do so throughout our conversation. I followed them into a covered area, and we sat cross-legged on the floor next to a 30-foot, supine, gold-plated Buddha.
He’d been a monk since he was 10. His family lived very far away, in northern Burma. But he wasn’t interested in talking about himself, and quickly brushed off my personal questions. “I believe that you might know something about our religion,” he said. “We are about peace. I would like to take you to a meditation center. Maybe you are interested, and maybe you are not. Tell me now, because if you’re not truly interested in coming to the center to learn more, I must find someone else here to talk to.”
I thought I knew something about Buddhism. I practiced yoga, after all, and had once managed to meditate for a solid six seconds. In retrospect, I probably should have accepted the invitation. But, as is my general instinct when I have no idea where on earth I am, I decided not to head off to an undisclosed location with a stranger. Even if the stranger was a monk.
“Okay.” He smiled a Buddha smile. “Thank you for talking to me. I will talk to someone else now.” We stood up; he shook my hand. I sensed no conflict or disappointment on his part. I walked away and began to examine my relationship to Buddhism, and was confronted with how much fear I felt on a minute-to-minute basis. During this single interaction, I’d been afraid of disappointing the monk, afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of being bullied (by a monk) — good God, did I feel that much anxiety all the time? And, if this monk followed the Buddhist philosophy I knew, all he wanted was to free me from fear and suffering. That is what Buddhists want for everyone. The monk I spoke to at the Shwedagon Pagoda was born into the junta; he had known real fear, on a daily basis, for his entire life. Yet he still spent his days trying to spread peace.
It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone reacting to monks, the most mindfully peaceful of all human beings, with violence, and this is why the recent killings and arrests are so uniquely disturbing. Burma is one of the most devoutly Buddhist countries in the world. Peaceful protest is not a political strategy on the Burmese people’s part; it is the product of the deepest of beliefs, the desire to end all suffering, and to perpetuate none — not even on their apparent enemies.
Americans may, often rightfully, be accused of ignorance when it comes to world events. But the fact that, until recently, few knew of the 1988 uprising is not the result of outright apathy. The junta has done a brilliant job keeping its crimes under wraps. Tourists may see the glitter and shine of the Shwedagon Pagoda, but they do not see the forced labor that restored its walls and spires. The junta has been smart enough to ban international journalists from entering the country, and they shut off regions to visitors if there are things it doesn’t want visitors to see. Of course, some journalists sneak in disguised as tourists, but here’s the rub: If the journalist gets caught talking to Burmese about the current regime, the journalist gets asked to leave; the Burmese gets up to seven years in jail, or worse.
After the violence began on September 26, 2007, the junta couldn’t cover its tracks. Photographs of beatings in the streets, and of monks being pushed into military trucks, hit the Internet on the same day. Facebook groups emerged; “Support the Monks’ Protest in Burma” attracted thousands of members, many of them U.S. college students who subsequently joined local protests. The junta-run newspaper, New Light on Myanmar, reported that, by October 8, a thousand Burmese had been detained, including 135 monks. Dissident groups and foreign governments, however, say it could be as many as 6,000. Two hundred monks, they estimate, have already been killed.
The few reporters who have managed to speak to protesters in Burma say that, although the protests have slowed, the Burmese will not abandon their demands for democracy, even in the face of continued violence. They will continue to demand that Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s rightfully elected leader, be released from house arrest and allowed to take her post as Prime Minister. “We gave up in ‘88,” an anonymous protestor told one CNN reporter. “We’re not going to go through that again.”
On my last day in Burma, as I stared out the window of the bus that would take me back to the ship, I saw a badly painted blue van — a metal box on wheels with two small, rectangular windows cut into the side. The windows were at about eye-level, if you were standing inside the van, and they were barred. Around the bars were pairs of hands.
I do not know what crimes were committed, real or invented, by the owners of those hands. I caught only a glimpse of a sad situation. There was little I could do about it, I thought, from my cushioned seat on an air-conditioned tourist bus.
Just before we’d arrived, I’d read an essay by Mark Jenkins called “The Ghost Road” — a harrowing account of Jenkins’ attempt to dodge travel restrictions and traverse an old military road in northern Burma, which was off-limits to foreigners. The most horrifying scene Jenkins describes is when he is stopped, for the first time, by Burmese authorities on the forbidden road. He is taken into a room where an official interrogates him, but both of them know Jenkins can’t be hurt — he’s an American. Instead, the official brings in a Burmese boy, clearly enslaved by the military, and begins to beat the boy, as if to say to Jenkins, I can’t touch you, but now you have to live with the fact that your actions have led to this.
I had a dream the night I read that essay: Semester at Sea was sponsoring a trip to see a Burmese man get beaten to death. I was supposed to lead the trip but I was late. When I arrived at the site, a naked man was tied down on a rack on the floor, and Burmese tour guides in military attire were throwing buckets of blood and feces on Semester at Sea students and teachers.
“This is to prepare you so you won’t get sick,” they said. Then they began breaking the man’s ribs, one by one, with a hammer. This should have tipped me off that, subconsciously, I knew there was something questionable about the fact that we were going to Burma.
Semester at Sea eliminated Burma from its itinerary after our voyage in Fall 2006. It was too controversial, and students from the Spring 2007 voyage — the voyage on which Desmond Tutu, an outspoken advocate of a travel ban on Burma, sailed — organized a protest, urging Semester at Sea to support Aung San Suu Kyi’s wishes and boycott Burma — even though it had never been on the itinerary anyway.
But virtually everyone from our Fall 2006 voyage was galvanized by their experience in Burma. They brought their newly acquired knowledge home with them, started Burma awareness groups on their campuses, and shocked their friends and family with stories of brutality. They juxtaposed these stories with pictures of the ever-photogenic, smiling — indeed, happy-seeming — monks, who greeted us with such friendliness.
Burma’s dictatorship will not fall without international intervention, and the time may be neigh. Burma finally has the world’s attention, and change seems tenable. We can join their peaceful protests. We can email elected officials. We can boycott companies who still invest in Burma, such as Chevron. We can reject the junta’s name for the country — Myanmar — and stubbornly call it Burma. (The few people I dared to ask, most of them taxi drivers, agreed that they prefer to think of their country as Burma; but as one said carefully: “The government wants us to call it Myanmar, so we call it Myanmar.”)
However, my guess is that the monks would urge us first to sit quietly, close our eyes, and pray. • 9 October 2007