Burma Witness: Journey to a Land Cloaked in Fear

31Dec07

Atrocitynews takes this onus to let the readers know that democracy movement in Burma is taking lives OF PEOPLE . Here is a report from Hozan Alan Senauke highlighting the fear among masses. It’s time to create world opinion in favour of peace

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Burma Witness: Journey to a Land Cloaked in Fear

Hozan Alan SenaukeDecember 2007Draft 4    Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage, which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.  from “Freedom From Fear” by Aung San Suu

In early December, a season of clear sunlight and mild days in Southeast Asia, four friends traveled to Rangoon and to Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border as Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Burma Witness Delegation. Our group comprised Phra Paisan Visalo, a Thai monk and founder of Thailand’s Buddhika network for engaged Buddhism; Nupphanat Anuphongphat (Top), also from Buddhika; Jill Jameson from the Melbourne BPF chapter in Australia; and myself, Hozan Alan Senauke, from BPF’s national office.Jill has worked on Burma issues since 1994, facilitating grassroots leadership training and peace building. I have been involved in raising support and solidarity with the Burmese people since my first visits to the border areas in 1992.  The aims of our delegation were:·        To bear witness to the suffering of Burma’s peoples and to be a voice for the voiceless, sharing stories and views with our communities at home;·       To deepen our understanding of the situation in Burma following the military’s September crackdown;·        To convey the international Buddhist community’s solidarity with the people of Burma; To offer humanitarian support where possible and to explore channels for future support and education;·     To aid monks in exile and explore opportunities for dhammic social teachings.    Background:Burma has endured extreme economic hardships for decades under a thuggish military regime straight out of George Orwell’s 1984. Following an inexorable path of deconstruction, Burma has gone from prosperous, self-sufficient nationhood to its present dubious status as one of the UN’s designated poorest twenty countries. This, of course, is despite a great wealth of natural resources and a hard-working population of 50,000,000, all of which is plundered by the generals for their own pleasure.  When it seemed things could get no worse, towards the end of 2006 basic commodity prices for rice, cooking oil and other necessities rose sharply. Then, on August 15, 2007, with no advance notice, the government cancelled fuel subsidies, and overnight gasoline and oil prices doubled at the pump, and natural gas, used extensively for fueling cars as well as for cooking rose by 500%.  At that point public protest began.  The regime’s immediate response was violent — beating and arresting demonstrators, zeroing in on thirteen well-known dissidents including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Min Zeya, Ko Jimmy, Ko Pyone Cho, Arnt Bwe Kyaw and Ko Mya Aye. The regime’s newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, reported that these activists had fomented civil unrest “aimed at undermining peace and security of the State and disrupting the ongoing National Convention.”  Even now, three months after the demonstrations, activists are still being hunted down, arrested, and summarily imprisoned.  In a nation that is 90% Theravada Buddhist, monks — revered as “sons of the Buddha,” — represent the most stable, ongoing institution of Burmese life. These monks are not cloistered, as one might imagine, but live in a close and symbiotic relationship to the wider population.  It happens, too, that Burmese monks have traditions of peaceful social protest going back to the anti-colonial movement against the British, and continuing in the pro-democracy upheavals of 1988 and 1990. So it is not surprising that monks in central Burma’s city of Pakokku added their presence to nonviolent protests, several hundred of them marching and chanting the Metta Sutta of Lovingkindness.  On September 5, Burmese troops attacked a peaceful demonstration in Pakokku, tying up and beating three monks. On the following day, young monks briefly took several government officials hostage. In a widely read leaflet, the All-Burma Monks’ Alliance demanded that the military apologize for their brutal actions against Pakokku’s monks, setting a deadline of September 17 for response. There was no apology, and the alliance urged all of Burma’s Buddhist monks to boycott alms — “patam nikkujjana kamma” or “overturning the almsbowl” — refusing food and donations from military regime, their families, and supporters. In a culture where “merit-making” is a supreme religious value, this is a radical act. A December news item from Democratic Voice for Burma radio reports that four monasteries in Pakokku have maintained the boycott, passing government officials’ offerings of food to the poor. Monks from four lecturing monasteries in Pakokku…said they wanted to show that they were continuing with their religious boycott against the regime. A group of government officials led by the Magwe division Peace and Development Council chairman and the minister of electrical energy visited the monasteries earlier this month to give offerings of rice to the monks. The monastery head monks accepted the donations but would not give blessings to the officials in return. “We accepted the rice donation because it is not appropriate to reject an offering, but then later we donated the rice to poor people in the neighbourhood.” Tens of thousands of monks created what has been called the Saffron Revolution. The largest protests in twenty years spread quickly across Burma, including Rangoon, Sittwe, Pakokku, Mandalay and other cities, calling for decent living conditions and national reconciliation. On September 22, the Monks’ Alliance described the junta as an “evil military despotism, which is impoverishing and pauperizing our people of all walks, including the clergy, as the common enemy of all our citizens.”  From September 22-25, the world saw Burmese monks demonstrating peacefully in more than twenty-five cities. On the 22nd, they pushed through the barriers blocking off opposition NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi home in Rangoon.  Though she was still under house arrest, as she has been for twelve of the last seventeen years, Suu came out on her balcony to receive blessings from the monks.  As they continued to march, the monks were joined by students and working people, inspired by their example and grateful to take part in the largest protests seen in Burma for twenty years.  The junta moved seasoned troops into place on September 26, imposed strict curfew and a ban on any public or private assembly of more than five people.  Arrests, beatings and killings followed directly, and this repression continues today.  Dozens of monasteries have been closed and locked.  Tens of thousands of monks have fled or were exiled from the larger cities. A full reckoning of all those killed, disappeared, or arrested has not yet been made, but the numbers are far beyond the minimizing lies of the generals. And every person one speaks to affirms that nothing in any way is “back to normal.”  Nothing is normal about a state of fear that lasts forty-five years.    The DelegationJill and I spent four days in Bangkok laying the groundwork for the delegation.  We had our visas, so most of our time was spent talking with Burmese, Thai, and western social activists who could deepen our understanding of Burma’s present circumstances, and help us make contacts in Rangoon and Mae Sot.  (In this report I do not use the real names of people or monasteries except where names are already public and well known.) We flew into Yangon International Airport on the morning of December 4, an hour or so flight from Bangkok on a plane only a third full of travelers, mostly businessmen, and a handful of tourists.  The airport itself is new and spotlessly clean, fully staffed with customs and immigration officials and cabdrivers. But Yangon International featured no shops or restaurants. In fact, I saw only one other airplane anywhere on the tarmac. Phra Paisan, Top, and I came on one flight, and Jill followed two hours later.   En route to the hotel, we had our first view of Rangoon. Streets were filled with people on their way to work, but car traffic was light — the cars themselves aged, decrepit, and spewing exhaust. Buses and trucks were crammed with commuters who literally hung out the windows and doors. There were few monks or nuns in the street — only very young novices and old men, carrying their almsbowls — where ordinarily there would be monks on every street.    Our taxi driver questioned us closely. His questions seemed to go beyond the realm of curiosity — from why have you come to Burma and how long will you stay, to whom do you know here? — so I was careful in my responses, aware that we were going to be watched wherever we went, and that the scrutiny had begun the minute we stepped off the plane.  Jill followed a little later, and when we met up at the hotel she had an interesting story.  Her taxi driver went through the same kind of questions — where are you from, what will you do, how long will you stay, who do you know, etc. Then he remarked that three men had come on an earlier flight — an American, a Thai monk, and another Thai — and asked if she were connected with them. We wondered why he had connected Jill with us, and what other connections had already been made. It set me on edge.  Over the next four days in Rangoon we met with Burmese activists, senior monks, teachers, students, orphans, diplomats, and ordinary people in the streets, monasteries, homes, teashops, and restaurants. We visited monasteries, schools, and bustling markets. We woke up before dawn to circumambulate the astonishing Shwedagon pagoda as the sun set fire to its golden flanks. Wherever we went, people were very happy to meet with us, and welcomed the news that the world was still keeping Burma in view. But wherever we went we also were aware of pervasive fear. Even as people smiled, one could see fear so close to the surface. On busy streetcorners, large red billboards proclaim the generals’ authoritarian message, what they call “People’s Desire.” 1. Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.2. Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation.3. Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State.4. Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.

 We felt ourselves watched in the hotel and in other public spaces. While the police presence was not obvious as it had been a month or two earlier, monasteries, and other buildings were blocked with military vehicles and vigilant uniformed guards. Even in their own homes, people often speak in a kind of code. In teashops voices were lowered, and people kept an eye out for who was listening in. From one of our contacts, Aung Myint, we heard that beggars and downtown squatters had been taken off to detention centers, and that military intelligence were dressed as monks at many of the monasteries and pagodas. One afternoon, while we visited a monastic orphanage, distributing packets of ramen to all the children, plainclothes officers followed us in and closely questioned the senior monk about our purposes. It seems that feeding children was not illegal that day, but as the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies.  But fear is not simply imposed by the military from outside. We felt this fear ourselves, not so much for ourselves, but for the safety of friends who took risks simply talking with westerners. A Burmese activist friend, Daniel, explained, “We have a saying. If you have died once, you know how much the coffin costs.” People are well aware of the price of resistance. Images of blood in the streets, the disappearance of friends and fellow monks understandably creates a kind of internal silencing. At the same time, internalized fear takes its own toll on the Burmese, manifesting as anger, mistrust, and depression. Aung San Suu Kyi writes in Freedom From Fear, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”  All we could do was listen. As Buddhists, listening is an essential practice, breaking down the barriers separating self and other, actually making ourselves vulnerable to the pain of our new friends. People in Burma have a deep need to tell their stories in full, what they have directly experienced going back long before September, with all its violent and brutal detail. There was lightness, too; laughter in the dark that serves as a necessary survival tool in Burma.  

    InvestigationThe Buddha taught that suffering marks all our human lives. Because our individual lives are not separate from the lives of our sisters and brothers, the path of Buddhist practice is to turn towards that suffering.  Circumstances and time limited our opportunities on this visit to Rangoon, but even in a few days we had a chance to investigate suffering and resistance there in many aspects of daily life.  According to the IMF, the government of Burma spends only 0.4% of state revenues on education and 0.5% on health, compared with approximately 40% on the military (this in a country that has no external enemies). Along with the public school system, which is unable to accommodate all the children in this nation of 50,000,000, Buddhist monastic schools and orphanages play a key role.  In the Rangoon Division alone there are 162 monastic schools, which serve an estimated 75-80,000 children. There are also many schools run by Christian denominations.  Betty said there could be “hundreds of thousands of orphans.”  Often, she said, a child’s father was a soldier killed in the civil war.  A mother gathering food in the forest is wounded by a landmine. These children are sometimes called “scrap children,” their families too poor to feed or keep them, or even afford the low fees of a government school. Finishing the requisite five years of elementary school, a child may have no option but to join the army or become a monk. But more and more children are forced conscripts to the army. Recent reports of Burmese child soldiers as young as ten have reached the international media.  At one school we visited there were 500 students — half of them in residence, the other half from the local town — and often there was not enough food.  Rice was of the poorest grade, and often had to be stretched into a thin porridge to go around. Children sat at cramped benches, learned by rote memorization. The large dormitories smelled of neglect. During our visit, a health worker was lifted the children’s shirts to reveal extensive ringworm and ulcers on many of the students, which she treated with a sulphur ointment. Malnutrition, over-crowding, and limited staff mean that children are neglected despite the teachers’ and monks’ best intentions.  The average income in Burma is less than $250 a year.  When we asked the lay teachers at a monastic school about their salaries, they earned about $12 to $15 a month.  Dr. Win told us that many people outside of Rangoon can afford just one meal a day. August’s fuel increases mean some people cannot afford the bus fare to go to work.  One senior monk had a unique response to the food shortages. He set up a network of small shops as a social development project for young people, producing low cost boxed meals of rice and curry to distribute in several rural locations. But he was reluctant to talk about this in detail, having been warned quietly by government agents not to expand the project.  Even this highly respected monk was not immune to intimidation.  Monastic schools, like many urban monasteries, have been hard hit since September. At one school we visited, where there had previously been 200 monks, only 15 remained to staff a school of more than 500 children. Those missing monks have not been heard from since their departure. The pressing question is: Where are the monks? According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, in Rangoon alone, nearly 35 monasteries have been raided.  In most cases, resident monks either fled or were transported back to their home villages. It is worth noting that in our time in Rangoon, although the monks we met were in full support of the demonstrations, we did not come across a single monk who admitted marching or taking part. (We did meet a number of them in Mae Sot several days later.) Some monks were forcibly disrobed, and those identified as leaders of the All-Burma Monks Alliance have been imprisoned and tortured. Contrary to the junta’s claim that only 2% of the monks took to the streets, a more realistic estimate is closer to 30%.  Videos and photographs from Rangoon, Mandalay, and Pakokku show a sea of red robes, well over 100,000 monks in those days of late September.  We heard from Stephen that four categories of monks were indicted for participation in the protests.  There were monks implicated by the junta for watching the protests, for clapping, offering water, and for marching themselves. Those arrested in first three categories were released after a month’s interrogation, signing a pledge not to participate in such actions in the future. Many of the arrested monks who actually marched are still in detention. Stephen also told us that a college friend, now a colonel in the military, had revealed that officers and soldiers under his command raided a monastery while drunk, and that he had been under orders to beat monks while questioning them. From his own experience, Stephen confirmed reports noted by the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro that during the crackdown, a government-controlled crematorium had been running late in the night.  Mr. Pinheiro cites: …the Ye Way crematorium under the control of the Police Controller and Central Department, where credible sources report a large number of bodies (wrapped in plastic and rice bags) were burned during the night, between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m., on 27-30 September. Sources indicate that it was not usual practice for the crematorium to operate during the hours in question, that normal employees were instructed to keep away, and that the facility was operated on those nights by State security personnel or State-supported groups. At least one report indicates that some of the deceased being cremated had shaved heads and some had signs of serious injuries. Another reliable source, Peter, indicated that many more monks and civilians were killed and disappeared than the number given by the regime, more, in fact, than the number in Special Rapporteur Pinheiro December report on human rights in Myanmar. According to Peter’s figures at least 30 monks were killed in Rangoon, and more than 70 people were killed in detention after the demonstrations ended. Pinheiro reported 31 monks killed, a further 74 listed as missing, and up to 1000 still detained —106 of these are women, including 6 Buddhist nuns. At one monastery we were told that the all the local nuns had fled after the crackdown, and that people miss their chanting in the mornings. No one could tell us anything about the fate of Burma’s nuns.    Chargé d’AffairesShari Villarosa is the America’s chargé d’affaires in Rangoon, senior U.S. diplomat in Burma. She was kind enough to set up an appointment for me to talk with her at the embassy residence.  Discussing this invitation, our delegation decided this meeting would best be on our last afternoon in Rangoon, knowing that it would be observed by Burmese intelligence. With some justification, we feared that the SPDC found our activities suspicious, and that this might be the last straw. The ambassador’s residence is a beautiful home, originally built by a British teak merchant not far from downtown. Though fully encircled with high walls and barbed wire, its green lawn slopes down to Inya Lake, across the water from Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and the U.S. embassy itself. The atmosphere is hushed. Just the hum of the air conditioning, and the soft steps of servants. When Ms. Villarosa arrives, her brisk Texas voice naturally energizes the whole house.  Shari Villarosa is a career officer in the Foreign Service, with a history of postings around Asia and Latin America. She has been in Burma for two years, with one more year to go, and has developed as a sharp critic of the SPDC. Under her leadership, theembassy’s American Center has worked closely with the dissident movement, offering a sanctuary for open discussion and training on human rights, community organization, and civil society, until the junta began to intercept those coming and going from such meetings. During and after the September uprisings, Ms. Villarosa and her staff visited numerous monasteries, now empty and locked, and she has consistently expressed her concern for the lives of monks and political detainees.  In the course of a two-hour conversation, we covered many topics.  It occurred to me that spending two hours, one-on-one with me implied that perhaps the U.S. chargé d’affaires didn’t have enough to do. Ms. Villarosa said, “I am here to talk with people, my door is always open.” But the generals have no wish to speak with her, or with anyone who questions their view of reality.   Among the points we discussed:• The generals resist change, and seem inclined to hold power for life.
• The people of Burma are bright, highly educable, and hungering for technology, though terribly hobbled by oppression, fear, and lack of educational infrastructure. There is a pressing need inside the country for training in critical thinking and the workings of civil society, because social change will necessarily come from inside, not from the borders, or from outside the country.  So international organizations should be bringing resources in.
• Burma’s wealth of natural resources is in the border and ethnic areas, rather than in the relatively arid regions of central Burma. Ethnic tensions have a material base along with cultural and historical roots.
• Distinct from other authoritarian regimes — like those of Sukarno and Suharto in Indonesia, which created a semblance of plurality — Burma’s generals have not made a single concession to the non-Burman ethnic groups, preferring to use the military to attack them, raze their homes, and destroy their culture.
• Factionalism in Burma is unfortunately endemic, and is nothing new. Burma’s leaders need to be working out differences now, rather than waiting on the miraculous arrival of “democracy” before engaging with each other.
• Sanctions are an essential policy tool for the U.S., E.U., Australia, and others, even though everyone recognizes that extensive trade with China, India, Russia, Thailand, ASEAN undercut their effect. 

Whether or not sanctions are fully effective, they send a clear signal that we stand behind Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD as Burma’s legitimate elected representatives; that we fully support Aung San Suu Kyi’s call for sanctions and her position on dialogue with the junta.   On The BorderWe flew back from Rangoon to Bangkok on the morning of December 8. From Bangkok, the four of us drove seven hours by hired van to the small city of Mae Sot, on the Thai-Burma border, just across the Moei River from the Burmese town of Myawaddy. Mae Sot, known as “Little Burma,” lies on the western edge of Thailand’s mountainous Tak Province. More than 80,000 Burmese, largely from the Karen state, live as illegal aliens in and around Mae Sot, often employed as garment workers in more than 200 walled factories. The average pay (for those lucky enough to find work) is less than $2 U.S. per day, half the official minimum wage in Thailand.  We visited Mae Sot not just because of the large Burmese population, but because its strategic location makes it home to a wide range of NGOs and grassroots activist organizations deeply committed to social change inside Burma.  We had also heard that a number of monks had fled there after the crackdown. In our brief three days we met with representatives of the National League for Democracy-Liberated Area (NLD-LA), the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), the Burmese Women’s Union, the Karen Women’s Organization, the Organizing Committee for Saffron Strength, Asia-Pacific Peoples’ Partnership on Burma (APPPB), and the All-Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF). It is often hard to keep things straight in all this alphabet soup.  Each group does what it can to sustain itself and its constituency. My concern is how can these many groups relax their organizational boundaries, pool their wisdom and resources, and work trustingly with each other. In numerous conversations, mistrust along political lines and along Burman/ethnic group lines could be heard in a quick comment or seen in a sideways glance.    Some of these factional differences date from colonial times, and the sophisticated British technique of divide-and-rule.  Some are historical remnants of the various rulers, kingdoms, and territories that predate anything one might now call “Burma.” Some reflect different political and tactical analyses about what to do in opposition to the regime. Unity is a rare treasure.  The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners maintains communication as best it can with the families of political prisoners inside Burma and a wide network of ex-prisoners, all of whom were tortured for their political activities from 1988 to the present. Photos of political prisoners line the office walls. AAPP’s Joint-Secretary Bo Kyi, who spent two terms and more than seven years in prison before escaping to Thailand. In a back room of the AAPP house, he has created a kind of museum, with a model of the notorious Insein Prison and a typical cell, diagrams of common methods of stress and torture, and maps locating thirty-nine military-controlled prisons in Burma. Disturbingly graphic photographs depict the wounded and murdered bodies of those who opposed the regime. Yet speaking with another dissident, Win, a survivor of crippling torture and fifteen years of prison, we were inspired by the activists’ extraordinary courage and determined commitment for freedom, dignity, and for the cause of democracy. Although Mae Sot has a large population of Karen and other ethnic peoples in and around the city, and another 75,000 refugees in three large camps nearby, surprisingly few victims from central Burma have arrived since September.  Reliable sources suggest that only several hundred have made the difficult journey to the border, and of those, merely several dozen monks.  The number is hard to pin down.  We were invited to talk with monks from Rangoon, Mandalay, and Bago at two Mae Sot safe houses. Several of the eleven monks we met saw themselves as leaders in their communities.  Others were monks whose conscience led them into the demonstrations.  What they saw and experienced in September at the hands of the SPDC and its civilian agents have left deep shadows on their minds. In each case, escape from the cities forced them to disrobe temporarily, using false papers and disguise to make their way across Burma. On crossing the border, presumably finding safety, a sayadaw in this group was arrested by Thai police, and friends had to pay a bribe of more than $80 to release him from threatened repatriation.  If life is insecure inside Burma, the situation of escaped monks in Thailand is hardly more secure. Since Thailand has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has no process to determine whether immigrants face persecution in Burma, which would entitle them to protection as refugees under international law.  Thailand has prevented the UNHCR from registering and screening new arrivals, so they are vulnerable to arrest and deportation, and of course, bribery and exploitation. Dr. Cynthia Maung’s famous Mae Tao Clinic, the main medical resource for Burmese migrants and refugees, has been raided countless times. Thai Special Branch officers conduct random raids on the homes and offices of refugee relief organizations, confiscating personnel and client files.  The monks we spoke with feel this insecurity keenly.  Many of them are living in safe houses along with lay people, a highly unusual situation for Burmese monastics. They are not permitted to go on alms round for food.  The Thai sangha does not welcome or include them in their temple life.  Even the long-established Burmese temples in Mae Sot do not permit them to stay in residence. Without UNHCR refugee status, without financial support, without the sustaining regimen of dhamma practice together, these monks have left the street battles of Burma and entered a twilight zone of displacement on the Thai border.  They deserve much better than this.  On our final evening in Mae Sot, after Phra Paisan and Top had gone back to Bangkok, Jill and I had an excellent Burmese dinner at a local restaurant, where posters of Che Guevara — charismatic and handsome in his fatigues, cigar in hand — graced the walls. Later that evening, over beers at a bar across town, we spoke with Than Gyi, a long-time activist who still supports a policy of armed struggle against the junta, including targeted assassination.  He sees this as a practical way of forcing the junta into dialogue. It saddened me to hear that kind of thinking persists, even after twenty years of repression, where the balance of arms and brutality belongs to the regime.  We listened to each other, we argued in a measured way. I liked this man, and I could see how the last twenty years of strife and loss have weighed him down.  I cannot see the tactical or strategic advantages of armed struggle.  As a Buddhist I am alarmed at the karmic implications.  But these are decisions his people must make. I was also moved by his passionate words: “I want my daughter to live in a free Burma, a country different from how it has been for the last forty years.”  In the end, we agreed to find a way to continue our conversation, and explore our different views.   Some Observations1. Despite the SPDC’s denials, nearly 2000 detainees and political prisoners fill Burma’s prisons.  The number of those disappeared in the last three months alone is still not clear. Along with the United Nations and dozens of countries around the world, we call for the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners. This is the essential precondition for open dialogue between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi (along with other democratic and ethnic groups), leading to a civilian, democratic government in Burma.          In many respects Burma’s political prisoners hold the key to the future.  These activists, monks, ethnic leaders, and disenfranchised parliamentarians have a wealth of political understanding.  They are often highly educated, aware of the world, and by virtue of life in prison they are sensitive to human suffering that transcends ideology and identity.  While the junta’s prisons remain, we must support the prisoners and their families, and inform the world of their plight.  2. Where are the monks?  This question is only half-answered, but we know with certainty where they are not. Countless monks are not in their urban monasteries and schools.  They are not studying and practicing dhamma.  They are not serving their communities as in the past.  Whether they are fled or dismissed to the countryside, imprisoned, disrobed, or escaped to other countries, the Burmese sangha is gravely injured.  The one stable institution of Burmese society that has stood through all the wars and civil strife of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is fragmented and threatened.  No one knows what the situation will be like in six months or a year, but the need for solidarity, support, and pressure on the SPDC is immediate. Monks or “sons of Buddha” are being treated as criminals. But the people still revere the robe itself.  And the practice of Buddhist meditation has deep roots in the lay population, even among activists. We met political prisoners who depended on their meditation training to survive torture and years of incarceration and to overcome the deep depression of powerlessness. If Burma is to survive, the monasteries must be open, and monks must have the freedom to practice dhamma in safety and in the broad circle of community.  3. Forty-five years of military dictatorship have deeply wounded Burma’s body politic. On a structural level, there is often an inability for political and ethnic groups to work across lines of ideology and identity. Fractiousness allows the junta to prevail. Democracy, even under the brilliant and charismatic leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, is unlikely to succeed unless civil society and trust are carefully created right within the shell of the dictatorship. Those of us in a position to provide resources and skills can urge our Burmese friends to lift themselves out of divisiveness, towards new trust, cooperation, and political development. 4. The wounds of dictatorship and brutality scar the souls of all Burma’s people.  Political harmony will depend on healing at every level.  The path of healing is for the people themselves to decide, but a wide variety of tools are available: prayer and devotion, storytelling, psychological intervention, traditional culture itself.  But unless these wounds are acknowledged and engaged, as we have seen in many war-torn nations, they will replicate like a virus from one generation to the next, and the suffering will continue as legacy.    Tentative directions for Burma support• Education and Training: At primary and secondary school levels, there is need for curricula in critical thinking, particularly inside Burma, and in border areas where resources are very limited, but access is possible.  Monastic schools, which supplement the government schools’ basic literacy programs within Burma, lack books, school supplies, teachers, and even food in many places.  Training in political science, social development, and civil society are needed for youth and activists at the post-secondary level. There are existing channels for limited support in these areas.  These channels must be explored and broadened. • Humanitarian Relief: Monks, political prisoners, and orphans are vulnerable populations within Burma. As with education, we can broaden already existing channels for financial and material support.  • Healing: The trauma of forty-five years of repression touches each individual and family. People sensitive to the cultural environments of Southeast Asia, and skilled at the healing arts are widely needed there.  • Working with UNHCR on refugee status: The government of Thailand, compromised by its economic ties and historical antipathy to Burma, has failed in its responsibility to support Burma’s displaced ethnic peoples.  Skillful political pressure on the Thai sangha and government, and on the United Nations can create a small measure of security for Burmese living in Thailand. • Establishing a dhamma center on the Thai-Burma border: The monks who fled Burma after September’s crackdown, need a place in which they can continue to practice. While Thailand’s religious authorities have particular regulations for temples, we can help exiled monks create a functional dhamma center or centers on the border.  These centers can serve as residences, monastic schools, and refuge for the entire Burmese Buddhist community.    In The Quiet LandIn the Quiet Land, no one can tellif there’s someone who’s listeningfor secrets they can sell.
The informers are paid in the blood of the land
and no one dares speak what the tyrants won’t stand. In the quiet land of Burma,
no one laughs and no one thinks out loud.
In the quiet land of Burma,
you can hear it in the silence of the crowd In the Quiet Land, no one can say
when the soldiers are coming
to carry them away.
The Chinese want a road; the French want the oil;
the Thais take the timber; and SLORC takes the spoils… In the Quiet Land….
In the Quiet Land, no one can hear
what is silenced by murder
and covered up with fear.
But, despite what is forced, freedom’s a sound
that liars can’t fake and no shouting can drown.   Aung San Suu Kyi
 

Hozan Alan Senauke is a Soto Zen priest in the tradition of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, vice-abbot at Berkeley Zen Center in California. He lives at BZC with his wife, Laurie, and their two children.  Since 1991 has been a leader in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He continues to work with BPF, and has recently begun The Clear View Project: Buddhist-Based Education & Humanitarian Support for Social Change. In another realm, Alan has been a student and performer of American traditional music for more than forty years. To contact Alan with questions and comments about this report or about The Clear View Project, email to alans@kushiki.org.



One Response to “Burma Witness: Journey to a Land Cloaked in Fear”


  1. 1 Car Donation » Blog Archive » Burma Witness: Journey to a Land Cloaked in Fear

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