PEOPLE POWER STIRRING IN BURMA
Early in the summer I received a request to visit Rangoon, Burma (or, using the official names decreed by the military government, Yangon, Myranmar). The time seemed propitious. Burma has languished under a cruel military government for decades. It has ruthlessly dealt with its opponents, including placing under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years Aung San Suu Kyi, the most popular person in the country and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In the last national election (in 1990), she and the party she headed, the National League for Democracy, won overwhelmingly but the junta refused to abide by the results, placing many of its opponents in prison and Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and with recurring threats on her life. In recent months unrest has been growing with sporadic demonstrations and some open opposition to the government, spurred by harsh economic conditions in the country. My invitation came from Burmese who believe that their country may be at a critical, hopeful, historic moment. They want to study nonviolence and learn about the nonviolent movements of the past century. As groups of more than five must get police permission to come together it was proposed that the study would be only with a small number, carried out in a home quietly and confidentially. Prior to my arrival, I found ways to get a number of articles hand carried into Burma. And I brought with me a DVD in Burmese, A FORCE MORE POWERFUL, the excellent documentary that originally appeared on PBS, telling the stories of the nonviolent movements against oppression in the US civil rights movement, in Communist Poland, in apartheid South Africa, in Pinochet’s Chile, etc.
My trip was made possible by the Frequent Flyer miles of an FOR member/ strong friend of the Burmese people, by a UN friend in Bangkok, by personal funds and US FOR funds. Generous hospitality from my Burmese hosts made the visit especially memorable.
As in all dictatorships I found a strong element of fear everywhere. One cannot even say the name “Aung San Suu Kyi” or have her photo or any of her books. To do so brings arrest. Mention of her is confined to referring to “the Lady” in a lowered tone of voice. Barricades and armed authorities on the street where she lives prevent visitors from even driving by. The media is censored and travel in and out of the country is controlled carefully. There are government informers everywhere and one must be very careful in what you say. I found that even people opposed to the government may not know what their co-workers and neighbors think about the political situation, and I was asked not to tell people I visited what I was doing in Burma other than seeing the sights. One must practice stringent self-censorship in letters, emails, faxes and parcels to the country lest you place the recipient in jeopardy. Ironically, when I arrived at Newark airport after my trip, going through customs I was told to follow a blue line into another room. When I got there all my luggage was carefully searched, including an agent going through all of my handwritten workshop papers, reading them carefully, page by page! I haven’t had that kind of experience since visiting the old Soviet Union in the 1980s.
On the way home, browsing in an airport bookstore in Bangkok, I rejoiced to see Aung San Suu Kyi’s photograph on the cover of a new book, PERFECT HOSTAGE. A LIFE OF AUNG SAN SUU KYI (by Justin Wintle, Hutchinson/Random House, London, 2007, 450 pp.). I purchased it and read it all the way home from Bangkok to Tokyo to Newark.
Since returning to the US, I find that Burma is making headlines--finally! A wave of protests has spread across the country (by far the best source of day to day information, and the source for much of what follows in the rest of this article is www.irrawaddy.org, plus releases from Reuters, AP, the NYTimes and the Washington Post. News stories and powerful photos give an immediate sense of what is going on there. The Irrawaddy, by the way, is one of the principal rivers in Burma).
Since August 15 there has been a strong awakening of people power. It began after the government raised fuel prices as much as 500%, without warning or explanation. Protests began to occur across the country. For example, in Bago, north of the capital, about fifty persons marched in protest, though without signs or chanting. Ordered to disperse they refused and were forcibly jailed. As the word spread, people began to gather. As many as 2000 linked arms and surrounded the place where they were jailed and refused to leave until, by the end of the day, the original protesters were released. In the upper Burman town of Cheuk, .about l00 marched 4 abreast followed every few meters by another four, thus keeping within the law of no gatherings of over four people without police permission. On September 5 there was a fierce government crackdown on Buddhist monks demonstrating in central Burma. In a surprising show of nonviolent force, other monks demanded that the government apologize officially for this treatment of peaceful protesters. When no apology was forthcoming, larger protests resumed. The Buddhists have pretty much been under the thumb of the government since the brutal crackdowns beginning in 1988 but that has quickly been changing. Even among many of the abbots, the mood is angry and supportive of continuing protests. The Federation of All-Burma Young Monks Unions has called on students and other citizens to join in the monks’ protests. Just as the monks have carried their own Buddhist flags, the Young Monks called on students “to lift their own peacock flag”(the symbol of student protest) to show their solidarity.
Mandalay, to the north of Rangoon, has 200 monasteries and is the largest center of monks in the country. Ten thousand of the monks marched far into the night there but they asked the people not to join them, as has been occurring in Rangoon. They are pressing for the peoples’ rights but are cautious about bringing on the kind of vicious backlash that the junta has carried out time and time again in past years. These challenges are very serious for the government. For monks to carry their begging bowls upside down, as some have done, indicates their refusal to receive alms from the soldiers, a type of excommunication.
September 22 was a day of mounting protests. In the heart of Rangoon, one thousand monks and nuns gathered at the country’s holiest site, the golden Shwedagon Pagoda for prayers, then marched to the Chinese Embassy to show their displeasure at China’s unwavering support of the Burmese rulers. As more and more people joined them, the march swelled to 20,000. On the same day 500 hundred monks went to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, surprisingly being allowed to walk through the barricade without resistance from the armed guards that keep the street blocked off. They gathered in front of her home, chanting the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s words on loving kindness. Others joined in behind them. The guards, in blue uniforms with heavy shields and helmets, formed a line in front of the monks but “the Lady”, with tears in her eyes, came out of the house to show her appreciation. The crowd cried out over and over, “Be in good health” and “Be free very soon.” It was a joyous moment—the first time in four years that Aung San Suu Kyi had been seen by anyone other than her doctors, the guards and the few persons in the household. She was not even allowed to attend her husband’s funeral in 1999 nor have visits from her two sons who live in England.
By September 24, amidst continuing protests, 100,000 monks and citizens walked through Rangoon. How the government, which has been taking steps to improve its inter- national image, will respond is uncertain. Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance over the years has been to avoid violence and confrontation but to seek good faith negotiations.
These are momentous days in Burma. Let us hope and pray that the peaceful power of the people—what Gandhi called satyagraha—will bring true peace and freedom to that troubled land.
The workshop closed as we reflected on the meaning for Burma of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.
September 24. 2007