Witness to History in Burma
Monks in Burma are being silenced, beaten, and murdered for their peaceful protests. Here's what happened and how we can help.
BY: Lama Surya Das
Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that each and every gun, bullet, warplane, and battleship produced represented resources stolen from the poor and hungry. As a two-term president and former commanding general of allied forces on D-Day, he knew first-hand what he was talking about. If he were alive today, he would view Burma as proof of his words: its military, 400,000 strong, live in luxury, enjoying the weaponry and personal benefits of the modern world, while its other 40-million-plus citizens live in poverty, searching day-to-day for food.
The military rulers of Burma have committed many acts of violence against the general population, especially ethnic minorities, and now they have turned their weapons against the Buddhist monks who demonstrate a social conscience. There are as many Buddhist monks as soldiers in their country--an estimated 400,000 of each. The ruling junta are hardening their stance against the United Nations's efforts to persuade them to relinquish some power and enter peace and reconciliation talks. Recently Burma's state-run media reported that a Burmese official told Under Secretary General for Political Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, that holding the proposed talks with deposed president Aung San Suu Kyi is impossible, and that Burma will not bow to outside pressure.
I first heard about Burma in the 1960s, from my neighbor Harry Frank, a musician and bandleader who had flown in the Air Force over the hump into China during WWII. For a long time Burma was peaceful and pious, a sleepy Asian country full of thousands of splendid temples and sacred stupa monuments, still redolent of British colonial rule, where we Western seekers went decades ago for monastic meditation retreats and Theravadin Buddhist studies. The muddy banks of the wide Irrawaddi (sacred goddess) River, which slowly coursed down from Tibet, through the fabled city of Mandalay in the north, and southward through the lush country, was reminiscent of naïve dreams of Shangri-la and the ancient yet timeless Orient that a New Yorker like myself could only imagine.
Burma has remained isolated for half a century, not entering the rush to modernity and industrialization that propelled Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, and quoSingapore into the global economy. When I left the International Meditation Center in Rangoon in 1974 to visit with my parents in high-tech Japan, I asked my teacher what I could bring back. “Rubber bands," he said. "We can’t get good rubber bands here.” In contrast, the Tibetan monks I taught English in Nepal had asked for tape recorders and cameras.
Burma, now known as Myanmar, has long been almost frozen in time under the repressive rule of military dictators. But this autumn, the totalitarian junta that rules Myanmar cracked down on the first major pro-democratic uprising in 20 years. This is a hard-line group of aged Cold War-era generals scornful of modernity who took power in the early 1960s during the era of Asian demagogues and tyrants. Nominally Buddhist military men, they're vastly subject to superstition, local spirit worship, and numerology; they're widely detested, feared, and censured for their ruthless ways and atrocious human rights record.
Burma's military junta—the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)—took power in 1988. In 1990 the regime ostracized and arrested the progressive, legally elected democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi—who won her place as Prime Minister by a landslide—and silenced dissidents. They hardened their grip on Southeast Asia’s second largest country (about the size of Texas with a population of 50 million), strategically located at the borders of India, Laos, Bangladesh, Tibet, China, and the American military presence in Thailand. Outside observers have called Burma, “The most repressive, evil, brutal regime on the planet right now.”
In September, more than 100,000 peaceful demonstrators–including large numbers of Buddhist monks, who are held in the highest esteem in the country’s traditional social structure–took to the streets of Rangoon and other cities to protest doubled and tripled fuel prices, widespread poverty and lack of the freedom of self-determination. The army shot into crowds of unarmed citizens, monks, and nuns, resulting in what must certainly be hundreds of deaths and countless more injuries and arrests so far.