Burma: Bad government, great people

It’s not quite 5 a.m. as I push through the doors of the hotel and into the pre-dawn darkness of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. I am reminded by the nativity scene on the lawn in front of the hotel that it is almost Christmas. Though Burma (the ruling military junta would prefer it be called Myanmar) is 90 percent Buddhist there are still signs of Christianity and, therefore, Christmas as part of the legacy left behind by the British occupation before Burma’s independence in 1948.

Though it is winter in Burma, the daytime temps in Yangon will still push into the high 80’s or 90’s. At this hour, however, it is still relatively cool and I am surprised by the number of people out jogging, stretching, doing Tai Chi or, like me, headed to nearby Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most spectacular sites in the Buddhist world.

Over 12 acres in size, Shwedagon itself is a complex of temples and pavilions arranged around one central temple that is 322 feet in height and covered with gold. It is said that this central temple is covered with more gold than is in all of the vaults of the Bank of England. Images and statues of Buddhas and other religious figures number into the thousands. Nearly half of all visitors to Burma visit Shwedagon at least once during their stay in the country. To the Burmese, it is a place of great religious significance which most…

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Burmese will hope to visit at least once in their lifetime.

As I wait for the sun to rise, Shwedagon is a calm, serene place. Monks, nuns and lay people alike recite prayers, light candles or just sit in reverence in front of whichever Buddha or religious figure holds the most significance to them. Shwegadon is one of the first places where recently released pro-democracy advocate and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was seen in public for the first time in seven years.

As I walk around Yangon it seems to me that Burma may be to Asia what Cuba is to Latin America and for many of the same reasons. One of the most corrupt and oppressive governments on earth and the economic sanctions against it by the U.S. and most countries in the West has retarded Burma’s economic growth.

Dilapidated buildings and vehicles are just some of the signs of British colonialism throughout Yangon and many other parts of Burma that create a feeling of melancholy in this otherwise lively city. Despite the brutality of its leaders, the Burmese people still exude a spirit that is largely rooted in their heritage as Buddhists.

Burma was first exposed to Buddhism in the 3rd century and its history is told even today by the incredible number of ancient and modern temples and monasteries found throughout this country comprised of over 60 cultural groups and sub-groups.

Nowhere in Burma is this history more evident than Bagan, which is home to more than 4,000 temples dating as far back as 1,000 years…all within an area just 25-square miles in size.

If you were to combine Tibet (monks and temples) with Hawaii (palm trees and papayas) and Moab (sandstone and red dirt) you would have a pretty good idea what Bagan is like.

Some temples and statues have been renovated. It is not, however, uncommon to come across statues and a few old wall frescoes that date back to the 11th, 12th or 13th centuries.

Some of the temples are massive and tower as much as 200 feet above the plains through which the Irrawadday River makes its way to the Andaman Sea. Many are much more modest. A variety of layouts and designs reflect different design influences that took place over approximately 300-400 years.

Around Bagan, horse carts and bicycle taxis transport locals and tourists alike. Most of the population resides in rudimentary structures made of thatched bamboo. Agriculture is the main livelihood.

Life is hard, yet the people exhibit a civility and modesty that is found in few other places.

Monks and nuns walk the streets and pathways in the early morning hours collecting alms. A newly opened meditation research center is testament to the spirituality and ethics that permeates daily life. Women and even some men wear a skin treatment made form the thanaka tree that is both decorative and a skin conditioner. Many men still wear longyi, a skirt-like garment.

Unfortunately, when speaking of Burma you cannot omit the element of fear and oppression that is also part of daily life. It may not be readily visible, yet it is there.

One business owner told me of a tour guide who was “taken away” for having been overheard speaking negatively about the ruling junta. His whereabouts is still unknown two years later.

Many say that encouragement by the government for people to openly participate in the democratic process is simply a way for the generals to more easily identify its foes.

The one institution that most Burmese put the most faith in is the monastic body of monks and nuns, of which there are over 500,000 residing in over 50,000 monasteries throughout the country.

It was monks that initiated the peaceful demonstrations in 2007 over a sudden doubling of gas prices by the government. The government responded with brutality by killing 31 and imprisoning nearly 3,000.

Paradoxically, Burma is also home to some of the most renown meditation schools in the world. At one time, the government even issued a special visa for meditation students.

As one author wrote about Tibet, the supreme irony for a culture in which compassion and kindness are valued above everything else is that it should be so easily dominated by brute force.

I hope that Burma finds a way to realize its true potential economically and spiritually. It is an incredible place to visit and one I hope to return to again.

For reference, the Lonely Planet guidebook on Myanmar gives a great overview of politics and religion in Burma. Also of interest is the NPR program “Speaking of Faith” from Nov. 1, 2007, called “Burma: Buddhism and Power.” Documentary film, “Burma VJ” available from Netflix. More photos at www.bobwinsett.com

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Freed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi tells of her years under house arrest in Burma

Newly freed democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi gave an insight Wednesday into the daily routine and inner strength that enabled her to endure years under house arrest in Burma.

“It wasn’t all that difficult,” she told London’s The Times.

“I was in my own home. What was I going through? I was simply sitting in my house. I’ve never been one for going out a lot. I listened to music. I like sketching a bit and so on. I’m a very indoors sort of person, if you like, so it was no great hardship.”

She expressed surprise at any perception that she had gone through great hardship, comparing her treatment with those of the estimated 2100 other political prisoners in Burma.

“What do you think it would be like for those who have been imprisoned for years and years and years?” she asked.

“I had regular meditation sessions. I had a lot to do. Really. People seem to be surprised. You want to keep your house clean and tidy – you have to spend some time doing that. And then, of course, reading takes up time and listening to the radio took up a lot of hours every day because I didn’t want to miss any of the news about Burma.

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Suu Kyi’s 20-year war of wills with Myanmar junta: Profile

Aung San Suu Kyi’s patience and fierce determination have been tested repeatedly during a 20-year war of wills against Myanmar’s military rulers.

Those qualities, honed by a daily morning regimen of Buddhist meditation, have helped her in a battle in which she has effectively spent 15 of the last 20 years under house arrest.

Born June 19, 1945, Suu Kyi (pronounced Sue Chee) was only two when her father, Burmese independence hero General Aung San, was murdered by political rivals.

Her mother, Khin Kyi, served in several posts in the newly independent country, including ambassador to India. Suu Kyi grew up abroad, attending Britain’s Oxford University where she received degrees in philosophy and economics in 1967.

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Burma releases pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi

The Burmese military authorities have released the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest.

Appearing outside her home in Rangoon, Ms Suu Kyi told thousands of jubilant supporters they had to “work in unison” to achieve their goals.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been detained for 15 of the past 21 years. It is not yet clear if any conditions have been placed on her release.

US President Barack Obama welcomed her release as “long overdue”.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Ms Suu Kyi was an “inspiration”, and called on Burma to free all its remaining political prisoners.

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We have a brief biography of Aung Sang Suu Kyi in the context of a post we wrote on the Top 10 Celebrity Buddhists.

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Prison meditation courses expand in Burma

Prisoners in Myanmar jails, sometimes accompanied by warders and other prison staff, are studying meditation and Buddhist doctrine as more courses on Dhamma are being offered to inmates.

The first course, in 2008, took place at Insein prison and attracted 50 prisoners and was followed by a second course for younger prisoners.

In 2009, meditation courses were held for the first time at Tharyarwady prison in Bago Division. Four more have been conducted at Tharyarwady since then, while three courses have been held at Mandalay prison.

The instructors are provided by the Dhamma Joti Centre, on behalf of S N Goenka, a leading teacher of Vipassana (insight) meditation. The Vipassana method was preserved in Myanmar by the great teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971), long after it had been lost in India where it originated.

A meditation centre, the Dhamma Hita Thukha Vipassana Centre, has been set up at Insein prison, a Dhamma Joti Centre spokesperson said.

“Seventeen courses have already been conducted at the Dhamma Hita Thukha Vipassana Centre – 11 for males, four for females and two for youths. More than 1000 inmates have attended so far. The centre also offered a one-day Arnarparna course for children,” the spokesperson said.

Later this year, the Dhamma Hita Thukha Vipassana Centre plans to begin offering a course in Satipatthana – unremitting application of mindfulness – meditation.

“When there are enough students for a Satipatthana course, we will run it. The course is more intense than the regular ones. Students must already take a 10-day course three times and one-time Dhamma servicing,” the Dhamma Joti spokesperson told The Myanmar Times.

Jail wardens and staff from the Insein, Tharyarwady and Mandalay prisons also take part in the meditation courses organised by Dhamma Joti.

Goenka Gyi says jails are actually meant to bring people out of their misery, out of their mistakes. For this, Vipassana meditation is a wonderful tool for prisoners.

“I am glad that this has started working and this will certainly be a great example for the world, how prisons should be maintained, and how inmates are improved, so that when they come out, they will become an asset to society and not a liability. Vipassana will certainly help,” Goenka Gyi said.

Prisons Department director general U Zaw Winn said he believes prisoners – who take the course voluntarily – can use the meditation teachings to help find insight and peace.

U Thein Aung, who conducted the first course in Insein prison, said Dhamma represents universal truth, and is of concern to everyone, whatever their background. Just as the men are in prison for committing criminal offences, so others are imprisoned by desire, prejudice and delusion, he said.

People commit crimes when they cannot see beyond anger, hatred, desire and ill will, and are defeated by them. They react to this defeat by hurting or even killing others, he said.

“It is of vital importance to be mindful of thoughts, speech and action that can lead to good results as well as bad. People commit crimes when they cannot control their feelings or react without thinking,” said U Thein Aung.

According to the Dhamma Joti centre, 84 former Dhamma students have now been released and are resuming their lives in society, spreading Dhamma teaching among friends.

[via Myanmar Times]
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Monks succeed in cyclone relief as junta falters

Monks Succeed in Cyclone Relief as Junta Falters – NYTimes.com

KUN WAN, Myanmar — They paddle for hours on the stormy river, or carry their sick parents on their backs through the mud and rain, traveling for miles to reach the one source of help they can rely on: Buddhist monks.

At a makeshift clinic in this village near Bogale, an Irrawaddy Delta town 75 miles southwest of Yangon, hundreds of villagers left destitute by Cyclone Nargis arrive each day seeking the assistance they have not received from the government or international aid workers.

Since the cyclone, the Burmese have been growing even closer to the monks while their alienation from the junta grows. This development bodes ill for the government, which brutally cracked down on thousands of monks who took to the streets last September appealing to the ruling generals to improve conditions for the people.

The May 3 cyclone left more than 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million survivors grappling with hunger and homelessness. This week, some of them who had taken shelter at monasteries or gathered on roadsides were being displaced again, this time by the junta, which wants them to stop being an embarrassment to the government and return to their villages “for reconstruction.” On Friday, United Nations officials said that refugees were also being evicted from government-run camps.

The survivors have little left of their homes and find themselves almost as exposed to the elements as their mud-coated water buffaloes. Meanwhile, outside aid is slow to arrive, with foreign aid agencies gaining only incremental access to the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta and the government impounding cars of some private Burmese donors.

In a scene the ruling generals are unlikely to see played out for themselves, a convoy of trucks carrying relief supplies, led by Buddhist monks, passed through storm-devastated villages in the delta this week. Hungry children and homeless mothers bowed in supplication and respect.

“When I see those people, I want to cry,” said Sitagu Sayadaw, 71, one of Myanmar’s most respected senior monks.

Village after storm-hit village, it is clear who has won people’s hearts. Monks were among those who died in the storm. Now, others console the survivors while sharing their muddy squalor.

With tears welling in her eyes, Thi Dar, 45, pressed her hands together in respect before the first monk she saw at the clinic here and told her story. The eight other members of her family were killed in the cyclone. She no longer had anyone to talk with and felt suicidal. The other day, word reached her village that a monk had opened a clinic six miles upriver. So on Thursday, she got up early and caught the first boat.

“In my entire life, I have never seen a hospital,” she said. “So I came to the monk. I don’t know where the government office is. I can’t buy anything in the market because I lost everything to the cyclone.”

Nay Lin, 36, a volunteer doctor at the clinic, one of the six emergency clinic shelters Sitagu Sayadaw has opened in the delta, said: “Our patients suffer from infected wounds, abdominal pains and vomiting. They also need counseling for mental trauma, anxiety and depression.”

While the government has been criticized for obstructing the relief effort, the Buddhist monastery, the traditional center of moral authority in most villages here, proved to be the one institution people could rely on for help.

The monasteries in the delta that are still standing have been clogged with refugees. People who could help went there with donations or as volunteers. Monasteries that served as religious centers, orphanages and homes for the elderly have also become shelters for the homeless.

The interdependence between monks and laypeople is age-old. Monks receive alms from the laity and offer spiritual comfort in return. In villages without government schools, a monastic education is often the only option.

“The monks’ role is more important than ever,” said Ar Sein Na, 46, a monk in the delta village of That Kyar. “In a time of immense suffering like this, people have nowhere to go except to monks.”

Kyi Than, 38, said she traveled 15 miles by boat to Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp.

“Our village monk died during the storm,” she said. “Monks are like parents to us. The government wants us to shut up, but monks listen to us.”

Faced with the deadliest cyclone to hit Asia in 38 years, senior monks have organized their own relief campaigns.

Every day, their convoys head down delta roads. A leading figure in these efforts is Sitagu Sayadaw, whose name invariably draws a thumbs-up sign here.

“Meditation cannot remove this disaster,” he said. “Material support is very important now. Now in our country, spiritual and material support are unbalanced.”

Trucks of rice, beans, onions, clothes, tarpaulins and cooking utensils, donated from all over Myanmar, pulled into his International Buddhist Missionary Center in Yangon from early morning on. Each day, shortly after dawn, a convoy of trucks or a barge on the Yangon River departs for the delta, loaded with relief supplies and volunteers.

Sitagu Sayadaw sat on a wooden bench in his field headquarters as people lined up to pay their respects. Villagers came to present lists of their most urgent needs. Monks from outlying villages came asking for help to repair their temples. Wealthy families from towns knelt before him and donated bundles of cash.

However, like other senior monks here, he must strike a careful balance. He has the moral duty to speak out on behalf of his suffering people, but in order to protect his social programs and hospitals, which provide free medical care to the destitute, he must try not to anger the government, which views such private undertakings as a reproof.

Nonetheless, speaking at his shelter as an afternoon monsoon rain drummed against the roof, Sitagu Sayadaw sounded frustrated with the government.

“In my country, I cannot see a real political leader,” he said.

“Gen. Than Shwe’s ‘Burmese way to democracy?’ ” he said, referring to the junta’s top leader. “What is it?”

He defended the monks’ uprising last September, saying the government’s failure to provide “material stability” for the people undermined the monks’ ability to provide “spiritual stability.”

Among monks interviewed in the delta and Yangon, there was no sign of imminent protests.

Still, a 40-year-old monk at Sitagu Sayadaw’s camp who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of official retribution said that “monks are very angry” about the government’s recent move to evict refugees from monasteries, roadside huts and other temporary shelters, even while the state-run media are filled with stories of government relief efforts. “The government doesn’t want to show the truth.”

A young monk in the Chaukhtatgyi Paya monastery district in Yangon predicted trouble ahead. “You will see it again because everyone is angry and everyone is jobless,” said the monk, who said he joined the September “saffron revolution” and had a large gash over his right eye from a soldier’s beating to show for it.

A monk from Mon State in southern Myanmar, who was visiting the delta to assess the damage and arrange an aid shipment, said, “For the government, these people are no more than dead animals in the fields.”

The simmering confrontation between the pillars of Myanmar life was evident at the village level after the cyclone.

Shortly after the storm, a monk in Myo Thit, a village 20 miles from Yangon, walked around with a loudspeaker inviting victims to his monastery and asking people to donate. The monk had to stop, villagers said, after a township leader affiliated with the government threatened to confiscate the loudspeaker.

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Burmese Forces Fire on Protesters

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Aung San Suu Kyi

The peaceful pro-democracy uprising led by Buddhist monks in Burma (Myanmar) came to a head as the military dictatorship’s troops attacked monks and lay supporters.

Government security forces cracked down for a second day on nationwide protests, firing shots and tear gas, and raiding at least two Buddhist monasteries, where they beat and arrested dozens of monks, according to reports from the city of Yangon.

At least three monks were killed in clashes with Burma’s security forces who cracked down on anti-government protests in Rangoon according to anonymous government officials. One monk was reportedly killed when a gun went off as he tried to wrestle the weapon away from a soldier, while two others were beaten to death, the official said.

The government of Myanmar began a violent crackdown on Wednesday after tolerating more than a month of growing protests in cities around the country. Security forces clubbed and tear-gassed protesters, fired shots into the air and arrested hundreds of the monks, who are at the heart of the demonstrations.

Despite threats and warnings by the authorities, and despite the beginnings of a violent response, tens of thousands of chanting, cheering protesters flooded the streets, witnesses reported. Monks were in the lead, like religious storm troopers, as one foreign diplomat described the scene.

In response to the violence, the United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the crisis, but China blocked a Council resolution, backed by the United States and European nations, to condemn the government crackdown.

An earlier peaceful uprising in 1988 was crushed by the military, which shot into crowds, killing an estimated 3,000 people.

At the United Nations, President Bush on Tuesday announced a largely symbolic tightening of American sanctions against Myanmar’s government. The European Union threatened to tighten its own sanctions if violence was used. On Wednesday, the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, said the first step after any meeting of the Security Council should be to send a United Nations envoy to Myanmar.

The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, and Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town and antiapartheid campaigner, have spoken out in support of their fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader, who has been held under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.

Myanmar Forces Fire on Protesters – New York Times

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Monks seize troops in Burma town

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The BBC reports (Monks seize troops in Burma town) that Buddhist monks have taken about 20 members of the security forces hostage in central Burma, a day after clashes at a protest rally.

In Burma (officially Myanmar) democracy and military dictatorship have been playing seesaw for decades. After liberation from Japanese occupation at the end of Word War II, was first under civilian leadership, but then in an ominous move, army Chief of Staff General Ne Win formed a caretaker government in 1958.

1960 saw elections and a win by U Nu, but then the military took over again in 1962. In 1974 power was transferred to a nominally civilian People’s Assembly — formed and run by the former military leaders. in 1990 the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a general election, but the military did not recognize the result. If this is a game of seesaw, then the military dictatorship is playing Moe to democracy’s Calvin.

The governing military dictatorship has persecuted minorities, hounded pro-Democracy activists, kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest on and off for 11 years, and has generally mismanaged the economy to the point where people are rioting.

The monks had been involved on Wednesday in an anti-government rally where security forces had fired rounds into the air. The officials who are being held captive had come round to the monastery the next day to apologize, only to be seized and to have their vehicles set alight.

This isn’t very monastic behavior, but given the situation we can’t help applauding them. According to the BBC the monastery is surrounded by hundreds of people who have gathered to support the monks, and the security forces are afraid to approach.

In June of this year US diplomats held talks with Burmese government ministers in Beijing to press for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and to discuss the regime’s behavior, but reported that the military dictatorship showed no signs of softening its stance.

The regional grouping Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) is also losing its patience with Burma, frustrated by the government’s continued refusal to progress towards democracy, the poverty it has causes, its tolerance of corruption, its human rights abuses and high levels of black market trading, which includes the smuggling of gems, drugs, and sex-workers into neighboring countries.

Burma is friendless in the region, but in January of this year China and Russia vetoed a draft US resolution at the UN Security Council urging Burma to stop persecuting minority and opposition groups.

Internal dissatisfaction with the ruling junta has been simmering for years and there’s no guarantee that the military dictatorship will relinquish power, but we can keep our fingers crossed that the actions of these feisty bhikkhus will inspire the Burmese people to restore democracy.

In the meantime you can read more about Burma, and opposition to the junta, in the US Campaign for Burma‘s website. (The website of the British equivalent is currently down).

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