meditation in prison

Prison meditation program helps inmates rebuild minds, restart lives

wildmind meditation newsAllegra Abramo and Lisa Riordan Seville, NBC News: The men filed into the chapel, pulled chairs into circles, and sat. Then this corner of New Jersey’s Bayside State Prison got quiet.

A short meditation opens each weekly session of Heart-to-Heart, a mindfulness and nonviolence program run at three east coast prisons. Silence, said founder Stephen Michael Tumolo, helps bring “present moment awareness.”

That’s where he believes transformation starts.

“One thing we have choice in is where our mind is,” said Tumolo. “Present moment awareness can radically alter one’s experience in the moment. And then it can radically reshape the next steps we take.”

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Prisoners and guards ‘should meditate together’, MP says

Bill Gardner, The Telegraph: Prisoners and their guards should meditate together to reduce violence and improve behaviour, an MP has suggested.

Mindfulness is said to change the way people think about experiences and reduce stress and anxiety, an approach adopted by around 115 MPs and peers in the “hothouse” of Parliament.

Using meditation, devotees are trained to “accept the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment”.

Labour’s Chris Ruane said the “chic” approach would help prisoners to learn “gratitude, appreciation and balance”. Meditating would …

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Prison yoga, meditation classes to expand across Canada

For over a decade, Sister Elaine MacInnes has struggled to raise enough funds to keep her small charity, which offers meditation and yoga to inmates, afloat.

Freeing the Human Spirit has faced an uphill battle since MacInnes first started it in 2001, when Ottawa bureaucrats initially told her there was no place for her in the correctional system.

MacInnes didn’t take no for an answer, creating her own spot in the prison system by contacting local prison officials and convincing them of the program’s merits one at a time. She and volunteers are quick to tout the program, saying it’s been able to expand …

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Kiran Bedi: A police chief with a difference

Before she retired in 2007, Kiran Bedi was one of India’s top cops. As the first and highest-ranking female officer in the national police force, she earned a reputation for being tough yet innovative on the job. Her efforts to prevent crime, reform prisons, end drug abuse, and support women’s causes earned her a Roman Magsaysay Award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Bedi also served as a police adviser to the UN Secretary General. She’s well-known for having introduced the practice of Vipassana meditation to Indian prisons, as documented in the film, “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana.”

Now I’m going to give you a story. It’s an Indian story about an Indian woman and her journey. Let me begin with my parents. I’m a product of this visionary mother and father. Many years ago, when I was born in the ’50s — ’50s and ’60s didn’t belong to girls in India. They belonged to boys. They belonged to boys who would join business and inherit business from parents, and girls would be dolled up to get married. My family, in my city, and almost in the country, was unique. We were four of us, not one, and fortunately no boys. We were four girls and no boys. And my parents were part of a landed property family. My father defied his own grandfather, almost to the point of disinheritance, because he decided to educate all four of us. He sent us to one of the best schools in the city and gave us the best education. As I’ve said, when we’re born, we don’t choose our parents, and when we go to school, we don’t choose our school. Children don’t choose a school. They just get the school which parents choose for them. So this is the foundation time which I got. I grew up like this, and so did my other three sisters. And my father used to say at that time, “I’m going to spread all my four daughters in four corners of the world.” I don’t know if he really meant [that], but it happened. I’m the only one who’s left in India. One is a British, another is an American and the third is a Canadian. So we are four of us in four corners of the world.

And since I said they’re my role models, I followed two things which my father and mother gave me. One, they said, “Life is on an incline. You either go up, or you come down.” And the second thing, which has stayed with me, which became my philosophy of life, which made all the difference, is: 100 things happen in your life, good or bad. Out of 100, 90 are your creation. They’re good. They’re your creation. Enjoy it. If they’re bad, they’re your creation. Learn from it. Ten are nature-sent over which you can’t do a thing. It’s like a death of a relative, or a cyclone, or a hurricane, or an earthquake. You can’t do a thing about it. You’ve got to just respond to the situation. But that response comes out of those 90 points. Since I’m a product of this philosophy, of 90/10, and secondly, “life on an incline,” that’s the way I grew up to be valuing what I got. I’m a product of opportunities, rare opportunities in the ’50s and the ’60s, which girls didn’t get, and I was conscious of the fact that what my parents were giving me was something unique. Because all of my best school friends were getting dolled up to get married with a lot of dowry, and here I was with a tennis racket and going to school and doing all kinds of extracurricular activities. I thought I must tell you this. Why I said this, is the background.

This is what comes next. I joined the Indian Police Service as a tough woman, a woman with indefatigable stamina, because I used to run for my tennis titles, etc. But I joined the Indian Police Service, and then it was a new pattern of policing. For me the policing stood for power to correct, power to prevent and power to detect. This is something like a new definition ever given in policing in India — the power to prevent. Because normally it was always said, power to detect, and that’s it, or power to punish. But I decided no, it’s a power to prevent, because that’s what I learned when I was growing up. How do I prevent the 10 and never make it more than 10? So this was how it came into my service, and it was different from the men. I didn’t want to make it different from the men, but it was different, because this was the way I was different. And I redefined policing concepts in India. I’m going to take you on two journeys, my policing journey and my prison journey. What you see, if you see the title called “PM’s car held.” This was the first time a prime minister of India was given a parking ticket. (Laughter) That’s the first time in India, and I can tell you, that’s the last time you’re hearing about it. It’ll never happen again in India, because now it was once and forever. And the rule was, because I was sensitive, I was compassionate, I was very sensitive to injustice, and I was very pro-justice. That’s the reason, as a woman, I joined the Indian Police Service. I had other options, but I didn’t choose them.

So I’m going to move on. This is about tough policing, equal policing. Now I was known as “here’s a woman that’s not going to listen.” So I was sent to all indiscriminate postings, postings which others would say no. I now went to a prison assignment as a police officer. Normally police officers don’t want to do prison. They sent me to prison to lock me up, thinking, “Now there will be no cars and no VIPs to be given tickets to. Let’s lock her up.” Here I got a prison assignment. This was a prison assignment which was one big den of criminals. Obviously, it was. But 10,000 men, of which only 400 were women — 10,000 — 9,000 plus about 600 were men. Terrorists, rapists, burglars, gangsters — some of them I’d sent to jail as a police officer outside. And then how did I deal with them? The first day when I went in, I didn’t know how to look at them. And I said, “Do you pray?” When I looked at the group, I said, “Do you pray?” They saw me as a young, short woman wearing a tan suit. I said, “Do you pray?” And they didn’t say anything. I said, “Do you pray? Do you want to pray?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “All right, let’s pray.” I prayed for them, and things started to change. This is a visual of education inside the prison.

Friends, this has never happened, where everybody in the prison studies. I started this with community support. Government had no budget. It was one of the finest, largest volunteerism in any prison in the world. This was initiated in Delhi prison. You see one sample of a prisoner teaching a class. These are hundreds of classes. Nine to eleven, every prisoner went into the education program — the same den in which they thought they would put me behind the bar and things would be forgotten. We converted this into an ashram — from a prison to an ashram through education. I think that’s the bigger change. It was the beginning of a change. Teachers were prisoners. Teachers were volunteers. Books came from donated schoolbooks. Stationery was donated. Everything was donated, because there was no budget of education for the prison. Now if I’d not done that, it would have been a hellhole.

That’s the second landmark. I want to show you some moments of history in my journey, which probably you would never ever get to see anywhere in the world. One, the numbers you’ll never get to see. Secondly, this concept. This was a meditation program inside the prison of over 1,000 prisoners. One thousand prisoners who sat in meditation. This was one of the most courageous steps I took as a prison governor. And this is what transformed. You want to know more about this, go and see this film, “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana.” You will hear about it, and you will love it. And write to me on KiranBedi.com, and I’ll respond to you. Let me show you the next slide. I took the same concept of mindfulness, because, why did I bring meditation into the Indian prison? Because crime is a product of a distorted mind. It was distortion of mind which needed to be addressed to control. Not by preaching, not by telling, not by reading, but by addressing your mind. I took the same thing to the police, because police, equally, were prisoners of their minds, and they felt as if it was “we” and “they,” and that the people don’t cooperate. This worked.

This is a feedback box called a petition box. This is a concept which I introduced to listen to complaints, listen to grievances. This was a magic box. This was a sensitive box. This is how a prisoner drew how they felt about the prison. If you see somebody in the blue — yeah, this guy — he was a prisoner, and he was a teacher. And you see, everybody’s busy. There was no time to waste.

Let me wrap it up. I’m currently into movements, movements of education of the under-served children, which is thousands — India is all about thousands. Secondly is about the anti-corruption movement in India. That’s a big way we, as a small group of activists, have drafted an ombudsman bill for the government of India. Friends, you will hear a lot about it. That’s the movement at the moment I’m driving, and that’s the movement and ambition of my life.

Thank you very much. (Applause) Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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Joan Halifax: Compassion and the true meaning of empathy

I want to address the issue of compassion. Compassion has many faces. Some of them are fierce; some of them are wrathful; some of them are tender; some of them are wise. A line that the Dalai Lama once said, he said, “Love and compassion are necessities. They are not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” And I would suggest, it is not only humanity that won’t survive, but it is all species on the planet, as we’ve heard today. It is the big cats, and it’s the plankton.

Two weeks ago, I was in Bangalore in India. I was so privileged to be able to teach in a hospice on the outskirts of Bangalore. And early in the morning, I went into the ward. In that hospice, there were 31 men and women who were actively dying. And I walked up to the bedside of an old woman who was breathing very rapidly, fragile, obviously in the latter phase of active dying. I looked into her face. I looked into the face of her son sitting next to her, and his face was just riven with grief and confusion.

And I remembered a line from the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic: “What is the most wondrous thing in the world, Yudhisthira?” And Yudhisthira replied, “The most wondrous thing in the world is that all around us people can be dying and we don’t realize it can happen to us.” I looked up. Tending those 31 dying people were young women from villages around Bangalore. I looked into the face of one of these women, and I saw in her face the strength that arises when natural compassion is really present. I watched her hands as she bathed an old man.

My gaze went to another young woman as she wiped the face of another dying person. And it reminded me of something that I had just been present for. Every year or so, I have the privilege of taking clinicians into the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. And we run clinics in these very remote regions where there’s no medical care whatsoever.

And on the first day at Simikot in Humla, far west of Nepal, the most impoverished region of Nepal, an old man came in clutching a bundle of rags. And he walked in, and somebody said something to him, we realized he was deaf, and we looked into the rags, and there was this pair of eyes. The rags were unwrapped from a little girl whose body was massively burned. Again, the eyes and hands of Avalokiteshvara. It was the young women, the health aids, who cleaned the wounds of this baby and dressed the wounds.

I know those hands and eyes; they touched me as well. They touched me at that time. They have touched me throughout my 68 years. They touched me when I was four and I lost my eyesight and was partially paralyzed. And my family brought in a woman whose mother had been a slave to take care of me. And that woman did not have sentimental compassion. She had phenomenal strength. And it was really her strength, I believe, that became the kind of mudra and imprimatur that has been a guiding light in my life.

So we can ask: What is compassion comprised of? And there are various facets. And there’s referential and non-referential compassion. But first, compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I’m not separate from this suffering. But that is not enough, because compassion, which activates the motor cortex, means that we aspire, we actually aspire to transform suffering. And if we’re so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering. But compassion has another component, and that component is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome.

Now I worked with dying people for over 40 years. I had the privilege of working on death row in a maximum security [prison] for six years. And I realized so clearly in bringing my own life experience, from working with dying people and training caregivers, that any attachment to outcome would distort deeply my own capacity to be fully present to the whole catastrophe.

And when I worked in the prison system, it was so clear to me, this: that many of us in this room, and almost all of the men that I worked with on death row, the seeds of their own compassion had never been watered. That compassion is actually an inherent human quality. It is there within every human being. But the conditions for compassion to be activated, to be aroused, are particular conditions. I had that condition, to a certain extent, from my own childhood illness. Eve Ensler, whom you’ll hear later, has had that condition activated amazingly in her through the various waters of suffering that she has been through.

And what is fascinating is that compassion has enemies, and those enemies are things like pity, moral outrage, fear. And you know, we have a society, a world, that is paralyzed by fear. And in that paralysis, of course, our capacity for compassion is also paralyzed. The very word terror is global. The very feeling of terror is global. So our work, in a certain way, is to address this imago, this kind of archetype that has pervaded the psyche of our entire globe.

Now we know from neuroscience that compassion has some very extraordinary qualities. For example: A person who is cultivating compassion, when they are in the presence of suffering, they feel that suffering a lot more than many other people do. However, they return to baseline a lot sooner. This is called resilience. Many of us think that compassion drains us, but I promise you it is something that truly enlivens us.

Another thing about compassion is that it really enhances what’s called neural integration. It hooks up all parts of the brain. Another, which has been discovered by various researchers at Emory and at Davis and so on, is that compassion enhances our immune system. Hey, we live in a very noxious world. (Laughter) Most of us are shrinking in the face of psycho-social and physical poisons, of the toxins of our world. But compassion, the generation of compassion, actually mobilizes our immunity.

You know, if compassion is so good for us, I have a question. Why don’t we train our children in compassion? (Applause) If compassion is so good for us, why don’t we train our health care providers in compassion so that they can do what they’re supposed to do, which is to really transform suffering? And if compassion is so good for us, why don’t we vote on compassion? Why don’t we vote for people in our government based on compassion, so that we can have a more caring world? In Buddhism, we say, “it takes a strong back and a soft front.” It takes tremendous strength of the back to uphold yourself in the midst of conditions. And that is the mental quality of equanimity.

But it also takes a soft front — the capacity to really be open to the world as it is, to have an undefended heart. And the archetype of this in Buddhism is Avalokiteshvara, Kuan-Yin. It’s a female archetype: she who perceives the cries of suffering in the world. She stands with 10,000 arms, and in every hand, there is an instrument of liberation, and in the palm of every hand, there are eyes, and these are the eyes of wisdom. I say that, for thousands of years, women have lived, exemplified, met in intimacy, the archetype of Avalokitesvara, of Kuan-Yin, she who perceives the cries of suffering in the world.

Women have manifested for thousands of years the strength arising from compassion in an unfiltered, unmediated way in perceiving suffering as it is. They have infused societies with kindness, and we have really felt that as woman after woman has stood on this stage in the past day and a half. And they have actualized compassion through direct action. Jody Williams called it: It’s good to meditate. I’m sorry, you’ve got to do a little bit of that, Jody. Step back, give your mother a break, okay.

(Laughter)

But the other side of the equation is you’ve got to come out of your cave. You have to come into the world like Asanga did, who was looking to realize Maitreya Buddha after 12 years sitting in the cave. He said, “I’m out of here.” He’s going down the path. He sees something in the path. He looks, it’s a dog, he drops to his knees. He sees that the dog has this big wound on its leg. The wound is just filled with maggots. He puts out his tongue in order to remove the maggots, so as not to harm them. And at that moment, the dog transformed into the Buddha of love and kindness.

I believe that women and girls today have to partner in a powerful way with men — with their fathers, with their sons, with their brothers, with the plumbers, the road builders, the caregivers, the doctors, the lawyers, with our president, and with all beings. The women in this room are lotuses in a sea of fire. May we actualize that capacity for women everywhere.

Thank you.

roshi joan halifax

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We’re so stressed

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Keith Upchurch, Herald-Sun, NC: Stress is twisting many Americans in knots, and Durham is no exception.

The pressures of life — especially money concerns — rank high on the list of stressors. But many people are find-ing relief in exercise, music, support groups and prayer, while others are turning to drugs to help them escape reality — temporarily.

Angell Copper, for example, says he has been stressed out for most of his life. The 22-year-old Hillsborough resident has spent time in foster homes and prison, but he’s trying to find ways to deal with his anger and anxiety over having no money or job.

Copper said he was convicted of having marijuana on a high school campus and for a probation violation. Surprisingly, he said going to prison was one of the best things that happened to him, because he got counseling for his anger, which he said is under better control than in the past.

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Still, having an empty wallet and no job keeps his stress level high.

Before going to prison, he said, “I’d wake up mad every day, because you’re stressed out over bills and all that other stuff, you know. I think that’s why a lot of black people turn to drugs and weed and stuff like that, because it’s an everyday circle, and you can’t stop stress. And it’s just whacked. Stress is real whacked.”

Copper is taking medication for his anxiety, but he believes he could find more relief if he had someone to talk to.

“I’ve been from foster care to prison, and now I’m out,” he said. “Right now, I’m just trying to make it, and I have a lot of stress, because I have no money, and it’s hard. I just want to cry sometimes, but I try to stay strong, because I have a child, and I can’t let him see me stress out — you know what I mean?”

Copper said prayer helps.

“Just to know that a higher power is there to help you, and that he’s never going to leave you helps,” he said. “So I hold dear to that, because I do love God.”

Pamela Finney of Durham said she’s also stressed because she can’t find a job.

“I relocated from New Jersey about three years ago to be closer to my family,” she said. “But now I’ve been here trying to find a job, and they tell you to go online for jobs,” but that hasn’t worked.

To cope, she turns to cigarettes and a support group.

“That helps a lot,” she said.

For Kelly Morris of Durham, stress comes and goes, but paying bills is his biggest stressor. “I’ve still got a job,” he said. “It’s just hard to make ends meet even with a job.” To cope, he “takes one day at a time” and prays.

But for retired scientist Phil Lawless, 67, life isn’t that stressful, because he no longer has the pressure of work and has enough money for his golden years. He retired about 18 months ago.

“Being able to retire at the time I did means that I wasn’t affected so much by the recession,” he said. Now, he spends a lot of his free time reading and traveling.

“I get to sleep late,” he said. “And my wife is retired too, so we don’t have to get up early in the morning.”

Another retiree, Fred Clark of Durham, also said he doesn’t feel much stress, because the recession hasn’t affected him as much as others. To keep stress at bay, Clark goes to the Q Shack restaurant in Durham every Wednesday to hear blue grass music. He also works out at a health club three times a week.

For some, family is a stressor, but for others, it offers a safe haven from stress.

Maria Manson of Durham has a job and three children under 5, but she said she doesn’t feel unduly stressed, because “I have a good life.” She said her children keep her from becoming stressed, “because they’re so much fun.” But when life gets too tough, she finds relief by relaxing, watching a movie and “thinking about the positive things in life.”

The theme of finding relief through faith was a common thread though many of those who spoke with The Herald-Sun about stress in their lives.

Vietnam War veteran William Caine, 63, is disabled. He’s had open heart surgery, head surgery and now faces a hip replacement. “So stress reaches its peak quite often,” he said. “But I manage to deal with it, thank the Lord.”

“My faith is always there, boss man,” he said. “Faith is there every second of the day.”

Caine also gets a boost from his grandchildren.

“That’s the best thing in my life right now,” he said. “They’re the best thing in the world.”

Becky Tenaglia, a pre-school director, feels the stress in her back and neck. A main stressor for her is not getting enough sleep. She also feels the pressure of trying to balance the many demands of her work and family.

But like so many others, her faith makes a world of difference.

“I’m not sure how I would get through life with God, without prayer,” she said. “Faith is extremely important. When stress is so high, the only thing you can do is pray for help.”

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Vipassana meditation helps addicts stay clean

Vipassana—a form of meditation in which practitioners train themselves to observe bodily sensations without reacting to them—has a growing reputation for helping addicts. “I nearly walked out three times during my first course,” Alex, a former heroin user from England, tells The Fix. “It was so painful to observe all the negativity I had stored away inside me.” But the results were impressive: “Cravings do not effect me like they used to. If I have a craving, I just observe it and it passes away.” Vipassana teaches the mind not to react to the emotions and thoughts that result in harmful behavior; adherents …

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Freed prisoners add momentum, risks to Myanmar reform

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Aung Hla Tun, Reuters: Buddhist monk Shin Gambira endured solitary confinement, beatings and sleep deprivation in Myanmar’s prisons for his leading role in the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” — peaceful protests that were crushed by the country’s military.

Finally free at a monastery on the outskirts of Myanmar’s main city of Yangon, about the worst he will say of his captors is that they were “very rude and cruel”.

“Don’t let me elaborate on it. Let bygones be bygones,” the 33-year-old former protest leader said of his ordeal, following his release last week with about 300 other political prisoners.

Interviews by Reuters with more than a dozen of the newly released prisoners reveal a similar remarkable lack of bitterness toward their captors after years of imprisonment and torture for their beliefs. They described overcrowded cells at the notorious Insein detention center, watching a fellow inmate die from a lack of medical care, and routine deprivation of water and sleep among other abuses.

But nearly all said they backed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to place trust in the government’s reform pledges and take part in April by-elections that could give her National League for Democracy (NLD) party a vital foothold in parliament, part of dramatic changes underway in the former Burma.

Still, the interviews with the former prisoners in Myanmar reveal an undercurrent of scepticism about the government’s true intentions and an impatience for more concrete democratic reforms.

Many also expressed concern that Suu Kyi risks weakening her powerful political capital if, as some believe, she takes a ministerial role as part of the reconciliation process. That could point to future tensions within the opposition and complicate the reform process if the pace of change stutters in coming months.

Sources within the opposition told Reuters there was already intense debate among dissidents over whether to set up a new political party as an alternative to the NLD. Opponents of such a move fear it would dilute the opposition’s message and pave the way for further splintering.

Htay Kywe, who helped lead pro-democracy protests in 1988 in which thousands of demonstrators were killed by soldiers, said Suu Kyi had made a “practical choice” to run in the by-elections and help restore the rule of law in the country.

“This is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi trying in the most non-violent way to work for the country’s transition to democracy. We support this,” said the 44-year-old, referring to Suu Kyi by her honorific title.

Htay Kywe, who spent about 17 years in prison in two spells after his first arrest in 1991, is among many members of the so-called “88 generation” who have been released in recent months and who are sure to play an important role in opposition debate.

The largest release yet of high-profile dissidents promises to speed up the national reconciliation process and provides a powerful argument for the United States and other Western nations to lift economic sanctions against the impoverished but resource-rich country.

Business executives, mostly from Asia, have swarmed into the commercial capital, Yangon, in recent weeks to hunt for investment opportunities in the country of 60 million people, one of the last frontier markets in Asia. Myanmar is also at the centre of a struggle for strategic influence as the United States sees a chance to expand its ties there and balance China‘s fast-growing economic and political clout in the region.

Myanmar has thawed astonishingly quickly in the past year.

The government has begun peace talks with ethnic rebels, relaxed its strict media censorship, allowed trade unions and protests, and showed signs of pulling back from the powerful economic and political orbit of its giant neighbour China. It was rewarded last November when Hillary Clinton made the first visit to the country by a U.S. secretary of state since 1955.

The exact number of political detainees still locked up in Myanmar’s prisons remains in doubt. But the opposition and government agree it is now in the hundreds. That may not be much higher than some of its Southeast Asian neighbours, making it hard for countries to argue in favour of maintaining sanctions.

Communist Vietnam, which has a bilateral trade deal with Washington, for instance, probably has political prisoners “in the hundreds”, said Bangkok-based Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

RECONCILIATION RISKS

Last week’s release brings the number of political detainees freed since last May to 645, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. This number represents a significant body of high-profile dissidents who are likely to influence internal opposition debate.

The latest group, ranging from the former head of military intelligence to a musician who penned songs about Suu Kyi, rejoin the political scene just as the government and opposition engage in a delicate, high-stakes dance toward reconciliation.

The views of this respected group of dissident opinion-formers are a vital gauge of support for Suu Kyi’s leap of faith in engaging with the nominally civilian government. If they clamour for faster reforms than the government or Suu Kyi are comfortable with, for example, it could risk a backlash from military hardliners who many observers believe are eager for a chance to reverse the democratisation process.

“We shouldn’t settle for the present situation, there is a lot to be done,” said Gambira, the freed Buddhist monk.

“Since the people were deprived of everything under a brutal regime for about 50 years they tend to be satisfied when they get something, compared with nothing in the past. I’d like to stress there is no room for complacency at present.”

Sceptics worry that Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, herself released from house arrest in late 2010, could be walking into a trap, handing valuable international legitimacy to the government before any fundamental changes in Myanmar’s political system are secured. The United States, which has made the freeing of political prisoners a condition for lifting sanctions, said after the latest release it would exchange ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time in 20 years.

But Myanmar’s generals still effectively control parliament after a deeply flawed 2010 election and the constitution, written in 2008, guarantees the military’s dominant role in politics.

“Concerning the overall political situation, I’m not that optimistic. I’ll put it at about 55 percent,” said Khun Tun Oo, chairman of an ethnic Shan party allied to Suu Kyi’s NLD and who was released after nearly seven years in jail.

He plans to re-register his party but not to run in the upcoming by-elections, which many believe would legitimise the 2010 elections widely seen as a sham.

“No doubt she (Suu Kyi) will have her say but I’m not sure she will be able to change the constitution … the military is in a position to put a spanner in the works since they have the constitutional right.”

MEDITATION AND GARDENING

Khun Tun Oo appears to have suffered relatively little torture in prison, but others were less fortunate.

Sithu Zeya, a 22-year-old journalist for exiled media outlet Democratic Voice of Burma, said he had to drink toilet water for the first five days in prison in 2010 and went without sleep for 15 days. He was regularly beaten and saw an old man in his cell die from breathing difficulties after medical help failed to arrive on time. Like many fellow prisoners, he found solace in meditation and limited chances to read and play sports.

“We have been released because foreign countries demanded it, not because they (the government) think it was wrong to have political prisoners,” the former biology student told Reuters.

He said he supported Suu Kyi’s participation in the elections but worried she would be a weaker voice as a lawmaker. “I don’t want that to happen,” he said.

Perhaps the most remarkable figure to emerge from detention last week was former military intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt, whose purge from the government in 2004 turned him overnight from one of the regime’s most powerful figures into a lowly prisoner.

Ironically, he coped with his seven years under house arrest on charges of corruption in much the same way as Suu Kyi — meditating every day and tending to his garden.

Deprived of financial support, he said he and his wife scraped a living by selling orchids from their garden and later by selling his clothes, including traditional silk “longyi” garments he had received as gifts when he was thought to be the regime’s third most powerful official.

“It’s embarrassing to tell this but this is the truth,” he told Reuters at his home and former prison.

He ruled out a return to politics, saying he wanted to focus on his religious practice. Asked if he thought President Thein Sein could operate independently in his dealings with Suu Kyi, he smiled. “I think so, but I don’t know for sure.”

A concern repeatedly voiced by the freed dissidents was that the revered Suu Kyi could jeopardise her iconic and clean status by being drawn into a flawed political system.

“I’m fully confident in Aunty Suu’s leadership. She’s a national leader,” said 32-year-old blogger Nay Phone Latt, who was picked up by security forces at a Yangon café in January 2008. “But I’m really worried that she will become a cabinet member. Then she might lose contact with the party.”

Win Min, a Burmese political scientist at Harvard University and a student protester in the 1988 uprising, said the newly released 88 generation faced a challenge to push for genuine reforms without giving hardliners an excuse to crack down.

“At this critical juncture, 88 generation leaders may want to work in a space between the politics of struggle and normal politics to encourage the continuation of reform in a non-threatening way to the hardliners,” he said.

“For the moderates in the government, the challenge is how to work with the opposition and the 88 generation leaders to improve the economy on the grassroots level.”

“PEOPLE STILL SUFFERING”

Many freed prisoners cautioned that ordinary Burmese, struggling in poverty and often at the mercy of authoritarian local officials, have yet to benefit from the changes.

“They keep saying the higher authorities have changed, but the officials on the ground have not changed so the people are still suffering,” said Zeya, the journalist. “The reforms have yet to make positive impacts on the general public so I can’t say they are successful just yet.”

A near-term source of tension is likely to be the fate of the political prisoners who remain behind bars.

Of the 604 political prisoners claimed by the NLD, the government only released 302 by its count, saying that 107 had already been released, others had been double-counted or died and that 128 would not be freed because they had committed serious crimes such as using explosives.

“I want the government to carry out more meaningful changes like releasing the remaining prisoners of conscience, which really will benefit the people and the country,” said Nilar Thein, a female leader of the 88 generation whose latest arrest was in 2008.

For her, though, the most promising sign of real change in Myanmar was the confident smiles that greeted her on her recent release from detention. “I was really encouraged to see the courage and confidence on the faces of the people,” she said.

“There is more transparency then before. It was a big difference from my previous releases.”

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Bangkok.; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Jason Szep and Jonathan Thatcher)

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