Friday, February 1, 2013

Worrying about Burma

In my last blog post I wrote about my experience of returning to Burma (with my wife and newborn daughter) after many years away. That piece has elicited a lot of responses, mostly positive. This one might be a bit different in that respect.
As I wrote, during our stay in Burma we paid a visit with our relatives to the ancient city of Pagan (pronounced bah-gan), the capital of the first Burman Empire founded in the eleventh century byKing Anawrahta. Theravada Buddhism took root in central Burma for the first time during the Pagan era and has thrived in the country ever since. Modern-day Burma is still very much under the spell of Pagan -- both in terms of political culture and religious practice.
Pagan, perhaps because of its many outsized personalities, established ideal models for leaders that still influence political life today. I was struck by how many people I spoke with still seem to expect the solutions to our political problems to come from great heroes (whether it's current president Thein Sein or an opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) rather than institutions. Our leaders tend to prefer one-man (or one-woman) shows instead of people who develop the necessary political institutions (such as fully developed political parties). Ironically, of late I've found Thein Sein, an ex-general-turned-president and my former political adversary, to be more savvy in this respect. At least he's been trying to get help from technocrats. Aung San Suu Kyi, by contrast, seems to prefer the company of sycophantic gatekeepers and business cronies from the old regime. Lately the Lady appears to be increasingly arrogant and out of touch. Almost all of the intellectuals and dissidents I spoke with -- people who once went to jail with her name on their lips and were ready to die for the cause she represented -- spoke of their growing disappointment with her, while at the same time expressing frustration with the lack of viable alternatives in the opposition movement. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are still putting all their hopes on the heroes. Burmese people still seem to look for "the good king" or the "pretender to the throne" as the panacea for all of the country's chronic ills. This does not bode well for the future of democracy, I suspect.
Another thing that struck me was the over-ritualization of Buddhism. Every morning, the first things you hear when you open your eyes are the chanting or the pleas for alms or the announcements about religious events that are broadcast over crackly loudspeakers from neighborhood groups or passing trucks. Anywhere you go in Rangoon, you're constantly bombarded by these amplified requests for donations, usually involving the renovation of this holy site or that monastery. Donations have become big business, contracted out to companies or beggars by temples and even specific monks. I guess this makes sense if it brings in the funds that they need. But it doesn't strike me as especially transparent.
The Buddha urged his followers to give without any expectation of personal reward. Generosity (dana) is supposed to help you move from a self-centered, greed-driven existence to one that is other-centered and greed-free. Evidence of the importance of charity in Burmese culture is abundant, from the golden glory of the Shwedagon Pagoda (which owes its magnificence to donations from countless devotees) to the familiar sight of mendicant monks receiving alms. Nor is charity reserved for those who choose the religious life. Rest houses are set up all over the country for the comfort of travelers, and vessels of pure, cool water can be found on every roadside, put there for the benefit of passersby. These distinctive clay water pots are replenished daily, often by local people who have little else to offer but who aim to contribute something to the well-being of others.
In today's Burma however, this rosy image of traditional generosity no longer holds. In many places, charity has become a self-serving tool to acquire wealth and power. Even among religious people, it amounts to little more than a money transfer to the next life. I often heard the loudspeaker broadcasts pushing the message that it is the lack of generosity, and not poverty as such, that is the reason for the destitution. "If you say you can't make donations because you lack wealth, you can never expect to become wealthy," I heard at one point. (In fact, this is a well-known motif of official religious propaganda. During the era of the old military junta, this message was published regularly in the state-run media.) This Catch-22 may be cold comfort for the poor, but for the rulers it makes perfectly good sense. Why blame decades of mismanagement for the country's many economic woes? Isn't poverty just the product of parsimony? That, at least, is what the reigning establishment would like people to believe.
In Burma, no political practice is possible without involving Buddhism -- and Buddhism has been politicized to such a degree that no religious act is apolitical. The military junta that ruled Burma for so long used religion to enhance their political legitimacy by patronizing the Sangha (the council of monks who preside over the Buddhist religious establishment). Successive rulers have exploited the Sangha's historically important role as a unifying factor for state control.
The successive civilian as well as military regimes actively organized large-scale ritual events in which they have mobilized the Buddhist population to take part, such as national veneration of the Buddha's sacred tooth relic in 1994, and an umbrella-hoisting ceremony in 1999. In short, the whole country has been transformed into a ritual community, one designed to prevent the emergence of an authentic political and civic community. Worst of all, these ritualized practices are not helping to improve people's everyday morals. There can be little doubt that today's moral climate is dire -- ranging from corruption to substance abuse to status-driven bullying and violence. These are obviously not the values the Buddha aimed to foster.
As a devotee of Buddhism, I have found the Buddha's teaching (especially the Theravada Buddhism professed by the majority of Burmese) as guidance that enables each of us to improve ourselves and attain benefits on an individual basis. The Buddha did approve of certain collective practices, but in the end liberation can only be achieved individually. No one -- not even the Buddha -- can save you but yourself. At the same time, I'm deeply grateful to some Buddhist abbots and lay devotees not only for their spiritual guidance but also for their great works of charity for the poor and the victims of natural disasters. It seems to me that the ritualized Buddhism screaming out those loudspeakers strikes has little in common with that genuine spirit of care for others.
My return to Burma was uplifting. My reunion with my family and friends filled me with joy. It was great to be home again. At the same time, I felt quite alienated by these two visible flaws in the public life of the country: personalized politics and ritualized religion. Go ahead and blame me for it. I don't mind.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Posted By Min Zin  

When I left Burma sixteen years ago, the last place where I stayed was the Rangoon home of my friend Thet Win Aung. We got up at three in the morning and said goodbye to his parents as monsoon rain poured down outside. Then we got in a car and headed for the Thai-Burmese border. Little did I know how much was to happen before I would be able to return to my homeland.
As I wrote in one of my earlier blog posts, Thet Win Aung and I both spent years in hiding after the student rebellion of 1988 was brutally suppressed by Burma's military junta. By 1997 we decided that we could no longer stay inside Burma: Military Intelligence had managed to track down almost all of our hideouts. But in 1998, my friend decided to slip back into Burma to organize a peaceful movement calling for national reconciliation, but was later arrested. The authorities sentenced him to 59 years in prison for his work as a non-violent activist. He died in detention in October 2006. To those of us who knew him, his memory remains vivid.
So there was a good reason why one of the first places I visited after returning to Burma for the first time last month was his house. His parents are old now, but they are still gracious, courageous, and supportive. We had a long conversation in which we tried to assemble the missing pieces of his story. It turned out that his mother had no idea that he had returned to the country, so she was caught completely off guard when she saw her son's face on state-run TV when they announced his arrest. The news came as her husband was heading back home from a visit to Thet Win Aung's brother, another well-known activist then languishing in a remote prison. They had been consoled by the thought that at least Thet Win Aung was living beyond the harm of the regime in a Thai border town. They also told me that his life could have been saved if the prison officials had responded in a timely fashion when he collapsed in his prison cell. But, of course, they didn't. The pain of those long-past events is still palpable. When I knelt down and paid my respects to them in good Buddhist fashion, I couldn't help noticing that I was alone, and that Thet Win Aung was missing. I said goodbye and left. My mind was heavy, weighed down by a sense of unfinished business.
Not all of my encounters were sad. My return to Rangoon also gave me the opportunity to see my siblings for the first time in twenty-three years. My wife and my family invited our relatives, neighborhood friends, and teachers to join us for a reunion at a Rangoon monastery. There were greetings, cheers, hugs, and tears. Old memories resurfaced. Relatives and friends shared photographs of me from long ago. They said, "We kept these pictures for you in the hope that we would see you again and be able to give them to you personally." Our nine-month-old daughter, born in America, was the real center of attention, though. Suddenly she discovered the many advantages of having an extended network of relatives, all eager to spoil her.
My cell phone rang again and again. "Do you know who I am?" the callers kept saying. "Oh, you don't even recognize my voice." It's hard remembering people's faces and voices over two decades of forced separation, but they refused to accept that as an excuse. They insisted that we had managed to remain connected nonetheless. "We always listened to your programs on the short-wave radio." "We saw you on TV." "We just read your Foreign Policy article." I realized that ties among people who care for each other can be strong even without physical presence. It was a transcendent experience.
Though the warmth of the people hasn't changed, the physical landscape of Rangoon, my old neighborhood, and even my high school have been transformed to such an extent that I hardly recognize them. Single-family houses are giving way to six- or seven-story apartment buildings, increasing the population in my small street by a factor of ten. The place feels crowded in a way it didn't before. And as soon as I stepped outside of suburban Rangoon, I was jarred by people visibly suffering from poverty and disease. Over the past two decades my country has undergone intense polarization. There are the rich and the poor, and few people in between. There are the soldiers and the pro-democracy activists, and no one in the middle.
And yet Burma is a place where you can now feel free. Back in the early 1990s, I couldn't make a turn at an intersection without reflexively looking behind to see whether someone from Military Intelligence was following me. It was a habit that stuck with me even after I arrived in Thailand. But now I don't feel that pressure any more, and it was a relief. The liberalization process clearly has momentum, though whether it is really a path toward democratization remains debatable.
Our memory of clandestine politics is still fresh. My house in Rangoon was once a center for leading student and youth activists in the opposition movement. One of my old colleagues, the founder of a political prisoner support group in exile, suggested that we all act as if my house were a hideout and that we hold a meeting there just as we'd done twenty-plus years ago. Oddly enough, the whole thing turned out to be great fun, a wonderful attempt to relive and cherish old memories. As the afternoon yielded to evening, my old friends and colleagues, all of them former political prisoners, kept dropping in. Around nine in the evening, Min Ko Naing, once a chairman of our clandestine student union and now a leader of the 88 Generation Student Group, walked in. He was dressed just the way he was twenty-four years ago: Wearing a blue denim jacket and a broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his face, as if he were still dodging surveillance. Everyone laughed. But we couldn't help missing those who have been parted from us.
Coming back to your native country after such a long absence is bound to be a bittersweet experience. The same was true of my trip to Pagan, one of the centers of ancient Burmese civilization. One of our sayings has it that returning to Pagan is like going home. And so it was for me. Staying at a monastery on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, we got up every day before dawn to make food offerings to the lines of monks walking by. My siblings and I did this as a way ofmaking merit for our late parents, who passed away while I was in exile. I was also honoring my former friends and colleagues who gave up their lives for the pro-democracy cause. A few years ago the junta forced the monks and villagers to move away from Pagan and as a result the monks now find it harder to get food. We were happy to do whatever we could to make up for the shortfall. Offering food to those in need and sharing merit with those to whom I owe so much always fills me with bliss.
One of the places that struck me the most in Pagan was the eleventh-century Manuha Temple, built as another act of merit by an eponymous king who was defeated in war. With the permission of the victor, who had taken him prisoner, Manuha built a temple filled with very large Buddha images enshrined in small niches. They are said to represent the feeling of being under detention. They fill all the space in the cramped interior, leaving barely enough room for visitors to sit and pray. I could feel the stress and discomfort that the captive king had to endure. At the temple's dedication, Manuha prayed that "wherever I travel in the cycle of rebirth, may I never again be the prisoner of another." The temple visit sobered me. I said a prayer of my own: That we, the Burmese people, may never again be the prisoners of tyrants.