Friday, June 18, 2010

A Case for Faith

The most famous citizen of Burma is formally referred to as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, “Daw” an honorific conferred on a woman who merits respect, is literally translated as “aunt,“ but usually she is simply called “the Lady.” This week marks her 65th birthday, one of many that the Lady has spent detained under house arrest. She is two years old when her father, General Aung San, Commander of the Burma Independence Army and negotiator of Burma’s independence from Britain, is assassinated.

Suu Kyi completes her secondary education in India where her mother Khin Kyi serves as ambassador. She continues her studies in Britain, earning a
B.A. degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics in 1969. After graduating, the Lady works for several years in New York at the United Nations. Aung San Suu Kyi marries Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture in 1972. She completes a Ph.D. at the University of London in 1985.

In 1988, the Lady is at work on a biography of her father and returns to Burma at the news of her mother suffering a stroke. The conditions she encounters inspire her first political action, an open letter advocating for fair elections. Several days later, she speaks, addressing an enormous crowd, outside Shwedagon Pagoda and calling for democratic government. Suu Kyi is key in the formation of the National League for Democracy Party. She travels speaking on behalf of the League for the next two years, enduring continual harassment by the military.

The National League for Democracy is banned by Burma’s ruling junta but Aung San Suu Kyi is elected Prime Minister of Burma in 1990 by 82% of the popular vote. The political wing of the junta, SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Council) invalidates the election and the Lady has been subjected to detention for much of time since. She is separated from her two children and the rest of her family. Her terminally ill husband is denied an entry visit despite appeals from Kofi Annan and Pope John Paul II and he dies without having seen her for over four years. The Lady is awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1991. She is detained under house arrest and her children attend the ceremony on her behalf.

The government of Burma is considered one of the most corrupt on the planet, second only to Somalia. . The military dictatorship proclaims in 1989 that the country henceforward be known as Myanmar. The official U.S. designation, a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the ruling regime, remains Burma.

There are over 2000 political prisoners in Burma. Secret police are rampant and arrests are often made under provisions of Burma’s Penal Code that criminalize free expression, peaceful demonstrations, and forming organizations. Prisoners include teachers, journalists, and students. Seventy-five year sentences are commonplace. Trials are not transcribed and are conducted in secret.

The most notorious prison in Burma is Insein prison. Many political prisoners are relegated to solitary confinement. A prisoner found with a pen suffers far more serious consequences than an inmate concealing a knife. Until the International Committee of the Red Cross makes a formal complaint in 1999, all form of reading matter is banned at Insein. Human rights groups cite the high incidence of torture of political prisoners at Insein and other locations and report that the nation’s prisons uniformly fail to meet the standards outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Lady herself has been interned at Insein herself a number of times, most recently in 2009, being arrested when an American swims across Lake Inya to her home and begs her for sanctuary. It is unclear whether the swimmer, John Yettaw, from Utah, is mentally unstable or if the exploit is set up to create an excuse to extend Daw Suu Kyi’s soon to expire term of house arrest.

A general election has been promised this year, the exact date is in constant flux. There is a new constitution that mandates an election but also contains provisions that insure that the junta will remain in power and that Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy Party are banned from participating in the election. The mysterious swimmer however suggests that there is an imperative to take extra measures to keep the Lady quiet. There is no attempt however to create even the appearance of legitimacy although the charade is enacted with an enthusiasm that is disturbing to behold.

Burma gives history’s deranged megalomaniacs a run for the money. Dictator Ne Win is said to have had the lucky number nine come to him in a dream. In 1987, new currency, in denominations that are multiples of nine is issued and all of the former currency is abruptly rendered worthless, wiping out many in a cash economy without credit cards or ATM machines. The current dictator, Than Shwe is reported to be even more superstitious. The decision to completely move the nation’s capitol from coastal Rangoon to dusty desolate Naypyidaw is reportedly based on advice from his astrologer. The new location is less vulnerable to enemy attack than Rangoon but this is considered a coincidental result of a capricious decision.

A grainy cell phone video of Dictator Shwe’s daughter’s 2006 wedding is posted on YouTube. The bride is festooned by ropes and ropes of enormous diamonds and the bridal bed is massive and solid gold. There’s a bejeweled elephant and a champagne fountain in a country where more than 25 % of the population have no access to safe drinking water.

Prior to the military coup in 1962, Burma was one of the leading producers of rice in the world but now the G.D.P. is the 13th lowest in the world. The mortality rate for children under the age of five is 104 per 1000, the second highest of any non-African nation. Burma has the highest rate of HIV infection of any Asian nation and malaria, treatable and preventable, is the leading cause of death. Burma receives less international aid than any poor country in the world. Foreign assistance monies average $4.00 annually for each Burmese citizen, while the average for other impoverished nations is $42.30 per person.

Burma releases no budgetary or financial information but it is estimated that between 40% and 60% of national budget is earmarked for the military and less than half a percent for healthcare. Government sponsored education is not free and 30% of Burmese children never attend school and fewer than 55% of those who are able to attend complete primary school. The percentage of students who complete a secondary education is lower than two percent.

While failing to provide an education, the government forcibly conscripts children into the military and consigns whole communities to involuntary labor. Burma is characterized in a U.S. Dept. of State publication as one of 13 countries earning the most egregious records on human trafficking for the purposes of forced labor and for sexual exploitation. The selling of human beings into indentured servitude is rampant within the borders of Burma but Burmese refugees who are forced by poverty into neighbouring Malaysia, Thailand, India and China are also extremely vulnerable.

Chinese and Indian monies fuel commerce in Burmese human beings and also grease the palms of many a corrupt government official. With Chinese support, Scwe and Shwephu oil fields are being developed with an eye towards sales to China and India. The fields are expected to yield from 5 to 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and certainly none of the proceeds are targeted for the Burmese people. Burma is the world’s second largest producer of opiates, yielding approximately 5% of the world’s total. A recent U.S. State Department report states decisively that the ruling junta wields control over and profits from the lucrative opium trade.

Cyclone Nargis strikes Burma in May of 2008. The government fails to issue weather alerts. An estimated 150,000 people die as a result of the storm and over 2 million people are severely affected. The U.S.S. Essex attempts to deliver humanitarian aid to victims but is turned away. U.N. and other international aid workers are denied entry to the country and concerned Burmese individuals who attempt via small groups to bring food and materials to the stricken Irrawaddy delta area are often arrested. A number of aid workers travel to Burma on tourist visas but they are condemned to languish in Rangoon as all routes to the afflicted areas are heavily patrolled by the military.

Observers note a climate of nearly giddy optimism after Cyclone Nargis, as the Burmese people hope that finally the world will awaken and learn of their plight. The recovery however that has taken place since the disaster has been largely completed on an informal basis and with very little foreign assistance. With Nargis the government has grown even more intractable and the people more hopelessly abject.

Videos reflecting the poverty of the Burmese people and the brutality and indifference of the regime are smuggled out, despite the enormous risk this poses. The prayers of the Burmese people have been answered and the world can wake up to their plight via You.Tube. But no one is watching. China and India are not fussy about human rights when it comes to doing business. Russia has the Burmese government armed to the hilt, and turns a tidy profit while preventing armed resistance in Burma. These three nations block any U.N. measures to censure Burma. There are very few countries that are in a position to risk relations with China and/or India so international outrage independent of the U.N. remains tepid.

The population of Burma is around 45 million and over 90% are Buddhists. There are approximately 400,000 Buddhist monk and nuns and over 45,000 monasteries. Most of the public services a government is typically expected to provide fall to the Buddhist clergy which is also the backbone of the opposition movement. Some find the politicalization of Buddhist monks philosophically troublesome. Perhaps the efforts the monks make to stave off as much human suffering as they can doesn’t leave much time for theological exegesis. The most basic human needs of the Burmese people can not be provided for until there is political change. .

More than 90% of the Burmese people are Buddhists. The monks have excommunicated the government and refuse donations from members of the military. Censorship is extreme and a lot of necessary information is disseminated through the monasteries which are also instrumental in facilitating the transmission of news of Burma to the outside world. The people of Burma depend on Burma’s monastic communities for all means of sustenance. The reality that religious fanaticism plays a big role in a lot of the strife in the world has spawned a myopic new atheism. In the 70s it was uncool to dis China. Now it’s impolitic to suggest that religious beliefs can inspire a positive political outcome but what else is there to nurture the belief in the possibility of democracy and the inspiration to strive for it a place such as Burma? Would our neo-atheists just blow off the people of Burma and tell them it’s hopeless? Maybe atheism is a luxury that only the chattering class can afford because for many, faith is their only provender.

Some have questioned the appropriateness of talking about such matters as metta (loving-kindness) and thissa (truth) in the political context. But politics is about people and what we have seen in Thamanya proved that love and truth can move people more strongly than any form of coercion.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
“Letters from Burma,” which were published in the Mainichi Daily in 1995-96.

I hope the Lady experiences happiness on her birthday, knowing that her words and sacrifices will continue to inspire for generations to come. To support her work and the work of the Buddhist community and all of those who risk their lives transmitting information to and from Burma, please make a contribution to the U.S. Campaign for Burma.
Shabbat Shalom.


Fionnchú said...

I hope despite Lakers parades, World Cup frenzy, and usual media distractions, you can help the Burmese people, who have so few to help their desperate cause. Here's more info via my own blog entries: Burma

harry said...

And the Tibetans, and the Darfurians, and Timorese in West Timor, and the Tutsi, and the Chechens, and the Gazan, and the Catholics in Belfast, and the Uzbeks in Kyrgystan... and the undocumented Latinos in Arizona. Human history too often is argument for and an against oppression... defending and rationalizing violence, and resistance to totalitarian. I guess the unique case of Burma (like North Korea or the US Stock Exchange) is that it is oppresion by an elite against its own people for its own selfish benefit, not a demonization of the Other. Contribution made to honor the Murphy's effort.