Archive for October, 2010

In downtown Yangon, exactly a fortnite before the country’s national ‘democratic election’ is due to be contested, life appears much as usual. People lounge and relax for hours over slow nickle pots of tea in street tea-shops, children run and play among vehicles and the detritus of roadwork, monks – and nuns, in miraculously clean, pink tunics with tan shoulder robes and brown umbrellas – make alm’s rounds through the streets, barefoot and impassive amidst noise, rain or traffic. Yangon is a colourful, if shambolic city, alive with a human warmth and vibrancy that rarely betrays a much deeper discontent beneath its vital surface.

Yet cracks do show, as much in the difficulties of daily life as in the spoken admissions of people from all walks of life. While the shaky infrastructure of much of Yangon is little different from that of a city in a poor Indian state (Patna or Kolkata for example) other less obvious constraints of communication and movement belie a much deeper malaise conditioning much of life here. My guesthouse proprietor is required to report to the local police registry office to submit details of all his current guests, sometimes more than once a day, reporting any knowledge of their movements and activities. This is ironic considering many areas of the country are off-limits to travelers, and even non-Burmese ethnic nationalities alike, so that both visitors and locals are unable to travel as freely as the expectation that they do so might allow. Perhaps the most practically curtailing proof of unreasonable control however comes in all online communication where even mainstream e-mail sites require overseas server providers in order to allow for a few snatched moments of web access, usually at the cost of a lengthy process of proxy transfer. Sometimes there is no access at all, and then the extent of Burma’s isolation from the world beyond comes clear, with a chill of recognition: much could happen here that could go unknown by both local and international news providers, or only until it might be too late. It is only a matter of moments before the barricades and cordons can be drawn up and lines of armed military personnel prevent any kind of open communication at all.

In my short time here, without eliciting any discussion of the election, I’ve been confided to by many people eking out a living as tea-shop owners, guesthouse workers, booksellers, taxi-drivers and beggars. Many have made it clear that they hold little faith in the coming election, others, especially younger educated people, try to preserve some optimism that a reasonably democratic procedure might begin to institute the reforms they expect is their due in voting at all.

Few have suggested to me that a boycott of the election is the only course to follow, and while emphasizing their fidelity to Aung San Suu Kyi and the now heavily compromised former NLD party, they profess her political power to be at an all-time minimum, and her career effectively closed. Yet they say this with a wistfulness that makes it very clear that while her political currency appears to have passed its peak, their personal faith in and love for who she is and what she means to their national identity is as undying as ever. Younger people I have spoken to look to the Student 88 party as most likely to hold some kind of legitimacy in the democratic cause, at least one with some political negotiating power, even as they are certain the USDP will win the election outright and current Prime Minister Thein Sein become the new leader of Myanmar under its auspices. It is hard to disagree with them, and everything seems to be confirming it by the day. Yet even this morning an apparent show of protest by some monks near the Shwedagon Pagoda, and the arrest of two of them, challenges that foregone conclusion. In this election anything could happen, and the coming two weeks hold much more radical surprises in store.

Trading English books with a bookseller all of eighty years, speaking through his two remaining betel-stained teeth, nothing was mentioned of the election until I was about to take leave of him. Then he cannily grinned and said, ‘And you don’t know anything about the election, do you?’ I quickly grinned back and agreed, saying, ‘Nothing at all! In fact, I’ve forgotten about it! What is it?’ He slapped his knees and burst out into laughter, two friends joining in, all of us laughing in a happy defiance as I crossed the road. A nearby police official looked askance at us, but we kept on laughing. There was a feeling that no matter who might be observing, the local people preserve an integrity and conviction intact precisely through such defiance, however passing. The irony also was that the book I’d exchanged with the old bookseller was a collection of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s short fiction: a great Russian writer repeatedly persecuted by Stalin’s Soviet regime, his life often threatened, until he had finally died in exile in Paris, obscure and largely unknown to the Russian reading public of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist periods. Yet his writing lives on, read now in English in Yangon. The old man shook my hand and thanked me and said he looked forward to reading the stories, brilliant parables of freedom eked out in unlikely places and through fragile human solidarities, just as it is in Burma today. In such ways the best of the human spirit survives, and triumphs in ways that Gen. Than Shwe and his minions seem deadened to, so great already is their loss.

Catching a taxi last night to the Shwedagon Pagoda to see the full-moon festival there, my driver (slightly drunk) told me almost as soon as I was inside how much he loved ‘Daw Suu Kyi’. By the time we arrived at the glittering golden stupa there were tears in his eyes, and he almost refused to accept my payment for the ride. Such is the warmth and faith of many of the Burmese people I have met here in only a short time. The overriding conclusion that can’t be avoided is that such a people deserve much better than the disrespect and humiliation the ruling regime mete out to them again and again in so many forms of curtailment of basic rights of expression, assembly, freedom of association and self-determination.

Two days ago I saw a man being led along Merchant Street, both his arms gripped hard by two black-uniformed military personnel on either side. The man was young, mild-faced and went passively; I don’t know what he had done that warranted his arrest, but he went almost willingly, as if he knew beforehand that it was only to be expected, had perhaps gone through the process before. I didn’t know if he had broken the law, or what passes for such in Burma, but it seemed certain that he, too, didn’t deserve to be led away, stallholders and bystanders craning their necks to see him go, to an unobserved interrogation, and perhaps many years in one of Burma’s notoriously inhumane prisons.

Life appears here to be business as usual, but deep beneath the surface a pride and strength of spirit speaks out loud, saying that the subjugation of fundamental freedom can only go so far, beyond which point everything will be risked to secure its eventual triumph. Perhaps this is the one thing in its people the ruling regime has failed to manouvre against, the one thing it will finally be unable to withstand. Whatever the election outcome in two weeks, the quest for genuine freedom isn’t over, and the election might only be its prelude. October 24, Yangon. Copyright © Martin Kovan
An edited version of this article was published in the online  journal The Irrawaddy on 28.X.2010, as “The Malaise Below the Surface”: http://www.irrawaddy.org/election/…/560-the-malaise-below-the-surface.html

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Don’t wait


        for the ride before it comes

you’ve already seen so many

         take your place before you

    all those still yet to come –

                             pilgrims on the mountain sides

                                        highways and arterials

         streaming amoebic duty

 Egyptian files of willing workers

                                          cracking heads in the crush

                              to make or save civilization.

Where do you go

                       to take your place?

            the pure space to receive you

    bearing a child                   laying stone

                                 putting down what foundations

             to impermanence?

There will be no haste

                           to carry you there sooner

                 than you need arrive.

 you are there already

              turning memory’s soil

                          hitting metaphysical paydirt

in the hour of the sun…

Let go your belongings

                                    drop the needless wait

                           noplace to stay            or go

                                                                         On the Way.

Paris, September 2010

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In 1995 to 1996 Alan Clements, an American former monk in the Burmese Buddhist tradition, entered Burma to record dialogues with the lately-freed democracy icon and legitimate leader of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi. These dialogues were published as the “The Voice of Hope” in 1997, reissued in 2008. Today, in October 2010, Daw Suu Kyi is once again incarcarated under house-arrest, with her imminent release slated for mid-November. I spoke with Clements about Daw Suu Kyi’s significance not only for the Burmese democracy movement but also her contribution to the turn towards a global freedom movement grounded in Buddhist and secular values of non-violence, the mutual tolerance and respect of dialogue over armed conflict, the rights to free expression, assembly and self-determination. Clements is currently engaged in a project (www.useyourliberty) to restore up to 50 hours of documentary audio and video footage of Aung San Suu Kyi and her Burmese pro-democracy colleagues, previously thought lost but recently recovered from Burma. His website is www.worlddharma.org.

Paris – L.A. Dec. 14, 2009

MARTIN KOVAN: Alan, as we speak Aung San Suu Kyi [ASSK] is going into the first months of her fifteenth year of incarceration under the military regime in Burma. At the same time Foreign Policy magazine this year named her 26th in a list of a hundred of the world’s “top thinkers”, for “being a living symbol of hope in a dark place.” We’ve heard that kind of appraisal of ASSK for many years now, since she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and though increasingly people all around the world are aware of her, and despite the efforts of Obama’s administration during 2009, this appraisal hasn’t necessarily translated into decisive international policy. Alan, you’ve known her personally, you’ve co-authored a well-known book with her, The Voice of Hope, re-issued in 2008. Maybe you can offer us a different kind of insight into her dedication to democratic freedom in Burma?

ALAN CLEMENTS: Martin, my personal experience of being with her for a period of six months in 1995 and 1996, soon after her first release following her first six years of incarceration, was as a friend of Burma, having been a Buddhist monk there, a friend of her principal mentor U Tin U, who was once the general of the army, ironically, under the dictator Ne Win who imprisoned her. Upon U Tin U’s release he became a monk in the monastery in Rangoon where I lived – the Mahasi Sayadaw Center. And, ironically, as I tried to study and practice some understanding of the nature of my own mind, ie. the pursuit of enlightenment, I was getting a tutorial, if you will, on the psychology of dictatorship and totalitarianism from the general himself.

KOVAN: U Tin U was a full general?

CLEMENTS: Yes, the head of the army. And he makes this archetypal transformation from ‘natural born killer’ to Gandhian freedom fighter, and mentor of ASSK. So it was through him that I was respectfully introduced to her. So I came to her from the dhamma, the nature of experiential Buddhist practice put into dynamic action, as we see today in Burma. So my experience of her is as a ‘dharma-sister’, if you will, someone whose being, her voice, her expression, her thought, are integral to her understanding of the qualities of consciousness that are most responsible for the liberation of the human mind from fear, anger and greed. And that’s why she calls her struggle for democracy in Burma as a revolution first and foremost of the human heart, or a revolution in her words, of the spirit.

So my experience of her is really the exploration of what informs this remarkably courageous non-violent struggle: why is non-violence preferable to armed struggle? What is the value of metta, of loving-kindness, in confronting military injustice and so on? I became acquainted with the psyche of a Buddhist-informed revolutionary. Now within that she’s very human: perhaps one of the most unpretentious human beings I’ve ever met, remarkably joyous in the midst of this inferno of hell in Burma with 50 million people in her country held like slaves by this dictatorship. You have this woman who’s enjoying, in a strange kind of way, her own sovereignty as an independent entity, yet inseparably connected to her, and as a ‘global mother.’ She has a deep relatedness, it seems to me, to the archetypal feminine, who’s able to nurture differences rather than destroy and fight against those differences. She wants to talk about the differences, and  – I can’t say that I embody it – but I love it as an ideal: let’s talk not kill, let’s be kind not be cruel. Let’s elevate, rather than denigrate. That’s her message to the generals, that’s her message to the world: if we can’t heal the divisions of our own inner being, how can we expect to heal the divisions in our politics and in our racial understanding? So, she comes from a ‘one world’ model, Martin, and I think that’s a very important message in today’s world, where we’re teetering on the brink of “just war.”

KOVAN: Insofar as you approach her from your Buddhist background, and she obviously could respond to that as a Buddhist herself, you also describe her as somebody invested with profound human qualities that embody in one person – as you say, a ‘one world’ figure – not merely a Buddhist or Buddhist-inspired resistance, but one who can speak from its secular basis as well.


KOVAN: Obviously religious figures such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama [HHDL] were doing similar things in that late-80s period as well, but like Nelson Mandela with whom she is often compared, she managed to touch a universal chord that continues to resonate also with Western people. How would you elaborate on that particular connection with the ‘Western’ consciousness, or the Western ethical conscience, and that larger symbol that she embodies that we respond to so deeply?

CLEMENTS: Well, it’s interesting how one finds within someone something to identify with, that inspires something in you to look more deeply or to be more alive in the values that you consider to be your dharma or your spirituality. For me ASSK touches upon qualities that I can identify with that are trans-monastic, trans-renunciatory.’ She’s revisioning, without even knowing it I think, the entire motif of the bodhisattva model of how this mosaic of energies called the paramis (or paramitas in Sanskrit), how these energetics of love, compassion, tranquillity, of energy, poise and patience could be brought forward to define the emotional landscape of who we are right now in this deep intersubjectivity. She’s relating from that place of revolution that ‘consciousness is the forefront of the so-called battle’ because ‘I’m not going to hit you, I’m not going to use a gun, I’m not a believer in that. I’m believing in the interface of consciousness with consciousness.’ She’s Oxford educated, a Burmese national with a tremendous literary background and Buddhist-rooted understanding, in a culture with thirteen different major ethnicities, who speak perhaps up to 170 different dialects, primarily Buddhist but not only Buddhist – there’s Muslims, there’s Sikhs, Catholics, Baptists, atheists, and animists. So we have this rich tapestry of languages and ethnicities, religions and diversities of styles of behavior, and she’s coming through this as a woman who’s not wearing the flag of religious nationalism, no matter how refined that may be. She’s saying ‘I’m a woman, a person, and these timeless principles are not anyone’s alone.’ Metta isn’t Buddhist, any more than compassion is Christian. So she’s taken it out of the vessel, and she’s saying revolution is first and foremost of the spirit, where one takes responsibility for their own state of mind, and there can be no lasting change in society without first and foremost a change of consciousness. That to me is a very inspiring place to identify with her as both a spiritual person and as a political leader because she’s melding in a unique way radically contemporary spiritual truths, simple as they may be, and harsh, intense political realities. And she’s not afraid of that, of merging the spirit with politics. She draws that remarkably beautiful distinction that consciousness is inseparable from the basis of civilized society. She has a working experiential understanding in other words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a type of secular template for the dharma. That’s pretty unique.

KOVAN: Could it be that it’s so unique – to be challenging by exactly those qualities a current of geopolitical, but also religious, misguidedness – that in a way it could be too threatening? I ask the question because it almost seems as if international leaders who respect her at the same time have to hold the gauntlet of nonviolence she offers at arm’s distance. She demands a personal integrity that challenges some of the deepest egoism endemic to leadership or vested interest generally.

CLEMENTS: She could be ahead of her time, there’s no doubt about it. But she stands as a diamond in the midst of whatever this world is that we see, however we interpret it – of course in Burma it’s a totalitarian nightmare. So her luminosity is very beautifully juxtaposed there. Is it too much for the world to see this light? I don’t think so. My sense is that she’s so sincere, I think that’s the scalding fire, if you will, the burning light that’s too much for some predator-patriarchal models that are driven by uniform and testosterone, money and might. And how do you throw the cool water of intimacy on the reptilian consciousness of violence?

KOVAN: A saint’s task. But turning the focus a little back on the ‘Western’ experience, she seems to represent a lot for Western consciousness and yet what strikes me in a general way is that many people don’t seem to be so aware of ASSK.

CLEMENTS: Yes, true.

KOVAN: Perhaps this is more of a question about the Western sense of engagement, but why do you think it might be that at the same time that she’s held in such esteem, vast numbers of educated people don’t really know what’s going on in Burma?

CLEMENTS: Again, that’s an interesting point. To go from obscurity to household name – that psychology and that elevation requires, I guess, a person-to-person transmission of importance in how one brings that larger world into your own personal relationships: ASSK as a name, as a person, what she stands for, what would that define, Burma as a country, what it stands for, and so on. Perhaps it took the “Free Mandela” concert, in ’88, twenty-four years into his incarceration, for people to see this worldwide, and all of a sudden ‘Nelson Mandela’ was a name previously never known to a lot of people. There’s a way in which ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ has to become something more than an iconic symbol by understanding that this name is connected to a body and this body’s connected to a people and this people is connected obviously to a nation. Another simple way to understand, for example, is with Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth which presented to the world the urgency of understanding global climate change, and to some extent empowered people to become agents of positive change, to understand how they could participate in no longer being part of the problem but being part of the solution.

And ASSK for me, not that she’s the only one, but she stands pretty high in the pantheon of people in the world who represent not just global human rights, and bringing them to the forefront of the international stage, but also embodies the living essence of freedom, because it’s juxtaposed with one of the most harsh and brutal military regimes in the modern era. She’s existing in the context of a remarkably repressive circumstance, and she’s saying ‘no’ to violence and ‘yes’ to love. She’s saying ‘no’ to cruelty and ‘yes’ to freedom, and she’s saying ‘you are part of the solution, you’re not the enemy, I refuse to demonise you.’ And those types of deeply embedded personal mnemonics that define the dharma, or ontology of liberation, the personal experience of being at that core level, those are remarkably threatening to people. Intimacy is threatening to people at times, sharing is threatening at times. And to me that’s a remarkable gift that she’s bringing to the forefront for all of us to check into and play with, download, associate with. ‘Wow – there’s a person who says freedom is more important than fear. There’s an alternative to division and militarization.’

So we can identify with and tap into this woman as a leader in taking something as pedantic as ‘global human rights’ – what does that mean to me as a human being, here and now? That’s one of the qualities that she brings into focus for people in her country, and also in my presence, Martin, which was: what is freedom, here, and now, with you, not with me alone? She has a deep relatedness to the contextual understanding of freedom as a process, not as the usual mistranslation of Eastern understanding or of Buddhism of ‘my freedom’ as somehow a vacuum from the innate relatedness to life and others’ freedom.

KOVAN: Alan that’s a real illumination of where she stands and also of what you’ve experienced in your personal encounter with ASSK. But it would seem at the same time that unless we are in some way able to meet that, on an individual, a collective, on a national and international level at the same time, then perhaps the situation in Burma itself remains at something of a standstill. Now when you speak of ASSK holding to a practice of non-violence, it’s difficult to see how even President Obama with all of his extraordinary achievement thus far is able to engage with ASSK on that level: he supports capital punishment and he’s willing to fight a just war. How do we as Western democracies take into our own psychic economy, so to speak, what ASSK is offering?

CLEMENTS: Yes, a very interesting point. I have looked at President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech a number of times since he’s delivered it. I praised his speech in that he was honest with himself and the world. I’ve been wanting that declaration of reality from him. He is of course saying as Commander in Chief that, essentially, Gandhi cannot be a President, Luther King cannot be a President. King can be a civil-rights movement leader. ASSK essentially by inference here cannot be a prime minister or president. One must understand that being human today in the world, and perhaps as far as we can see into the future, requires someone who is willing to pull the gun, if not, support people who do pull the gun, if not pull the switch on those who commit crimes, if not – who knows – shoot a nuke? I don’t know where it ends, when you take the ideology of a just so-called war. He’s selling ideologies rather than being accountable as a leader, and I think in his position as an honourable man wanting to restore America’s image to the world, that there’s a way to do that and it’s to be accountable for misdeeds, to be accountable for deceptions, to be accountable for misguided behaviours. ASSK in my brief experience with her, is a lady of integrity – she’s the first to admit her own faults. She’s basically standing firm in the position of an honest attempt at deep dialogue with her adversaries. Now, I would only assume that Obama in one year went from ‘deep dialogue as ambitious challenge to dictatorship,’ to a rallying call that ‘I’m willing to kill in the name of our needs.’ Well, what about going another step or two deeper into ‘Hey, it’s not easy to negotiate with the leaders of Al Qaeda’, anymore than it would’ve been easy to negotiate with the leaders of the Third Reich. But nonetheless, we can’t constantly fall back on those…stratospheric examples, when in fact there is a way to dialogue in Afghanistan, there is a way to dialogue in Pakistan, there is a way to dialogue with the Palestinians and the Israelis, and there is a way of dialoguing with the American people and the Republicans and the Democrats and there is a way of dialoguing with your own consciousness. And I think that that is the missing element in American politics and global politics that ASSK brings: she brings a respect for the nature of understanding human consciousness. The other day I was watching a Bill Moyers special from forty-five years ago, back when President Johnson was taking over as president after Kennedy’s assassination, and he was pondering, in Bill Moyers’s profoundly put-together hour-piece, what it was like for President Johnson to consider the build-up and the invasion ultimately of Vietnam. Obviously it was in comparison prior to President Obama’s decision to send in 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan. We get to hear him speak to his principal advisors about ‘should we invade, should we build up, should we pull out?’

And I’m sure it’s the same dialogue that President Obama had with all of his advisors giving him the pros and cons of either staying in Iraq, or leaving Afghanistan, or committing more troops there. But my point is, you thought that there would have been some insight into this dialogue but it was just so black and white: either we look weak and pull out, or we go in and it’s a merciless no-win situation. When are we ever going to learn from history, in other words, that there is an alternative to military solutions? Military solutions would work if their stated goals were met. But they’re not met in Iraq, they’re not met after eight years in Afghanistan, and gazillions of dollars are spent while Americans are going broke by the second, homes are in for closures, people are being evicted from their homes and can’t pay the rent, people are sleeping in their cars, the highways are filled with motels with families in rooms 2, 3, 4 and 5, and all the while we’re sending more troops into a decimated, blown-apart country of Afghanistan – for a hundred Al Qaeda? It’s at a really kind of farcical and almost Monty Python level where Al Qaeda isn’t in the dust of Afghanistan – they’re in the internet system worldwide. 9/11 hatched from within America, not from the dustbowl of Afghanistan.

KOVAN: The eternally unreachable enemy. But if we could just bring that back to the Burmese context for a moment, because I think it relates to what you’re saying. The Burmese junta themselves defend their policy by virtue of preserving order within Burma against the ‘internecine nationalist struggles’ of ethnic minorities. What do you think would be the political reality of a liberated Burma with that apparent level of internal conflict? Theoretically ASSK herself and the NLD party would have to face internal Burmese conflict, so again we’re dealing with this tension between political and ethnocentric realities and Buddhist-inspired social redemption. There’s obviously a dichotomy there between historical-political appearances and ethical-spiritual aspirations.

CLEMENTS: It’s not really an accurate portrait of Burma’s political landscape. The reality is that the regime with its 500,000 soldiers are committing degrees of mass-killing, if not ethnic-cleansing, in a lot of the ethnic areas around the borders with their neighbouring countries, whether it be the border of Thailand or China or Bangladesh and Malaysia, and even in the north with the Kachins, where they border Tibet. You’ve got a killing machine there that is by and large just going through villages at will and destroying life as we know it, and one asks why? It’s for no other reason than an embedded legacy of some form of ethnocentricity and moha, or ignorance, that’s led and fed by the banality of a propaganda and indoctrination system in that country based on ‘if you don’t kill you get killed, if you kill you get fed, if you kill you get fed and your parents can eat as well.’ It’s this cycle of aggressive authoritarianism playing itself out at a very reptilian, lethal level. It’s not really about rivalries of ethnic groups, that’s an ancient scapegoat for a central regime that feeds on killing.

ASSK is a remarkably unifying figure, and she’s not just playing partisan politics within the NLD, she’s deeply inviting. I know this from direct experience of having been with her and her principal colleagues, that they know the heart of the Burmese people, and it’s no mystery why they won something like 89% of the popular vote back in the May 1990 elections, which included vast numbers of the ethnic minorities of the country, other than the majority of Burmans. And having lived and travelled, Martin, through a number of the different ethnic regions to see and to speak with the Mons and the Shans and the Karens, and to other remote areas in the north and areas bordering the Bangladesh area and even down in the south, I’ve spoken to many, many people, leaders of these ethnic groups and even leaders of the ethnic armies. I was even there at the formation of the alliance of the NCGUB, the National Alliance of the Government of all the United Ethnicities back in 1990, and they really do have a unified hand-in-hand approach, they just want to be given basic rights, basic respect for religion and autonomy but they don’t want to be having to deal with a genocidal army that for the last twenty-one years has just been laying ruin to their men, women, children, livestock and crops. So it’s like, really, give peace a chance, and let’s see what a nation that has been brutalized by incessant war can do. From 1962 until the modern moment we have a country that’s been progressively run down socially, politically, environmentally, spiritually, on every level imaginable to the point now where one of the largest standing armies in the world does one thing: oppress, kill, torture, rape its own people. And one asks, why?

Why? One has to look psychologically at some of the reasons for this collective national trauma in being so brutalized. I would only say in the simplest of terms, as an American speaking here, that my country goes into a great amnesia about its own roots while at the same time projecting its own terror onto other people and attacks, whereas the Burmese invert their trauma and seem to attack their own people. But it does point to the same issue that ASSK raises over and over and over again, to come back to her – when will the cycle of violence ever end? Unless we ourselves interrupt that cycle in our own heart and mind, how can there ever be lasting change? And she’s asked the question: is non-violence a spiritual principle or is it a political tactic? And she says ‘it’s just smart. It may be the slowest thing in the long run, but those who see us take power by the gun, they’ll eventually differ with us because human minds differ with one another and they’ll assume that since we did it, they can do it. So we have to set an example, someone has to put down the gun first. And it may not be in my lifetime that we see democracy in our country but I must stay true to the principle that it’s far preferable to talk than to kill.’ That’s it, and she’s saying it in ways that aren’t so Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim, she’s not speaking from being a Burmese Buddhist, she’s speaking from just being a woman, she’s saying this is just practical good sense.

KOVAN: Alan, I think it would be fair to say that of all of the world leaders currently visible to us, HHDL is perhaps the only other figure who apart from his religious affiliation is essentially saying the same thing. And yet I think it could fairly be said of both of them that despite the power and depth, which has obviously been recognized also in their Nobel Prizes and elsewhere, of what they’re saying, both Burmese and Tibetan contexts remain seemingly intractable, dogged by a paralysis that requires just as much explication as the kind of misguidedness that you’ve just been describing. Let’s summarise what we’re talking about: the London-based Burma Justice Committee recently publicized the crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese junta: regular forced displacements, forced labour, routine torture, sexual violence including systematic rape, extrajudicial killings. These are very clear now, the Harvard Law School report Crimes in Burma has stated categorically that already-existing U.N. documents are sufficient to hold the Burmese junta accountable for their actions. But we all know that, much as in the case of Tibet, the U.N. Security Council has been compromised in any really decisive response to these problems. I know that unpicking the politics of the U.N. is not an easy thing to ask, but could you give your particular take on that problem?

CLEMENTS: How do we engage epic tyranny and expect Stone Age consciousness to think in terms of how we relate to the Declaration of Human Rights and further, how we empower our own sense of consciousness as ‘true conscience’? How do we get through to these generals in other words, to these men who are intractable, so to speak?

KOVAN: Concretely, what in fact do we do if we can’t get through to them, which seems to be the case at the moment?

CLEMENTS: Well, this is my belief of what can be done. It’s a twofold form of activism or leadership – call it the “cash method” and the “conscience method.” Cash and conscience. If I were to just simply do the “cash method” first, obviously if you belong to Al Qaeda today or if you’re connected to the Bin Laden family or have some links to terrorism, you will find yourself in jail, ASAP, your money gone, your home gone, your family lost, whatever – they track you to the penny. Now, obviously the U.N. is an honourable body, and even Pol Pot managed to get a seat for the Khmer Rouge there. So we’ve got the U.S. ambassador for Burma there, but Burma wants to play on the international landscape, they want to be respected, rather than just be the international pariah that they are. However, they are not an army, they’re men dressed in uniform and there’s a lot of them. But they’re called ‘a government.’ Let’s call them by their true name – they’re a terrorist organization that terrorizes their own people. Now if we were to apply “terrorist organization” to Burma very much like Americans once did to the ANC, then Mandela, despite being the moral hero that he is in the world, was once a terrorist according to the world.

OK, point taken? The Burmese regime is not a ‘regime’, it’s not a junta, it’s not a government. They’re a bunch of men who act like serial killers and if you took the top five of them and put them on the streets of L.A. they’d be a street-gang and they’d be given capital punishment, under Obama, because they’ve killed so many people. But because they’re a so-called government, men in uniform, we talk to them as if they’re civilized human beings. Rather, dealing with the cash issue, they should be treated as terrorists, and in doing so not to demonise them so much as to take away their blood – which is money. So I would offer an international re-labelling of who they are, in as much as it becomes law that all of their money, wherever it’s found in the banks of Switzerland or Singapore or China, or perhaps even in America – I don’t know where they keep their money, but it’s certainly not in Burma – that it be tagged, noted and confiscated. Absolutely dry up their dollars. So that’s one method. Two methods is – who’s giving them the guns? And this is again a big problem because America exports more guns than all countries in the world combined, and yet we’re the most civilized nation. Who’s giving the guns to the regime in Burma, and whose money is paying for it? Guns and cash. Take the guns out of their hands, they have no enemies, they’re only killing their own people. Take the cash out of their hands, and they’ll go –  Humpty Dumpty came falling down. Two good reasons.

KOVAN: But insofar as foreign countries – you’ve just named a few, we can also name India, Russia, and Thailand to some degree – have vested interests in arms, in military trade, in oil and gas extraction, in nuclear power infrastructure, and commercial trade, taking away the Burmese terroristic cash also means taking away a large economic investment for the West as well.

CLEMENTS: All I can say is that in order to be an activist or a leader in some way, maybe I’m naïve, but – you have to personalize something, it’s like, OK, the Burmese people are ‘my father.’ Well, it’s not cool to give money and guns to a neighbor who’s going to chop off the legs of my Dad. There’s got to be some distinction here between complicity with murder and sanity of economic civilization. I mean for God’s sake in America, I don’t know about the EU or other countries around the world, but if someone says that you’re complicit with a drug sale, you can go to jail (laughs). These people are complicit with genocide! When does it become a crime against humanity to sell weapons to a regime that’s known for ethnic cleansing?

To me, this is where ASSK comes in, and I think we’re at this edge of evolution where – these words are so preposterous, I hear myself speaking with you, and as I know you to be a learned man, these are preposterous simplicities that we’re talking about. We’re dealing with a level of evolution or the lack of evolution, where we have to see that we’re confronting the archetypal issue: can we co-exist in the world without killing eachother, or sell weapons to support those who kill people who are distant from us for the sake of our own economic needs? And so that’s one level. The other level is internal – let me just get to this one. There’s an internal way to drop this regime to its knees. This is my belief, it’s been time-tested to stop work. In America there’s no need to stop work because everyone’s forced to stop work today. But in Burma, you’re a slave to the regime, I mean some people who do work only make a hundred dollars a year. And when you think about the generals living with billion dollar bank-accounts in mansions with multiple Mercedes Benz and private planes and jewels and so on and so forth, it’s a disparity that’s insane.

My point is that the people of Burma don’t have a whole lot left to lose. And it wouldn’t be surprising to me if someone were to coordinate a collective stop-work order that was done on a progressive basis so that rather than marching on the streets where the regime is known to kill – even monks as we know, and nuns – people could stay indoors and stop working so that once a month on, say the full moon next month, everyone in the country who believes in freedom and democracy doesn’t go to work that day. The next month, on the new moon and the full moon, those two days of the month, no-one goes to work. On the third month, on the quarter-moon, the new moon and the full moon, three days of the month, and we work into twelve months and twelve days of the month. Or, twenty-four days of the month or all thirty days of the month til eventually the whole nation has stopped work and I wouldn’t even be surprised by the sixth month that even the military’s not showing up to pay homage to their ridiculous leaders. And it may even be that the leaders themselves weep, because they no longer have any life because no-one’s projecting anything into them anymore: there’s no money and there’s no more power and Humpty Dumpty was just a balloon that got deflated. It’s possible.

I want Burma to be victorious, just as Mandela and de Klerk shared the Peace Prize, I would weep with joy for this planet, for my daughter’s future and her children’s future, should she have children. That a man like Than Shwe – and he’s not just Than Shwe, but any man, that that place in my heart too, that finds hope through the endeavour of crossing over the divisions of my own duality, can hold hands and break bread and drink wine and dance with the opposition. Because I know that I can’t live without you. We can’t kill everyone off because of that which we see in others but don’t want to recognize in ourselves. So the time has come where ASSK is a living model and there are other ones in the world, who are basically saying the heart is filled with dualities as we know, but I’m not afraid of integrating those dualities and I’m going to include you too, I’m going to reclaim my projection. And take responsibility for my mind and my fear and my anger and say listen, ‘I want you as my friend.’ To me that’s a method that we need to follow. You know, it’s one thing to have a poster of ASSK on your wall. It’s another thing to know something about her, it’s another thing to know what she stands for, it’s another thing to embody what she stands for, it’s another thing to embody what she stands for and communicate that embodiment naturally to others. That’s the process that we’re looking at here – is how to take your poster of her off your wall, and how to take the icon off your psyche of ‘over there.’

KOVAN: But it appears that a lot of people prefer the icon. I live in Paris and in October just in front of the town hall a large number of French intellectuals, writers and cultural celebrities sat holding a candle-lit vigil in front of a large portrait of ASSK. I at least had to ask myself how many of them had driven there in cars or taxis with gas pumped from Total gas-company pumps, that has come directly from highly lucrative trade with the Burmese regime.

CLEMENTS: Well, this is the imperfection of the human existence – that all of us are complicit in this big, strange inter-relatedness called equal doses of ignorance and wisdom, pleasure and pain. I think we are playing at a new edge here where if we can lay down the gun and give peace a chance, it may be that we breathe something innovative into this collective, physical, cyclical Gaia-sphere we’re in – who knows? I just think that the static and the hell of predatory narcissism using guns just has to stop for awhile. That’s all. And I think that’s what ASSK is advocating, and it can be done in Burma. It can be done, if enough people say, yes we can. It did for Obama. Everyone in the world now has someone larger than Obama to admire, and that’s ASSK and she’s just again one person who represents the felt reality of global human rights, that I think is the oxygen of our present-day survival and the future of life. Everyone knows as well that the pollution in Shanghai affects the quality of air in Paris, but we do not know that the oppression of a political prisoner in Burma affects the quality of your life in Paris. That’s the the experiential edge that we’re trying to talk to here. What is that?

I was just watching some of the video footage [of my conversations with ASSK] that was smuggled out of Burma the other day and one of her mentors was commenting, actually at her house – I forgot this – that a woman back in  ’95 who had simply put flowers on ASSK’s mothers’ grave in Rangoon, was given a five-year prison term. So one looks at how lethal and maniacal this regime is – how do you get through to this? Is it the teachings of the more refined level of bodhisattvic activity, where you go into deep khanti as a dharma where patience, and the determination within that patience, of non-retribution is your energetic mantra and you just wait, and sit, and wait and sit, and play the old game that ‘give them enough rope that they’ll hang themselves’? How much of the world has to come into play here, like people you spoke of in Paris, where they walk to the vigil rather than drive, or they refuse to buy petrol, they do their homework first to see the interrelatedness of their own complicity with the killing-machine? So we need to do our homework on the deep root level of how our existence is interconnected to the economy of the world, and to rid ourselves as much as possible of how we’re unconsciously using dollars, unknowingly, to support oppression in our own home or elsewhere. And then to do the actions that really may make a difference.

This is where I think, again coming back to what I was saying earlier about taking down the icon, taking the poster off the wall, no longer projecting the image of ASSK at your concert, Bono: let us hear her speak, don’t speak for her anymore. Let us hear her song…to “I’m staying, I’m not walking on.” Let us hear her talk, free her voice. Let us hear her voice of hope become a voice of hope by freeing her voice. It’s like the Dalai Lama being locked away in a dungeon in the Potala Palace and only every now and again maybe a word is eked out. I’m not bringing any kind of glory to myself in this case, but I had a very rare opportunity, I don’t know why it happened, back in ’95 and ’96, to spend six months with her and her colleagues and at the same time tape it, and although we couldn’t smuggle the tapes out the transcripts got out, and I look back fifteen years later now that these things have been smuggled out and it’s like having de Klerk let me spend six months with Mandela, eighteen years into his incarceration!

And this book, The Voice of Hope, it should’ve been called The Text of Hope. But if people who saw her words heard her speak them, I think we would have an immediate inspiration far beyond the vigils, the posters, and the beautiful things that people sing and dance to. And it’s that voice that the regime wants to silence. My job, my duty, my love right now is to free her voice. She may not be free – but to free her voice. What will she say to the world?

KOVAN: It’s a great aspiration, and the parallel with the Dalai Lama is again very interesting because we have someone who in all other senses is in a similar position except that he is free, and we can thankfully hear what he has to say. I wonder if you could comment on that parallel between where ASSK is and where HHDL is in what he’s able to do with his freedom? In a way ASSK’s incarceration acts as a kind of concentration or a magnification of her integrity in a way that perhaps for the Dalai Lama gets diffused in a kind of global, media-driven, celebritised diffusion of what’s existentially at stake here.

CLEMENTS: They’re both deeply committed to not just the power of non-aggression but transformation through consciousness, transformation through the understanding of human inter-relatedness in a peaceful way, politics through a deep understanding of the constituents of consciousness for peaceful co-existence. Those ontological architectures, those foundations must become the new templates of education in school, the university and politics. Just as we wouldn’t tolerate malfunctioning software in our Word files, we can’t afford too many more malfunctioning political leaders that don’t work within the template of deep co-existence through time-tested ways. These aren’t a new form of socialized politics but allow for deep individuality and uniqueness at the same time, so that human rights are not only safe-guarded and protected but they’re also liberated from the box of sectarianism and dogma, and we have a huge celebration of originality on earth. I think those templates could be so well learned, that my sense is me, little ordinary me, has even learnt it some degree. I’ve seen mentors of mine, like ASSK’s mentor U Tin U, who was a natural-born killer, the son of a dictator, general of an army, make the archetypal transformation on his own, unprompted, to go from killer to apostle of peace. So we’ve really got examples of Angulimala, the serial killer of Buddhist myth who became a saint.

KOVAN: But let’s be concrete, U Tin U made that in the context of a religious tradition, namely the Buddhist tradition, and certainly in Burma that tradition is  –

CLEMENTS: From my understanding he made it in the context of deep introspection within his own psyche and soul.

KOVAN: Yes, but culturally and in terms of the container which he required in order to consolidate that initial interior existential leap, so to speak, was the monastery, was the respected role of the ordained monk in Burmese society, similarly with the Tibetan context as well –

CLEMENTS: No, no – he became a meditator, not a monk, first. Someone threw in his prison cell, it’s worthy of note, when he was alone there, and taken off the pedestal as general of the army, a little meditation book written by the Mahasi Sayadaw who was, as you know, one of the great teachers of Satthipatthana [a sutta on meditation] in the world, and he practiced meditation based upon this little instruction book. As a result of that he had very positive experiences in prison, in solitary, he said he could see somewhat objectively – his anger for example was different from his own being.

KOVAN: I think that’s a really good point. I’m emphasizing the ways in which a potential freedom from, for example, his previous history, or on a national level a previous self-image which has ceased to serve a country, generally requires some form of at least culturally or intellectually understood liberation. And I think a lot of the time through history, for example in the era of the Civil Rights Movement it was definitely Martin Luther King’s Christian-influenced ahimsa, definitely in India there was old Hindu, Jain and other extra-Hindu traditions which were inspiring Gandhi, and I think in the context of ASSK she is not making explicit but nevertheless refers most profoundly to Buddhist metaphysics and Buddhist ethics.


KOVAN: So the question is, when we look at a Western ability to resonate with that depth of transformation that you describe in U Tin U, how perhaps are we from our side sabotaged by a lack of that kind of deep cultural context?

CLEMENTS: It’s because I think we still see the constellation of ‘the Bull’ on the stars rather than seeing the stars and the points of luminosity themselves. I think in the case of ASSK and U Tin U, I don’t detect in my dialogues with them that they’re relating to Buddhism as a supportive structure of being. Rather they’re relating to understandings that have brought them into direct experiential relationship with the ever-present nature of Thisness that we’re in, this large sphere of inter-related consciousness that everyone inhabits. For example, ASSK and U Tin U, rather than relying on Buddhist dogma to be compassionate, relate more from the simplicity of the Shantideva insight of putting oneself in the body of another to understand the nature of compassion. And so to do that on a felt-reality level more and more, to actually pause and inhabit such a presence with another requires a deep level of stopping and facilitating entry into something other than your own narcissism, to feel potentially another person’s pain as that of your family or yourself. That was U Tin U’s transformation, he began to see how arbitrarily distant he was from the innate understanding of our inter-relatedness. It wasn’t a projection of karma – ‘if I kill therefore I’ll find some future lifetime in hell.’ He actually dropped into a felt experience – ubuntu or bodhisattva direct experience. And so I think that’s the thing we get hung-up on, we think of these mystical teachings in the West as coming from ‘the East,’ but to take them way out of the container of ‘East’ and ‘religion’, and to introduce the basic metaphysics of Interbeing, to use a Thich Nhat Hanh phrase, I think that is where education needs to be going today.

KOVAN: Having clarified that insight, I wonder if you could tie that back into the more general nature of the Saffron Revolution of August 2007, when potentially dogmatized Buddhist monastics themselves were able to make that felt leap themselves and take to the streets in a way that went beyond what would be expected of a traditional Burmese Buddhist context. Are you seeing the same thing playing out on a much larger cultural level in that sense as well?

CLEMENTS: You know that’s a very interesting question, because when I met ASSK back in ’95 and ‘96, at that time the monks and nuns weren’t playing such an active role as we saw in 2007 when they led a nation-wide uprising that most people refer to as the Saffron Revolution. She said that, ‘If only the monks and nuns would just simply stand up for an hour then the country would probably have democracy.’ And it’s really about seeing as she said that all people are inter-related – it may sound like an obvious statement, but this brings up an issue for me. My personal edge – not so much edge but my ‘desire system’, my ‘dharma desire system,’ my cetana or my intention, is to understand deep inter-relatedness, deep intersubjectivity, deep objectivity, deep inter-related mindfulness. Who are we? Why are we? Where are we…going? And I find the experiential methodology for that untraversed dharma in our cosmos – and I’m assuming it’s an open universe rather than a sealed one – is that it feels better in more sacred, less violent conditions.

I think ASSK and the people of Burma, and not just them alone, are offering the adventure of caring – caring for a universe that’s miraculous, mysterious and maddening, that can either be an adventure or a transcendence of a hell. If you need the fiction of a heaven, maybe there is one, but maybe there’s something along the way that’s the journey itself. And that journey seems best to be satisfied by caring for the welfare and happiness of others. It’s one thing to constantly look at your own ‘Now,’ but to see that that shared presence is a deeply inter-related one is another: that another person’s mind and body and feelings, knowingly and unknowingly affect our own interior worlds, just like the oxygen does to our own quality of clarity and cognition and biological integrity. ASSK’s offering an invitation to this deep inter-relatedness and so to me the operative word here is solidarity to a dharma beyond our nation, our sect, our tradition, our club, our guru, our teacher, our book, our best culture, or whatever it is. This solidarity to me is very vital and very important, non-violent human rights elevating into something new that’s never been done before. A freedom that’s larger than our own sense of nirvana.

That possibility, that hope is in the courage to care about a new frontier, and therein lies the solidarity where Buddhists are the most basic, foundational space we can coalesce around: Buddhist monks and nuns in Burma, Buddhist secular lay society in Burma. Where are the Buddhist monks and nuns and the Buddhists in the world to align in solidarity with the Buddhists in Burma, and Tibet? That to me is the labour union for this cause. How can we best support our fellow Buddhists in need? I mean, there was once a Cambodia that had a Buddhist infrastructure – it’s all been decimated. The Dalai Lama himself, what ten, twelve years ago, Martin, said we have maybe two years left, or there’ll be no Tibet to save: it’s 2010, on the cusp, how many more times can we say these things?

KOVAN: What’s fascinating there Alan is that everything you’re describing is a description of something that already exists. I mean, a kind of technocentric perspective would suggest that we do live in a virtual world already, we have a form of communications whereby people can communicate online about anything at all. It’s analogical to what you’re describing as an ethical virtuality, a trans-Buddhist global recognition of the other which is immediate, direct, it doesn’t need to be mediated by the institutions of religion or of politics or of other forms of Church. And yet what we find is that that level of intersubjectivity lacks, at least on the analogy of the internet, a kind of ‘deep ethics’ so to speak. The kind of thing you’re proposing is a deep focus, it’s a real discipline too, because it requires not just a personal ‘trawling of the soul’ but a collective trawling of the collective social soul.

CLEMENTS: Our Buddhist family is being sodomised and killed, raped in a genocide. If we just stop for a minute, drop beyond the language as much as we can, not trying to be too melodramatic here, and do a moment of deep inter-related felt reality of a political prisoner – just one. One political prisoner alone in a cell who perhaps has just been beaten badly for chanting the Metta Sutta, which is now outlawed in Burma. OK, how does our dharma inter-relate with this defrocked nun, of whom there are a number in Burmese prisons, what can we do? And that’s my mother, that’s the Buddha, that’s Yasodhara, that’s Maitreya’s wife, that’s the archetypal Buddha Mother, the archetypal Allah Mother, that’s God’s mother. Call it what you will to get into deep intimacy with, but that’s our blood and our soul and our oxygen. That’s the dharma of today, that’s ‘the Now,’ that’s the meditation of tomorrow. What will be that which allows us access into that cell, into that girl’s heart as family and take action on a day-to-day level that isn’t politically varnished with patience (laughs) and all the kind of things that we need to do, and pragmatisms and compromises? So calling all Buddhists, calling on all dharma people – the word ‘dharma’ is almost ubiquitous, it’s almost a ‘trance’ concept – you’re entranced by a concept that should free you! Do we have a collective awakening here that sees things bigger than ‘my breath,’ bigger than my network, bigger than my sangha, bigger than my tithing’?

KOVAN: It strikes me Alan that you’re speaking also as somebody who has actually seen firsthand the horrific realities that you’re speaking of both in Burma and in Yugoslavia during the Balkan War of ‘94 – ’95. And that the kind of more than symbolic intimacy which you’re describing is a kind of depth that people can respond to or from when they have actually seen what you have seen.

CLEMENTS: That’s an interesting comment to me Martin. This is exactly the same argument as with people like President Obama, I’ve been advocating that prime ministers, priests, politicians and people of power, should do mandatory things as part of what they professionally encounter. Perhaps spiritual teachers, meditation and dharma teachers should be included: basic mandatory requirements. That’s where activists, and people like you and me and all of us out here who care, are trying to find new curriculums for human consciousness to reawaken to something that perhaps is already innate, or discover in tandem something that’s new. And that’s all we’re doing, reinventing practices – the Buddha offered practices, he didn’t offer ‘Buddhism.’ So we get a living architecture in the collective consciousness of, ‘Guess what, you can engage consciousness in its own environment and enhance its luminosity, its clarity, its understanding of its own environment.’ How can we care for our own family called Burmese Buddhist, Shan Buddhist, Shan Christians, Muslims, how can we care for life? In the same way we would do the environment – we have to begin to see it, we’ll be forced to see it as our oxygen for survival.

When I started speaking about Burma in 1990, we collected seven people in Berkeley. It was the first NGO in the world for Burma and now I’m here in Los Angeles today and there’s no less than 50 Hollywood celebrities who just can’t stop speaking ASSK’s name. I watched the U2 concert and ten million people are listening to the Edge and Bono speak about ASSK, bless their heart. So it’s come a long way in a short twenty years. No-one can rest until the child is rescued. There’s no happiness until Suu and 2,100 political prisoners who represent the global prisoner is liberated, and the people of Burma are liberated, and there’s health care for all and sanity among leaders and the war machine is relaxed and gone into the big slumber. We begin to see that thought experiments and emotional experiments of the heart are more important than putting out the fires of a projected hate. ASSK offers inspiration and guidance and I think the more leaders who get inspired, the latent inspiration in the heart will be activated and we’ll find them springing up all over the world. I think it’s really about how do we liberate ourselves from every little obstacle that we feel and get more into the business of how we support the saving of life. How quickly can we act to bring an end to human suffering? Again, the study of consciousness and the interplay of conscience with consciousness, is to me the edge of where the dharma is in my own life, and I love that.

I’m a believer that if we can get it right in Burma, that if the world could just stop and begin to have a dialogue of more and more turning towards non-military solutions to conflict, then there’s hope for our kids to have a future. ‘Cause there’s only so much more time that we’ve got before one of those little nukes that got built way back, gets into the hands of the wrong person and – or maybe the ‘right person’ and that “just war” becomes a nuclear just war. There’s no future with killing in other words. The guns get bigger, and bigger, and more destructive and how many times already can we blow up the earth? So it’s pretty much a no-brainer right now: de-escalating in language and energy and emissions is the only hope for survival of the planet. And if that’s not going to be the way then we really need to reinvent NASA and begin to build some kind of space-travel where people just go off like in a cosmic Noah’s Ark and hopefully lay nests somewhere where there’s a more peaceful civilization.

KOVAN: Well, that could prove the most realistic of them all – I hope not, but, who knows?

CLEMENTS: All avenues.

KOVAN: We’ve travelled quite a lot of territory ourselves, Alan, I just thought we might bring it to a close by your letting us know – you travel around the world speaking on behalf of Burmese democracy, on behalf of secular spirituality, could you tell us what you’ll be doing in 2010 vis-à-vis Burma and your own work?

CLEMENTS: It’ll be a continuation of what you’ve mentioned and what I’ve been doing – speaking on behalf of ASSK, freedom, political prisoners in Burma, the liberation of Burma, global human rights. But specifically, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve brought a team of people together to create a film based on smuggled audio and video tapes of my time in Burma with ASSK and her colleagues. We’re going to do a documentary film about revolution in action that frees her voice and the voices of the people and the voices of support for freedom in the world, to hopefully a new level of understanding so that we begin to hear and know and feel who is ASSK, where is Burma, what is Burma, why should we care, what can we do to help? Now.

Burma is a country that’s needing help, it can come from anyone in the world, it can come from even the regime that’s oppressing its own people. That right there – ‘show us a change of heart, I do not feel any need to demonise you. Give us an archetypal reason for hope.’ They have it in their hand, it’s possible that in Burma, with enough focus on elevating the status of their own repressed fear to a place of recognition where love may crack the surface of their own consciousness – it’s possible, Martin, we might have an example of archetypal redemption in Burma where comments like President Obama who’s saying that it’s impossible to negotiate or convince Al Qaeda leaders to lay down their arms – well maybe we see that…maybe, it’s not impossible.

KOVAN: And not even that that might well be the case, but simply that even saying that is already a shift of emphasis.

CLEMENTS: There you go. That’s what we’re talking to here, the shift of emphasis to a hope however small that dedicates to an endeavour, a shift in the greater context to just simply – less suffering. I think to go right back to the Buddha, one of the abiding beauties of that teaching is, and it was a life-saver for me, ‘Listen, If you’re born inevitably you’ll encounter circumstances of complexity and suffering – here’s a way to address that suffering, don’t hide, don’t fear, there’s hope, you can enter it and transform it. And with that transformation, if you can do it, others can do it and the absence of suffering is often the absence of pain, and in the absence of that kind of pain we get to live in the reality of dreams and make dreaming real.’

Copyright © 2009 Martin Kovan & Alan Clements

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Old Conrad paperback ‘Twixt Land and Sea –

bought in Venice by St Mark’s a euro or two

trained to Trieste, bus to Rijeka then Zagreb – flew to Frankfurt

trained to Paris – back to Frankfurt – flew to Bangkok – bus to Mae Sot, back to Bangkok

flew to Rangoon – bus to Mandalay

sold there – for a song

in old market square…

Oct. 2010

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Burmese girl with self portrait, Place Palais Royale, Paris, Nov. 2009

The above image was taken by the author at an open-air exhibition in Paris, Nov. 2009, of children’s self-portraiture from around the world. Unique among hundreds of images, this portrait shows itself fully cocooned, with eyes closed, mouth wide open as if in an endless silent scream. A faceless figure, or perhaps weapon, confronts the terrified figure. The photograph of the artist, a 5 yr-old Burmese girl living in a refugee settlement on the Thai border, shows her arms crossed, gazing distrustfully at the photographer. This also appeared to be unique among the literally hundreds of portraits on exhibit, which generally showed children smiling, dancing, moving in free space.

In the lead up to Burma’s first election in twenty years – in any form, let alone a properly democratic one – it might be useful to provide a general summary of the often complicated political landscape of the country. I use the country title of Burma rather than Myanmar to draw attention to the latter name having been imposed in 1989 by the military dicatatorship of General Ne Win (now deceased), its use by the international community only tending to legitimize an authority that has never either deserved, or legally warranted, such legitimization.

Burma as a title is problematic also as it refers more generally (as the derivation ‘Myanmar’ itself does) to the ethnic majority Burmese (or Bamar) people whom the ruling junta seek to make an absolute power – hence their policy of effective genocide against non-Burmese (so-called minority) peoples in the Karen, Mon and Shan states, as elsewhere. Yet ‘Burma’ is perhaps preferable to ‘Myanmar’ in its greater historical context which includes the founding of the nation as a modern state in the post-war period, under the inspiring, yet short-lived leadership of General (or Bogyoke) Aung San – Aung San Suu Kyi’s revered father, loved by democrats and conservatives alike within Burma. He was assassinated in 1947, at 32 years, just months before the independence of his country was achieved from the British Empire, killed by a haze of bullets that struck down many members of his party in an attack by political rivals. Burma’s freedom has been compromised by internecine antipathy from its beginnings.

The essential problem facing the democracy movement now both within and outside Burma is whether to engage with the electoral process at all, or if so, to what degree and with what kinds of reservations? Does to engage render any equally vital critique morally futile? Or is some form of engagement the only way to initiate or continue whatever existing level of dialogue currently exists with the regime of Senior General Than Shwe (himself lately de-commissioned as a general in order to play a civil-political role from hereon)? This is a difficult question as there are compelling ethical and politically pragmatic arguments informing both views.

What is clear however is that both those ASEAN countries surrounding Burma, and the Western powers in the U.N. and the E.U. could currently be doing much more to make these issues explicit points of discussion in their approach to Burma. As of early October the EU for example has not yet collectively chosen to support international efforts to end impunity in Burma for war crimes and crimes against humanity, by commiting to a U.N.-led commission of enquiry called for by U.N. Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana. It appears rather that the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels this week will sideline the Burmese crisis just as the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in New York did recently. Yet this follows the EU issuing in 2008 its Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders in Burma, itself requiring a direct follow-through on the maintenance of those ‘guidelines.’

The Burmese electoral process has been designed according to the terms of the 2008 electoral commission to entrench the military authority of the (aptly-named!) State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)  in the guise of a civil government.  The 2008 constitution (bitterly opposed by many in the democracy movement) effectively disallows essential aspects of open electoral candidature: freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Given the restrictions of time for registration, limitations of assembly, the excessive costs demanded of non-junta parties and the latter’s easy access to state funding, the results of the election can effectively be seen as a fait accompli.

Pro-democracy actions are regularly disrupted and persecuted across the country, a number of parties have been kept from registration, individual candidates arrested or otherwise banned from competition, Aung San Suu Kyi herself still held under house-arrest despite repeated global calls for her release. By the terms of constitutional rulings she is disallowed from standing as a candidate because of her having been married to a non-Burmese (her late husband was British). Her status as a political prisoner has however been qualified insofar as she is now apparently able to vote, if not stand herself, only because she is formally under house-arrest rather than criminal conviction. These kinds of Orwellian double-speak can clearly be seen to operate as some of the quasi-legalistic means by which the regime maintains power, and tries to seduce international scrutiny to a passive acceptance of their manouvres. The power of faux-legal rhetoric, as spurious as it in reality is, nevertheless carries the false authority that itself allows for the intransigence of the regime to be accepted by the technocratic structures of international governance.

In the meantime the junta is certain to gain a 25% military representation alone in the parliament, as guaranteed by the 2008 constitution. The remaining majority of the vote will almost certainly go to the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and related pro-junta parties such as the National Unity Party (NUP), led by former military chiefs of staff. Between them these proxy-junta parties will field about 2,000 candidates out of a total 2,500 to contest the 1,163 seats in the three levels of legislature formed by the 2008 constitution.

Further complicating the weakness of pro-democracy representation within Burma is the division that has come about from the dissolution of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. For the NLD to contest the election, Suu Kyi would be required to stand down as its leader which would itself defeat the purposes of the party’s resistance to the junta – perhaps largely symbolic, yet still powerful . Hence the NLD has been disbanded as a political party in view of maintaining its integrity. It seeks instead to exert influence and benefit for the people in social service work on the ground.

However, a faction within the NLD still hoping to contest the election as at least more proactive than general non-participation through boycott would be, has formed an autonomous party, the National Democratic Force (NDF) which in accepting the unjust terms of the election and constitution, sends an ambiguous message both to the people of Burma as well as the international community.This ambiguity thus characterizes both the election itself, the engagement of the democracy movement within Burma, and the attitude of the international community. There is a perception that humanitarian space and elections are naturally inclusive terms, post-election, and that with greater humanitarian operating freedom will also come greater political freedoms. Hence the U.S., for example, seeks to engage the regime (clearly on economic and trade-based goals and investments) as well maintain a clearly-voiced denunciation of human rights abuses within Burma. The junta is both legitimized in its greater potential inclusivity in the global-economic program, while its moral status as a regional stakeholder takes generally second place to this hope, clearly alive on both sides. In July and September of this year Senior General Than Shwe was able to visit India and China, respectively, under a general show of respect and impunity.

But given the record of engagement thus far, the junta has failed to meet even halfway with any of the requirements for a ‘free and fair’ election on November 7, let alone subsequent to it. The number of political prisoners has almost doubled in the three years since the Saffron Revolution. A request from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s chief of staff Vijay Nambiar to visit the new political capital of Naypyidaw either before or after the poll has been flatly denied. The very assumption of the term ‘free and fair’ is a misnomer. When Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently said the world must exercise “utmost vigilance” to ensure the approaching elections in Myanmar are ‘free and fair,’ she betrayed the extent of the essential lack of insight into the Burmese crisis: firstly, that it is certain it will be near-impossible to exercise such vigilance, and that even could it be made it is, as before, certain to achieve little (as thus far) in terms of the protection of real freedoms on the ground. Secondly, such ‘free and fair’ conditions as a first assumption for the democratic process have never been in place to start with. For this reason U Win Tin, a venerated founding member of the NLD and former political prisoner having survived 19 years of incarceration in Burma, was able to write late last month that “there is no need to wait until the Election Day to make a judgement.”

His solution? “Meaningful political dialogue between the military, the National League for Democracy led by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnic representatives is the only way to solve problems in Burma peacefully. The military has no desire to talk. But if the international community seriously exercises strong and effective pressure on the regime, the combination of pressure from outside and peaceful resistance inside the country will force the regime to come to the dialogue table.”

Surely we can and must join Win Tin in his call for action, as belated as that action may already be, and as direly urgent as the call itself has for so much longer already been.

Martin Kovan © October 2010

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