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I

In November 2005, Ram Bahadur Bomjon or the popularly known ‘Buddha Boy’, a Nepali youth who began meditating beneath a pipal tree in his local village of Ratanapuri, Bara district, in May of that year, claimed he would achieve full Buddhahood within six more years of deep meditative practice. Bomjon’s claim followed an initial feat of ten months of apparently uninterrupted fasting, also in sustained meditation; other apparent miracles ensued following his exposure to the world media, the scientifically curious, and not least the Buddhist faithful in his native Nepal, in south Asia and much further afield, in the West.

It is six years now, in late-2011: is Bomjon now the Buddha he is believed by many to be? Hundreds of thousands of his sympathisers wait on his every word with bated breath.

The resonance with the original is telling: the Buddha of our aeon, Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan, also came from Nepal, 2,600 years ago, his mother had the same first name of Maya Devi, he also performed extreme austerities for six years before attaining enlightenment beneath a pipal tree. (Voluntary fasting was a large part of Siddhartha Gautama’s, and general, yogic practice then and before, and still is now among the Hindu ascetics of modern India.) Bomjon’s family are from the Nepalese Tamang community, many of whom are devout Vajrayana Buddhists. He was in 2005 by his own lights already a rinpoche, or precious reincarnated being with already profound levels of realization, but he has become for the popular spiritual imagination a living Buddha. He is also, however, a pop-culture figure for faux-worship and satire, made the subject of bumper stickers and You Tube cartoons.

Bomjon’s extraordinary physical feat of meditating for at least ten months apparently without food or water, is remarkable by any standards, especially if it is true. (There is in this some uncertainty due to interrupted medical observation of Bomjon subsequent to the critical period of fasting; he was also thought to have moved, perhaps taken sustenance, when behind a hessian screen put up periodically for his privacy.) There are of course many thousands, if not millions, of authentic yogis in South Asia, in and outside of monasteries, many of whom have been documented to have achieved almost unimaginable feats of voluntary bodily control and apparent immunity to a range of normal biological requirements for survival. This does not make their achievements miracles, nor their practitioners living enlightened Buddhas.

Which is where the advent of Ram Bomjon is genuinely compelling: his messianicity has been proclaimed from the beginning. It is already curious that while claiming a solitary ascetic practice that sought no attention, Bomjon began sitting in a place conspicuous to the local people who know him. What then appeared in late-2005 as an espousal of him by the local Tibetan Buddhist Sakyapa hierarchy became a first religious contextualization of Bomjon, as both a Buddhist avatar, and more specifically a Tantric yogi who had so mastered his nervous system as to be able to sweat at will, in mild conditions and without any bodily movement. (Marlon Brando was well-known for doing the same in some of his early auditions!) Bomjon’s teenage brother also speaks humbly of a topknot manifesting spontaneously in Bomjon’s long hair, as in one of the physical signs of the Buddha. Other apparent miracles can be observed on YouTube footage—a naked Bomjon performs puja in the flames of a fire, or he is described as unaffected by a cobra-bite.

After the initial ten-month period of apparent fasting, Bomjon disappeared into the jungle of Bara district in March 2006 to seek another place for less-disturbed meditation. At this point also the police froze the bank-account of the local committee managing the crowds of pilgrims who had come to him with donations—an amount then of more than Rps. 600,000. Much of this revenue came from an entrance-fee to view him, and the pamphlets, books, cassettes and DVDs sold promoting Bomjon as a new Buddha. Bomjon’s formal religious (rather than purely ascetic) status was further authorised by the monastic title of Palden Dorje—again confirmed in an ‘official website’: http://www.paldendorje.com, which offers sensitively framed footage of Bomjon’s various public addresses since 2007.

In a lay-yogi’s robe, Bomjon sits on a newly-built raised vasana painted white and gold, with steps on each side. Pilgrims come from near and far to hold worshipful puja, burning incense and making prayers, or line up inside a cordoned area to offer katag to the near-Buddha. It’s a peaceful and uncanny vision, redolent with the saffron succour of old India and its oldest myths of the salvation of the soul through the form of a youthful enlightened being. It is hard to imagine that not far away in neighbouring thick jungle, and not too long ago, Maoist revolutionaries have for decades lived clandestinely and fought the national army in a bitterly-contested bid for freedom. The promise of freedom, even in an old culture such as that of Nepal, comes in many guises.

II

Available for a global audience on You Tube are Ram Bomjon’s two speeches of August 2007, one of which is closed-eyed, the other longer and more open-eyed. They are similar in their effect, and what I suggest below of the ‘closed-eyed’ speech can also be said of the ‘open-eyed’ one. Bomjon speaks in the monotonous tones of an adolescent reciting a reasonably well-memorized speech. There is no sign of a smile or an emotional gauge of his audience. He keeps his eyes closed for virtually the entire roughly eight minute performance. He pauses now and then, it seems in nervousness, at having lost his place or of being uncertain how to proceed. The broadcast in Nepali on the “Supreme Master TV” station offers an onscreen English translation of this speech, but even without translation Bomjon’s diction suggests a disconnect between syntax and the natural speech-rhythms required to express it. About five minutes into the speech he repeats, then corrects himself, and for the very first time lightly smiles, bashfully, a very human and self-conscious gesture, as any young performer in a school presentation would before he regains his place after stumbling.

The speech given in October 2009, an appeal against the mass animal slaughter of the Gadhi Mai Festival in Nepal evinces still more the same ‘performative glitch’. It is a movingly painful performance: also roughly ten minutes long, it begins boldly but from 8.30 Bomjon’s uncertain delivery, his own discomfort, is palpable. Who has written a possible original text—Bomjon himself? or an uncredited mentor? One Western witness and blogger, a seeker sympathetic to Bomjon, writes that “Strangely, he concluded halfway between a sentence, trailing off, letting the words, both spoken and unspoken, hang in the air,” before “the brief spell of serenity quickly degenerated into a frenzy again as Palden Dorje returned to his pedestal and people began lining up to receive darshan.”

The verbal content of Bomjon’s speeches might be uncharitably described as Buddhist platitude, if its somewhat alarmist and righteous, even apocalyptic, urgency were not so clearly sincere in intent. In a corrupt and fast degenerating world, it is only the law of dharma that will rescue all beings from the current irreversible results of negative action. It is the karmic function of the bodhisattva, of whom Bomjon is one ‘on the way’, to proclaim the Buddha’s holy truth in such times as these. Bomjon’s worthy truth is unsurprising; its high-messianic tone however is. Rarely does missionary Buddhism become so personalised; but this is not normal missionary Buddhism when the speaker is an ostensibly enlightened Buddha.

Does poor public speaking alone disclaim Bomjon as such? (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama also reports his great apprehension when as a novice he was first called upon to speak to crowds of thousands in the early fifties in Tibet.) The answers are not so simple, but the given facts and the questions they raise certainly muddy the waters of the orthodox Buddhist representation surrounding Bomjon himself, willing but inadequate poster-boy (it would appear) for the religious hierarchy that guides him.

If Bomjon is a visionary near-Buddha who has spent the previous four years in a profound and virtually mute immersion in esoteric planes barely conceivable by even seasoned meditators, he is also an amazingly natural, human, and in that sense ordinary, one. His performative paralysis is only a brief if consistent moment, but it betrays, resoundingly, an authentic natural humanness amidst all the built-up ceremony and high-flown spiritual rhetoric. There is little sense of a new Buddha having spoken, of the gravitas, charisma or power of a highly-realised mature being offering his own natural words and self-won insight into the nature of reality. Indeed, the previously-quoted witness writes that “The young man suddenly shifted gears into overdrive, ludicrously blessing with a pace so quick he was practically bonking people on the head with the dorje as they passed.”

III

Religious Buddhism holds that an authentically enlightened being can most effectively transmit its values because they are concentrated in him, or her, in their purest, most essential, unalloyed, uncorrupted or corruptible, realized form. In Bomjon religious Buddhism receives a partly convincing and telegenic messianic throwback to the archetype of Sakyamuni Buddha, a young man who appears to fulfil all the needed criteria. There is nothing cynical here, Tibetan Buddhism is if anything globally respected for its general lack of taint, of maintaining a record for transparency: H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama is of course its universally-respected paragon.

Unless of course the claim is simply not true: that Bomjon is not a bodhisattva or Buddha, but rather a highly gifted young ascetic. H.H. the Dalai Lama has only ever claimed the status of a simple monk (despite the supreme religious office he has been called upon to assume). Bomjon however loses this modest representation from the beginning. Bomjon is reified (by himself and by significant others) in a way that can only work in an old primary culture where religion serves symbolic and archetypal ends, not purely epistemic ones, and where gods are still respected and worshipped as such, where literal truth is not something that carries the primary value it does to the Western mind. On this level, a psychologically and culturally very real one, little blame can be placed.

However, in the West at least, which (arguably) prides itself on its capacity for impartial discrimination, ontological exactitude and epistemic integrity, it is increasingly impossible to take on faith something which is only uncertainly true at best. Culturally, psychologically and ethically it is proving difficult for agnostic Western culture to sustain the myth of reification (though theistic religion, and scientistic ‘faiths’ like contemporary neo-Darwinism, hold on tenaciously) when more provisionally true, multiple, cross-fertilising and mutually-productive interpretations can do a good working job of understanding what ‘the truth’ might ultimately signify. Fifty years of recent Western philosophy has at least reached such a consensus. We live in an hermeneutic age, not an absolutist one: this is of course the enormously threatening gauntlet held out to Islam and fundamentalist Christianity alike. Even in terms of Buddhism itself ‘enlightenment’ is merely a word, one which carries a varying wealth of signification, wears an infinitude of guises (or even, most radical of all, none at all). Even if Bomjon’s Sakyapa entourage mean only the global good in elaborating in messianic terms the possibly much more prosaic nature of Bomjon’s attainment, doing so is still manipulating the reception of whoever it is he might more authentically be.

If this is a deception of a kind, then however benign it also unfortunately succeeds in compromising whatever is of value in Bomjon’s public ‘ascendency.’ What would be of inestimable use would be if Bomjon were able to offer in his own words a description of his yogic and other experience as it is, without metaphysics—and with or without the sustenance of food. (Regarding such austerities the Buddha made it explicitly clear that such extremes of tapas were of no essential benefit or use to anyone vis-à-vis achieving enlightenment: hence the Buddhist ethico-pragmatic ‘Middle Way.’) Because Bomjon embodies a far more complex, and confused, nexus of religious, metaphysical, mythological and ethical forces and subconscious cultural assumptions than those that have been simplistically projected onto and then publicly represented by him. Those complexities are rich, real and interesting, and it would be enlightening to explore and perhaps come to understand them.

Instead, what the world is offered is a closed term: Bomjon-as-Buddha, seated on a throne, reifies a complex human person to be a single, essential ‘something’ in ontologically disturbing ways. By absolutising something as fixed in an essential identity, little room is left for nuance, natural ambiguity, irony, shifts of emphasis, undirected trajectories of unexpected influence. Its translation into the common cultural currency tends to require a univocal, often dogmatic, form of interpretive transmission. It implies monolingual authority rather than a dialogical mutuality. A symbol taken as really-existing catalyses a chain-reaction of associated demands and conditions that can, and do, become economic and political, that enter into manipulations of power indistinguishable from the enmeshments of saṃsāra. It is disturbing to discover, more recently, that Bomjon has been accused during 2010 of violently assaulting young men come to disturb his meditative retreat. It would be impossible to verify this also; its mere appearance smacks of slander, but that only rehearses, all too inevitably, the enmeshment already alluded to.

In Nepal, as elsewhere in the Buddhist world, the criteria for belief, for better and for worse, remain steeped in mytho-poetic tropes of deep cultural continuity as well as social conservatism. Where the individual autonomy of scepticism might be seen as a threat to deeper social cohesion and identity, it is diminished as a form of existential integrity. Where the depth of tradition still provides much of the psychic social bulwark for increasingly unstable and erratically modernizing societies, of which Nepal is a prime example, the old forms of security cannot go questioned, let alone deconstructed.

Who would demand they should be? If Ram Bahadur Bomjon may never redeem and ‘save the world’ from its real misguidedness, we can at least be grateful that he gives us all pause to consider that misguidedness itself, and perhaps his own as well, and provide for that rare space in which all of us, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, can try to dream again. We look to see how much of that all-too-possible freedom he will invite us to dream along with him in the time to come.

(2010; August- December 2011)

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Sagaing Hills view

 The beautiful Sagaing Hills, an area some thirty kilometres out of Mandalay in central Burma, is home to a rich diversity of Buddhist retreat culture. There are hundreds of monasteries and nunneries, lay-retreat meditation centers, colleges and other educational institutions to be found there, housed in quiet hermitages, attractive old colonial outposts and more modern monastic facilities. There are innumerable examples of the typically golden-spired Burmese pagodas rising up out of the rich green foliage of the hills, that themselves border and rise away from the tranquil broad banks of the Irrawaddy River.

view of the Irawaddy

 

It is a remarkably serene, limpid place, only the occasional sound of amplified Buddhist chanting joining the atmosphere of repose and ease that imbues the life here. Sagaing is the Burmese equivalent of Indian ashrama culture, where many Burmese come after retirement to devote themselves to matters of the spirit, and a personal discipline in Buddhist study, meditation and ethical living. The often beautifully elegant pagodas, monastery temples and shrines are testimony to this culture; the people likewise, monastic and lay, move along the roads with a calm and gentle eye – even the numerous street denizens of dogs and cats suggest a life of renunciation from strife and discord.

I.B.E.C. main building

Beyond the dirt roads of a small village and rising high above the outlying area into the topmost of the range of the Sagaing hills, is the newly-developed International Institute of Buddhist Education (IBEC). Initiated in 2006, the new monastic and secular educational institution now houses nearly one hundred young monks, a new and impressive central teaching and administrative building (see attached photos), a library, classrooms, several outbuildings and an eating and cooking area. Its principal director is the Venerable Ashin Sobhita, a young but already highly respected Burmese senior monk who with eight other monk colleagues has been a guiding force for the establishment of IBEC since its founding.

 

Venerable Ashin Sobhita and monks

Many of the young monks who have come there have sought refuge from broken families, poverty and the vagaries of life under a totalitarian state regime. Their ages range from five to twenty years old. Many are orphans and others simply seeking a better educational prospect than the public schools often too expensive for their means. At IBEC the educational curriculum includes the secular national curriculum of the sciences, Burmese, English language, history and mathematics, as well as the Buddhist training program. This latter consists essentially of two main areas: Priyati, or the text-based study of the Pāli language in which the corpus of Theravada Buddhism (of Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand) is written. This includes a thorough oral and aural training in the suttas, or original sacred texts of the Buddha, in the vinaya or monastic codes of discipline for Theravada monks (and nuns), and the abhidhamma, or more technical philosophical and psychological treatises analyzing the nature of mind, consciousness, emotions and samsaric ignorance, and the Buddhist path to awakening from such ignorance. All three of these areas of study constitute the three traditional ‘baskets’ of Theravada (indeed all Buddhist) study, the tripitaka.

dining hall

Along with this category of priyati, goes the study of pripati, the practical aspect of meditation and devotional ritual which puts the more theoretical study of priyati into a dynamic context of self-enquiry, ethical relations with others and especially the teacher. In pripati also the monk develops a personal faith and devotional symbiosis with the symbol of the Lord Buddha, such that all his efforts and studies gain the added blessing of the richness of 2,500 years of Buddhist tradition inspired by its great founder. The Theravada in Burma, as elsewhere, is thus eminently pragmatic and rational in its philosophical orientation, as well as being steeped in values of respect, humility and selflessness.
All the monks live together, sleep, eat and wash in common quarters, their only personal possessions being usually a tin trunk which designates their sleeping-space on the floor of one of the buildings, holding only their robes, books, study-materials and Buddhist ritual objects. The monks appear to live happily and comfortably in this traditional Buddhist manner. There is a lot of laughter, a lot of time for outdoor sports, or indoor reading during the hot hours of midday, as well as personal consultation with their teacher. Every morning and evening – a feature comparatively unique here, and not commonly practiced in the Tibetan monastic schedule for example – all the monks gather in an assembly for 45-minute sessions of meditation. Here, as in their more theoretical study, they follow the essential twofold practice of both samatha, and vipassana meditation methods, involving a foundation in mental calm-abiding, or equanimity, followed by analytic or insight, depth-meditation practices, respectively. Their teachers are always on hand to guide and supervise their practice. IBEC functions as a remarkably inter-dependent community of Buddhist enquiry and training, the intention for the Buddhist goals of awakening to wisdom and compassion that has its earliest beginnings in the first Buddhist sangha.

classrooms and outbuildings

The secular educational component is also strong at IBEC, and some half-dozen trained, and often quite young, teachers live on the premises in their own dwellings, some distance from the central monastery buildings. Many of these teachers have received their education in Rangoon or Mandalay or other large cities, but prefer to live in the semi-retreat conditions of Sagaing in order to pursue their own Buddhist interest. Indeed, the entire institution functions as a Buddhist refuge for both monastic and lay interests; some teachers are part-time professionals who come to spend a shorter period living on the site and offering their expertise, whether it be English-language teaching, IT training or technical know-how. Some of them might be local people, educated but suffering personal travails that demand they seek some ‘time out’ from urban pressures.

Many others, and there have been at least a dozen teaching volunteers as well as newly-ordained monks and nuns, are Western travelers who come to appreciate the unusual and idyllic possibilities somewhere like IBEC, and its surrounding context, offers someone who in the West has perhaps less choice of lifestyle, and at a much higher cost. Those who come to IBEC as volunteer teachers receive food and board, along with the other resident teachers, at no cost. Several of the Western teachers have been able to ordain at IBEC as monks and nuns in the Theravada tradition, for shorter or longer periods, and with the full support of the resident sangha. Mandalay is only an hour or less away, so some volunteers also combine their experience at IBEC with commitments they might have in the city. The flexible ease of options at IBEC appears to work excellently for all concerned.

view from main building roof

Venerable Sobhita hopes to add further extensions to the existing housing and teaching buildings on the site, as well as computer-lab and multimedia facilities for seminars, conferences and seasonal retreat services offered by IBEC in the future. He envisions IBEC and similar Buddhist institutions as offering an alternative to the state-run educational system, often limited in its scope and too expensive for poorer and disadvantaged people, and for developing a genuinely global and tolerant perspective on other religious faiths.

He also sees IBEC as being able to foster an ethical expertise in being able to train sangha and lay-people alike for many of the social and political challenges that face Burma as well as the world at large. He welcomes visits and/or donations to IBEC from anyone with a sincere interest in Theravada Buddhist teachings, and especially those who seek other possibilities of life in environs unlike those they know in the urban megalopoli of the East and the West.

pagoda in the hills

Sagaing is a quiet, idyllic place where it is easy to forget the troubles of the greater world, yet where better to start the work Venerable Sobhita describes? And it would seem that the training and environment for Buddhist attainment could realistically be achieved here, where such an authentic example of the intentional Buddhist life flourishes so richly.

The website of I.B.E.C. can be found at: www.ibec-sg.com, as well as further contact for visit, retreat or donation enquiries.

in the hills

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In early March 2002, Khin Zaw, pictured, stepped on a landmine while working as a hunter in the Wawlay Nyaing forest some four hours outside of the small Karen town of Myawaddy on the Thai-Burmese border. He lost his right leg, and with it any viable means of livelihood, and for eight years has lived exclusively from begging in the streets of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Myawaddy is the site of recent (and decades-long) armed conflict between the Burmese military and a coalition of Karen independence fighters, including breakaway factions of the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) and the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). This more recent fighting of the past two months has killed many and resulted in a continuing exodus of more than 20,000 refugees from threatened villages into the Thai border town of Mae Sot, from where many are sent in short order back into Burma.

Among many of these refugees, in addition, are landmine victims, many non-combatants or farmers, or, like Khin Zaw, itinerant hunters pressed to work in dangerous areas to support, as he did, his family in the city. From that date in early-March, Khin Zaw has in fact not seen his wife and two children, now in their mid-teens, still living in Yangon. He has never been able to afford the ticket that far, and nor would his compromised physical condition permit him to find or be offered work in Burma – nor anywhere else. The stigma attached to the forced abandonment of his family and livelihood in Burma is palpable, and has in large part kept Khin Zaw from maintaining strong ties with his family in Burma. Nor does he have contact with brothers and sisters still living there.

While speaking with Khin Zaw, who I met begging on the main tourist strip of Chiang Mai (as he does seven days a week for four hours a day) discussion of his family introduces the only real moment of discomfort, clouds of pain overshadowing his otherwise warm, usually smiling face. Khin Zaw is learning English, when he can afford it, in Chiang Mai, but his friend and fluent English speaker Ajong offers to translate for us. They are both open and friendly, softly-spoken and tactful men, with an intelligent modesty of manner that seems to come naturally to many Burmese. It is a three-way conversation that illumines for me perhaps only some of the legal and socio-economic complexity lying behind the lives of Burmese illegal refugees in northern Thailand, though on the evidence it would seem Khin Zaw’s story is emblematic of many here, and in Mae Sot further south. As the conditions which have given rise to it are ongoing and critical, it seems equally as critical to bring awareness of such conditions to a wider audience. Khin Zaw expressed a happy willingness to tell me his story, and I am honoured to relate it here on his behalf.

When he stepped on the landmine, he relates, he was living alone but had work friends nearby who were able to carry him bodily through the jungle across the border into Thailand. The accident occurred at one in the afternoon, and they arrived at the Thai border town at nine that night, where the Mae Sot Hospital immediately took him into intensive care. Khin Zaw tells how he was largely unconscious during the journey and with the great loss of blood came very close to dying; were it not for the prompt and incredible service of his two friends, he would not have survived. He stayed in Mae Sot some three months in recovery, without cost, before being released into the general community. Dr. Synthia Maung from the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot claims that 60 to 70 per cent of landmine victims who make their way there are civilians, many women and children. As an accident victim Khin Zaw could not be classified as a refugee, and nor did any of the NGO operations and their representatives approach him for economic or further social support. He relied exclusively on Burmese friends, until they too were unable to support him, and he felt he couldn’t expect more from their hospitality. So he returned, largely by necessity, to Myawaddy, and took up again in Wawlay district with his old workmates. But unable to work, having little longterm incentive to stay there either, and unable to reach his family in distant Yangon, he did as many do in his situation, and sought refuge in Chiang Mai, further north in Thailand.

But this is where the more intractable of Khin Zaw’s troubles began. As an illegal alien in Thailand, Khin Zaw, along with thousands of others seeking refuge from the fighting in Karen and Shan states, as well as the oppression in Burma generally, is constantly at risk of deportation. Indeed in the eight years since his accident he has been arrested nine times, imprisoned at length each time, and sent back into Burma at Tachilek, a crossover point for many refugees (and other travelers alike) linking to Mai Sai on the Thai side of the border. He is not entitled to a passport, or a visa for Thai residence, and in view of his injury, a work-permit. On every occasion of his arrests, the first in 2004, he has been forced to spend up to a month in jail each time, and most recently three and a half months, before the inevitable deportation to Tachilek. Altogether his periods of incarceration, an innocent victim of an illegally-planted landmine, have amounted to roughly nine months.

On each occasion also he has had to pay Thai police 5,000 Baht (c. US$165) in order to secure his release. Once across the border at Tachilek, which he soon leaves to return to Chiang Mai, he is ordered by Burmese soldiers to relinquish any valuables he might still have – whatever cash he carries, a watch, clothes-items, mobile-phone. His only saving-grace on the Burmese side of the border is that as an ethnic Burmese (Bamar), Khin Zaw is spared the beatings he has regularly seen meted out as a matter of course to his less-privileged, usually Shan (or other ethnic nationality) fellow-countrymen. It’s hardly surprising that under these conditions he chooses to risk again the uncertainty of life in Thailand, than remain in the effectively closed society of life under the military regime in Burma. He says that he loves his country dearly, but can’t live under those conditions. It is hard enough under most conditions available to him, as a handicapped man, but those in Burma make the suffering still worse.

Burma is one of only 17 countries that abstained from voting on a 2005 United Nations resolution to ban the use of landmines globally. The ruling SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), or its current manifestation in the nascent ‘government’ following the fraudulent elections of November 7, has similarly not acknowledged the Mine Ban Treaty. Recent figures on landmine accidents in Burma available from Landmine Monitor show a 90 per cent increase in 2007 from 2006 figures. The online Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor reports that “In 2009 there were at least 262 new mine/explosive remnants of war (ERW) casualties in Myanmar…of the total, 259 casualties were civilians…In 2008, at least 213 civilian casualties (30 killed and 183 injured) were identified.” It adds that “Due to the lack of systematic data collection and varying sources of annual data, reporting does not reflect the full extent of mine/ERW incidents and casualties in the country. In 2009 the UN noted that many casualties remained unreported.” Other international monitoring organizations (such as Human Rights Watch) have also claimed that the Burmese military and insurgent armies using civilians to reconnoiter known landmine areas (known as minesweeping), acting effectively as mortal human shields, is prevalent as well. Other NGO workers, including Medecins Sans Frontiers, have withdrawn from working in Burma in part because of restrictions the government has placed on their access to landmine victims. The mines themselves are bought from, among other places, Italy and the U.S, and following Russia’s recent discontinuation of landmine use, Burma is now the sole non-participator in the aims of the global anti-landmine treaty.

Now 41 years, Khin Zaw remarried in Chiang Mai, and after a powerful conversion experience, became a Christian along with many of his fellow Burmese there. He speaks of the indubitable sense of the love of Christ, a direct emotional transference that he rarely felt in the more intellectual reasonings of his native Buddhism. He describes the doctrines of karma especially as too complicated and demanding to observe with real consistency, in contrast to the simple but deep faith in Christ that allows him to feel forgiven and purified whatever his current circumstance. Considering his consistent warmth and cheeriness, there is little doubt his Christian faith has given him much in pulling through the constant hardships of eight years.

I can only marvel at his resilience, as he lifts his carpet matting and crutches from his grubby spot on the street to catch a tuk-tuk home, after half a dozen ignore him as a social undesirable, an illegal, one of those of the social under-class in Thailand the local people tend  to avoid. It remains the case that no social support network can be relied upon by Khin Zaw in Chiang Mai, and even his church can’t afford supplements to his meagre earnings as a beggar – at most some 2000 Baht (US$66) a week. While I sit with him at his begging-post it is normal to watch long eddies of Western tourists and Thai party-goers pass him without notice, or for an occasional tourist flashing jewellery and cameras to stop and churlishly offer him a 20 Baht note (US 66 cents). Just around the corner the same tourist readily pays 400 – 600 Baht (US$13 – 20) to watch kick-boxing shows, or pay 170 Baht (US$6) for a drink. Such is life as usual in Chiang Mai, for Khin Zaw, and for those who pass him seemingly oblivious to this particular reality of the place and the time.

A day or so after our interview, Khin Zaw invites me to visit his church, and tells me he never fails to make it there every Sunday. I ask him how he gets there, and smiling expansively he says he takes a tuk-tuk. It costs him 100 Baht for the round journey, but he never resents the weekly cost. “I have faith,” he says, smiling. “You have to trust things will be ok”.

If you would like to support Khin Zaw, you can send a donation to him via Western Union to Chiang Mai, Thailand. I can receive and reply to your queries, and liaise the recovery and confirmation of receipt of donations, and pass all funds directly to Khin Zaw. I can be reached at gangetics@gmail.com. You may be sure your efforts will be warmly appreciated.

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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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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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An article written in 2006 that looks at the historical continuity of an aspect of the spiritual (in this case Buddhist) path, in which the security and identity made with a larger authority, more or less benign, is definitively left behind. Alan Clements is a contemporary maverick on the global dharma stage, a former monk in the Burmese tradition, whose provocative voice for a secular, engaged and dynamically creative autonomy is in many ways a re-casting of traditional elements of the biographies of the old Buddhist masters. The ‘second crisis of autonomy’ (after his departure from the palace of his family and kin) then refers to Siddartha Gautama’s eventual rejection of his contemporary teachers or authority figures as a condition for his own awakening. This article considers the nature of that ‘crisis’ and the grounds for Clements’ own passionately vocal version for our own time.

See Alan Clements’ World Dharma website: http://www.worlddharma.com/wd/media/interviews/Article%20-%20CrisisofAutonomy%20Martin.pdf

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