Some years ago I took a trip to Burma. The taxi ride from Rangoon’s airport to my hotel passed just like many jetlagged trips might in a new Asian city. In a happy sing-song English the elderly driver plied me with the usual questions; where was I from, what was I doing here, did I want to change money, did I have a ”program” for tomorrow, and so on.
But my chirpy inquisitor’s tone suddenly changed when I asked a question. I wanted to know why we were passing what looked like a long stretch of deserted buildings.
”It’s the university, miss.” So where are all the students? ”No classes since 1988, miss.” Why? ”Student protest, miss.” So where are the students now? ”Many dead, miss.” End of conversation.
As we approached a busy junction near the centre of Rangoon, an enormous billboard loomed with a message written in English: ”Oppose, Oppose, Oppose”, it screamed in gigantic red and white letters. ”Crush all internal and external elements that threaten union of the nation.” It was not the kind of ”Welcome to Burma” greeting I’d hoped for.
That billboard is within sight of the Sule Pagoda where, until Thursday, monks have been gathering in their tens of thousands for the past several weeks to prepare for the day’s protest march. Their action has grown into perhaps the largest and most powerful display of dissent by monks and nuns for decades. And yet the world seems frozen in stupefied awe as we do nothing but watch. Each day I’ve envisaged the long trail of monks filing past that menacing billboard as they sing and chant and most ironically – pray for their oppressors.
Yesterday Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told ABC radio he didn’t expect there were many Australians in Burma because as a nation we do little business there.
But in addition to the odd tourist, Burma has developed a strong pull for Western meditators. Such is the weight of the revered Buddhist monks that the strict foreign entry rules allowing a visa for only 7-28 days can be bypassed if a foreign meditator, or ”yogi”, has a letter from a leading monk or ”sayadaw” Buddhist teacher. Or so it was, before this latest crackdown.
My first long encounter with some of Burma’s Theravadan monks was at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, in central Rangoon – now closed and barricaded by the military police. It was Christmas Day and the monks were curious to know why someone from a Christian country would visit a Buddhist temple on a Christian holy day. We spent hours walking, talking and kneeling in the pagoda’s many pavilions. There was plenty of laughter, knee-slapping and joking.
But of most fascination to these robed men was Australia. They wanted to know about our lifestyle, our culture and our beliefs. They wanted to know about our form of government and about our leaders, yet quickly showed no interest in talking about theirs. Their deep love for their country and their concern and compassion for the Burmese people was evident in all they said. And they said a lot. Finally, as the sun began to set and the monks readied themselves for a long walk back to their monastery, I offered them a lift in my taxi. I waved them off at the Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery, with promises to return. I never did.
Early Thursday morning before dawn, the Burmese military raided Ngwe Kyar Yan monastery. According to reports from Rangoon, many of the monks were beaten and about 100 of them were dragged into trucks and taken away. Witnesses say soldiers slammed into the locked monastery gate with a car, smashed down doors, broke windows and went on a mad rampage.
International reports also suggest soldiers fired tear gas and shots at the crowd that gathered to try to stop the monks from being taken. A few photos of bloodstained rooms and injured monks have made their way on to the internet. This scene of horrendous oppression and inhumanity is no doubt being repeated throughout Rangoon and possibly in the northern city of Mandalay right now. Given Burma’s ban on foreign journalists and the extreme danger involved in photographing or filming what’s happening, it is amazing we have seen or heard much at all. Damning as the evidence trickling out clearly is, I deeply fear it only represents a very small and superficial portion of what’s really happening.
Generations of Burmese have lived with the smell and taste of fear never far from their senses. The country has been under military rule since 1962. As the 73-year-old maniacal despot who rules the junta, General Than Shwe, gets fatter, his people get even thinner.
A video of Than Shwe’s daughter’s wedding found its way on to the internet, showing her dripping in jewels and lavishly pouring champagne. And while the general’s ridiculous costume of brass buttons and medals strains over his fat gut, his people go hungry. Inflation and soaring fuel prices have reduced many Burmese family meals to just one small bowl a day. Yet the Burmese will devoutly and lovingly hand the food from that bowl to any monk who passes their way.
This week the Bush administration spoke of its ”outrage” over what’s happening in Burma. Australia spoke of the ”loathsome regime”. ASEAN members got together in New York and uttered words like ”revulsion” and ”appalled”. And then they all went out to lunch.