Each day for the past seven years, Burma’s imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi started her morning by practicing meditation alone in her dilapidated house in Rangoon. But last month, Suu Kyi’s schedule changed markedly when she was freed from house arrest after seven and a half continuous years of detention. As she walked out to the gate of her home, she smiled at the thousands of followers who had flocked to her house to show their support. As she addressed them, she promised to continue Burma’s “non-violent revolution.”
For Free Burma campaigners like myself, it brought tears to our eyes to see “The Lady” back where she belongs: amidst the people of Burma. Usually even the roads to reach her house are blocked by soldiers—I witnessed that first-hand this past summer in Rangoon. In fact, this is the first time I have seen Suu Kyi free since becoming a part of the Burma solidarity movement four years ago.
I first got involved in Burma after going on a solo bicycle trip 1,000 miles through the country in the summer of 2006. During my month long trip, I was frequently followed by Burma’s military police, and I played the good tourist most of the time to prevent endangering the locals around me. But there were times I could slip away from my followers and find Burmese people who were willing to tell me about their lives.
Often I ended up at monasteries talking with monks. Many of Burma’s younger monks are politically active and eager to talk to foreigners. In Mandalay, I spent a few days befriending one young monk named U Zwingar. We were about the same age—21—and we shared many of the same values. I had just completed my first 10-day mediation sit and I was interested in learning more about Buddhism. And we were both interested in politics.
U Zwingar explained to me that he had come to Mandalay to learn English and become a monk. Because Burma’s education system is so poor—less than half of students graduate from primary school—many young men become monks to acquire an education. After coming to Mandalay, U Zwingar started to learn English and became aware of Burma’s lack of freedoms. He started listening to Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and BBC radio broadcasts from abroad. Norway, America, and England. He learned that in most countries people have the right to speak their minds and live without constant fear of police informants.
He bombarded me with questions about what it was like to live in a democracy. I kept asking him what it was like to live in a dictatorship. What is it like to not trust your next-door neighbor? What is it like to have a family member jailed for coordinating political meetings? We would talk for hours at his monastery. I had never spent time in a dictatorship before, and this trip changed my life forever.
I returned to the US and began to read more about Burma. Historically in Burma, students and monks have led uprisings against colonial and military rule. The vast majority of Burmese are practicing Buddhists. Each morning during my bike trip, I observed monks making their daily alms rounds. Buddhist monasteries are the most active community centers in many Burmese towns and villages. There are an estimated 400,000 monks and nuns in Burma today—known as the Sangha. The Sangha is the only organization that rivals the military in size and reach in Burma. Over the years, the Sangha has used its size and the respect accorded to it in Burmese society to challenge colonial, and now military rulers when those rulers cause tremendous harm to society.
During the fall of 2007, thousands of monks took to the streets in protest in what came to be known as the Saffron Revolution. In August 2007, the regime increased fuel prices overnight by 200% and 500%, respectively for oil and gas. This devastated an already poor Burmese population. During a protest against this fuel price hike, some Burmese Army soldiers beat and disrobed a monk. The monks demanded an apology from the government. When no apology came forth, hundreds of thousands of monks peacefully took to the streets. The monks marched bravely through the streets chanting the Metta Sutta and demanding an end to the people’s suffering. It turned into the largest uprising in Burma in nearly twenty years.
During this time, I was a senior at Brown University and had continued to stay in touch with U Zwingar via e-mail. Late one night, U Zwingar contacted me on Google chat. He told me that he was going to take part in the large-scale demonstrations taking place in Burma. He suggested I do something at Brown.
How could I not do something? Here was someone my own age risking his life for something that was so simple for me to do: walking on the street demanding the most basic of freedoms. Forty-eight hours later, half of the students at Brown were wearing red shirts to show their solidarity with U Zwingar and the rest of Burma’s monks. Three hundred more came to a rally in support of Burma’s non-violent revolution.
Burma’s military does not tolerate public dissent like we do in America. The military cracked down on monks and civilians with brutal force. Soldiers raided monasteries, arresting hundreds of monks and killing others. Chilling images emerged of the bodies of monks being burned after they were killed—an effort to clean up the evidence of the regime’s evil deeds.
To most Buddhist Burmese people, killing a monk may be the most reprehensible of deeds. Monks are deeply revered in Burmese society and prior to the Saffron Revolution, even the regime had not gone so far as to brazenly kill monks. Imagine street protests in the United States led by religious leaders ending with the public execution of priests, rabbis, and ministers. To us, it is unconscionable, but that is what happened in Burma. It shocked the Burmese people. It also made me fear for the safety of U Zwingar.
“I am worried about monks and the future of the Sangha in Burma,” said U Agga, a leader of the Saffron Revolution who is currently living in Brooklyn. Since the Saffron Revolution, the military regime has cracked down on the Sangha like never before. The military regime is systematically dismantling the Sangha through disrobing many monks and placing tighter restrictions on remaining monks, nuns, and monasteries. This not only violates human rights, it has the potential to destroy an incredibly rich and unique Buddhist tradition that is rooted in ancient wisdom. Burma is the heartland of vipassana mediation—insight meditation—and a hotbed of Theravada Buddhist tradition. The military regime is preventing the next generation of monks and nuns from learning practices that have been passed down for centuries.
After the Saffron Revolution, I lost touch with U Zwingar. I often wonder where he is, but I have no way to get in touch with him. He came from a small village, so it is likely that he had to flee back to his home village and take off his robes to not attract attention. It is also a possibility that he is no longer in Burma. He could have fled to Thailand like many other monks from the Saffron Revolution.
The crackdown on monks continues unabated. Last month, Ashin Okkanta, a monk from Mon state, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for challenging the regime’s farcical election held on November 7th, 2010. Today, over 250 monks and nuns languish behind bars with thousands more hiding in Burma’s countryside. Exiled monks like U Agga vow to continue to work for change in Burma, “Our country has no justice, no peace, no freedom,” said U Agga, “We need to do for the people what we can.”
For those of us around the world who practice Vipassana meditation and the Theravadan tradition, I believe that we have a special duty to support Ashin Okkanta, U Agga, U Zwingar, and all of Burma’s Sangha. For many of us who practice this tradition, our lives have benefited tremendously from its teachings. My first 10-day vipassana sit is the most important thing that I have ever done in my life. My continued daily mediation practice and the teachings of dharma guide my life, especially my work on Burma. For our practice to be meaningful, we have to take our practice off the mat and make concerted efforts towards peace and freedom. I would argue that one of the best ways to practice engaged Buddhism is to stand in solidarity with the Sangha in Burma. For those of us who have benefited form Theravadan teachings, we must work to support our brothers and sisters inside Burma who continue to sacrifice their freedom in order to bestow teachings that have benefited our own lives. As Aung San Suu Kyi recently stated, our movement for peace and freedom in Burma will only be achieved through a strong network of supporters inside and outside of Burma.
As Suu Kyi continues to lead the Burmese people towards a brighter future, I expect she will continue to meditate every morning as she has done for many years. For those of us abroad, we must support Suu Kyi not only with metta, but with concerted action towards ending Burma’s military dictatorship and promoting national reconciliation. Ending Burma’s military dictatorship is the best way that we can preserve Burma’s long tradition of Buddhism and put our own practices into action.