Sectarian Violence in Burma

First, an update related to Saturday’s post on Tibet. China has recently closed Tibet to foreign visitors. The fear is that with Tibet cut-off from the world, the Chinese may engage in a massive crackdown (which to some extent they already have) that no one will ever know the true dimensions of. On June 1 Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Programme Director said, “Massively cracking down on the population in Lhasa is not a solution to the broad unrest we are seeing among Tibetans.”

Rohingya Muslim protesters in front of a United Nations office in Bangkok (Sakchai Lalit, AP)

Over the weekend in Burma the government declared a state of emergency to deal with unrest after hundreds of Buddhist villagers’ homes were set on fire and seven people killed in rioting on Friday and Saturday. The sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims threatens to undermine the new government’s reforms and the country’s transition to democracy. Read more here at Reuters.

At the center of the violence, as the news service points out, is “an issue that human rights groups have criticized for years: the plight of thousands of stateless Rohingya Muslims who live along Myanmar’s border with Bangladesh in abject conditions . . .”  The government does not recognize Rohingya Muslims as citizens and there have been accusations of persecution by the military for years. The Rohingya also claim that many of their people are forced into labor at military camps.

Burma is also facing a crisis with the people in Kachin, the country’s northernmost state. June 9 marked the first anniversary of the breakdown of a 17-year-old ceasefire between the “Myanmar” government and the ethnic Kachin people. In the last 12 months there have been over 100 clashes between government and Kachin forces. The United Nations refugee agency say there are more than 50,000 displaced people in the Kachin state. It, too, is blocked off, as most international aid agencies and journalists are not allowed there.

Getting back to the violence over the weekend that led to the emergency rule, Reuters notes that the Rohingya Muslims “are despised by many ethnic Rakhine, members of Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist majority.”

Rakhine Buddhist holds a machete as he guardshomes in Sittwe, Burma (Reuters)

The Rakhine are largely Theravada Buddhists. It’s difficult to understand how a group that claims to be one of the first people to embrace Buddha-dharma in Southeast Asia could despise another people. Mahatma Gandhi had the same feeling in 1938, when he could not understand how it was possible for Burmese Budd

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Based on the True Story . . .

The Lady, a biopic on Aung San Suu Kyi starring Michelle Yeoh, is scheduled to be released in the U.S. on December 2. I haven’t read any reviews but I did read that the film has been banned in China. No surprise there, I suppose. And I also saw that the Lady herself told the Wall Street Journal on Monday, “I’m not really interested [in the film] and haven’t thought of looking it up on the Net or whatever.”

With her first born son, Alexander, in Nepal, 1973

Now, I did see the trailer on TV a few weeks ago. I got the sense that they’re marketing the movie as a love story. It’s a shame that filmmakers still feel the need, or are forced, to go in that direction. Yet, Aung San Suu Kyi’s true story is a great love story, and tremendously romantic. After all, this is a woman from Burma who fell in love with British scholar (born in Havana), got married, and was starting a family and living a sort of idyllic life in England, all of which she ended up having to sacrifice in order to stand up for democracy in her native land.

Suu Kyi and Michael Aris, 1973

I picked up Suu Kyi’s book Freedom from Fear, first published in 1991, today at my friendly neighborhood thrift shop. At a buck fifty, I couldn’t resist. The first thing I did of course was check out the photos in the middle of the book. Many of them of a very young Aung San Suu Kyi. Gazing at these pics, I could understand how Michael Aris could fall “instantly and madly in love with her” (according to a family friend). Not only did she posses a brilliant mind, she was cute as hell, too. Still is.

So far, I’ve just skimmed through the book, reading passages here and there. Like this from the essay ‘In Quest of Democracy”:

The Burmese people, who have had no access to sophisticated academic material, got the heart of the matter by turning to the words of the Buddha on the four causes of decline and decay: failure to recover that which had been lost, omission to repair that which had been damaged, disregard of the need for reasonable economy, and the elevation to leadership of men without morality or learning. “

That could be describing the situation here in the U.S. right now. We need to recover something that’s become lost in America. We need to go back to a time when business wasn’t only about greed, when companies would take their profits and reinvest in their businesses. We need to go back to when there were controls in place to check against rampant greed. It is obvious that some very powerful people are standing in the way of repairing the economy, and as well, opposing any attempt to make it reasonable and equitable. As far as our current crop of leaders go . . . well, less said about them the better.

Back to Freedom from Fear, this is from “Towards a True Refuge”, which according to the book “is the text of the Eighth Joyce Pearce Memorial Lecture, composed by Aung San Suu Kyi in the fourth year of her house arrest, and delivered on her behalf by her husband Dr. Michael Aris on 19 May 1993”:

Loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, Buddhists see as ‘divine’ states of mind which help to alleviate suffering and to spread happiness among all beings. The greatest obstacle to these noble emotions is not so much hatred, anger or ill will as the rigid mental state that comes from a prolonged and unwavering concentration on narrow self-interest. Hatred, anger or ill will that arises from wrongs suffered, from misunderstanding or from fear and envy may yet be appeased if there is sufficient generosity of spirit to permit forbearance, forgiveness and reconciliation, but it would be impossible to maintain or restore harmony when contention is rooted in the visceral inability of protagonists to concede that the other party has an equal claim to justice, sympathy and consideration. Hardness, selfishness and narrowness belong with greed, just as kindness, understanding and vision belong with true generosity.

Mountain trip in Bhutan, 1971

Freedom from Fear, a collection of writings, speeches and interviews, is mostly about politics, with a few history lessons and some great little dharma talks here and there. So far, I’ve seen almost nothing of Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal story. I don’t know as much about it as I’d like, but as I indicated, I find it romantic, and tragic, and inspiring. I hope someday she can write the story herself.

But, I have a feeling that is an endeavor that doesn’t interest her much more than the biopic does. So I guess we’ll have to wait for the “definitive biography.” If I was writing it, or the author’s editor, I would tempted to called it Aung San Suu Kyi, A True Bodhisattva.

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East, West

I recorded the Charlie Rose Show from the other night and watched Aung San Suu Kyi interviewed via Skype at a Clinton Global Initiative event. She said, “Some people say that democracy is a Western concept . . .” Obviously those people are in her country and using that line as a way to legitimatize maintaining the very non-democratic status quo there.

It mirrors expressions I often hear in the Buddhist World: “this or that is confusing for Western interpreters of Buddhism”, “Westerners putting a negativistic spin on Buddhism”, “the teachers of Western Buddhism will ignore most of this. . . “. And then, “Why are Eastern Buddhists condescending to Western Buddhists”, “Eastern Buddhism needs to catch up to the 21st Century” and so on.

East, West – What does it matter anymore? We’re one world now.  East and West are just hands on the one world body. If you are right handed, you don’t dismiss things done by your left hand, do you?

Sure, there are Eastern customs that may be archaic, just as there are some concepts from the West that are incompatible with Buddhism, like those from Christianity. But we seem to be stuck in a general mode of thinking that still looks for differences. At times, we sound like relics from 150 years ago, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet . . .”

That comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and the remainder of the verse has often been overlooked: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/ When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

We’re one world.  East and West are just hands on the one world body.

In response to a question about the recent Arab Spring, Aung San Suu Kyi replied, “Of course, our societies are very different. But in the end, we’re all human beings and I think we can all understand each others hopes and fears . . .”

You can see the interview here. Desmond Tutu, it seems, has a bit of a crush on Aung San Suu Kyi. This I can understand. She is beautiful inside and out.

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Update on Aung San Suu Kyi and Net Neutrality

It’s been over two months since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. It dawned on me that I hadn’t heard much about how she was faring, which I interpret as a good sign, and so I decided to check the world wide web and see.

According to the BBC, Suu Kyi “has obtained internet access . . . Technicians set up wireless broadband at her home after the military government authorised an internet connection.” Suu Kyi’s assistant has reported that she had not yet used her connection because the signal is too weak, and additionally, she has also been feeling a little too unwell to try the internet. Apparently, Aung San Suu Kyi has never been online.

The military dictatorship in Burma, strictly controls internet connections and those who apply for internet service must not be involved in politics. The Indo-Asian news service reports that “Soon after her release from house arrest, the 65-year-old leader said that although she would apply for the internet permit, she would fill in the form saying that she would participate in politics.”

The Mizzima news agency has this: ‘The connection is a communication technology called McWill. But, the telephone has not been installed. With this connection, she will not be able to use voice (internet telephony). Only an internet connection has been installed. Although they told us to provide 1 MB, currently she has received 512 KB. They said they would extend the bandwidth later.  The internet installation cost at 560,000 kyat (about $560). Suu Kyi will apply for a mail4you e-mail account, which is a product of Yatanarpon Teleport and the only officially authorised e-mail account in Burma. The authorities have access to all passwords for mail4you e-mail accounts.”

In the United States, the internet is pretty much unrestricted. In this country, we do have a dictatorship, though, but it is not the government, despite what some would like to claim, it is “big business.” And for some time now, our unrestricted use of the internet has been threatened. What’s at stake is a principle called “net neutrality”, a principle applied to users access to the internet. Basically, it means that internet service providers should not discriminate between different kinds of content and applications online. It’s meant to provide a level playing field for all web sites, users and providers.

But cable and telephone companies want to charge money for easy and smooth access to Web sites, speed to run applications and download files, and permission to plug in devices. If you have a fairly fast connection presently, once these companies have their way, to keep it you will need to fork over more of your hard-earned cash or be left in the slow lane.

It’s all rather complicated. If you are unfamiliar with net neutrality or if you want to get up to speed with the latest developments, I suggest you take a look here, here and here.

Last week U.S. Senator Al Franken and Rep. Dennis Kucinich both warned of what the former describes as “a growing threat of corporate control on the flow of information in our country.”

We who live in “free” countries are  fortunate not to have the kind of restrictions on the internet that Aung San Suu Kyi is saddled with in Burma. Most of us, myself included, have a tendency to take it for granted. We should not.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Edmund Burke

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Video of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Release

Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi greets thousands of supporters over the fence of her Yangon house after she was freed. (STR, EPA / November 13, 2010)

As the Los Angeles Times reports, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Buddhist and the leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, was released from house arrest on Saturday. She said “I am so happy” as she greeted thousands of jubilant supporters at the gate of her compound.  “It’s very happy to see the people,” she said, barely audible over the chanting. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen you.”

In a statement released earlier today, President Barak Obama called Suu Kyi a personal “hero” and called for the military regime to “release all political prisoners, not just one.”

Here are two videos of Daw (as she is called by her supporters) after her release. The first, obtained by ITN, shows the cheers the moment that she appeared before the crowd:

A news agency run by exiles from Myanmar based in India, Mizzima, posted more video of Suu Kyi meeting her supporters on its YouTube channel:

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