THE LADY & THE MONKS
All these finch-y birds are tweeting and chirping from about five feet off our little balcony, even though they haven’t found the sunflower seeds I put out. A big crow comes a craw-ing, followed by another. The finches stop their chirp and hop up to the house’s eave. Crows finish their noise and fly off eventually, and the little guys return to their branches and restart their song.
Two to a bike, school kids peddle past razor wire-topped walls around the mansion across the road. But on our side are 20-foot tall bamboo grasses, banana trees and some unknown fruit tree welcomes big black moths. Just up the road is the old house where The Lady’s father, General Aung San was assassinated by the generals who took over in 1946 after he agreed to independent zones for the country’s ethnic tribe peoples. The wars still continue against them, seventy years later.
But daughter Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Chi) just won the country’s first real election in decades— by an amazing 90%. And the entire country is waiting the promised transition. But will the crows actually fly away?
I’ve wanted to visit Myanmar since it was Burma (named by the Brits after the majority ethnicity). This was a land of Great Britain’s rubber plantations (along with the slavery practiced around rubber in the 19th century Congo by the Belgians and in the Amazon against the Putumayos by everyone). It was the Burma of British Imperialist par excellence Kipling in a poem put to music:
On the Road to Mandalay/Where the flyin’ fishes play
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China/‘Crost the Bay!
And on the other hand, also of George Orwell’s biting colonial critique novel Burmese Days. Either way, our take on this country has always been Eurocentric.
Its military rulers have: sacked the country of its riches in rubies and other gems; delivered its resources like natural gas exclusively to China; created Naypyidaw, a new capital built as a high-security gated community for the Army brass; terrorized its own population; all the while maintaining genocidal campaigns against its minority groups to the North, East and South. Its “outlaw nation” status was fully justified.
By contrast, the grace and calm fortitude shown by Daw (lady) Aung San Suu Kyi since her 1990 election to president was overturned by the military and she was placed under house arrest has been an inspiration to the whole country, and then the world. Adoration of her is widespread, especially in the liberal cities. Her picture, as well as that of her national hero father, were forbidden. Now they are displayed in every cafe and business. Even the sole Jewish synagogue in Yangon (ex-Rangoon) no longer has a congregation, but proudly shows its last caretaker in two photos with Ben Gurion (including one in Burmese drag!) and one visiting Suu Kyi in her home.
Obama has visited Myanmar twice, in a first critical visit meeting with The Lady as well as the government. In one of his only unalloyed international policy successes, Obama’s State Department got a promise of democratization in exchange for dropping the country’s outlaw status in 1990. This led to the relatively clean election this year, and her party’s overwhelming victory, which surprised even the military. Strange, isn’t it, how people used to being yessed all the time come to believe it? Their own hype Trumps reality.
Aung San Suu Kyi is herself forbidden by a special law from running for President, due to her “criminal” past, though she swears she will still be the leader. Now even the top general of the dictatorship says he has changed course, and will support her as the country’s natural ruler, and do everything in his power to change that law. Why the remarkable about-face? Some say his hip son sat him down and had a talk with him. This makes sense, but even if apocryphal it makes a good story.
Our last full day in Yangon fell on the Full Moon, a particularly auspicious day in the Buddhist calendar. We had planned to return to the huge central Schwedagon Paya (pagoda) where 1000s are expected. But now, with a better appreciation of Yangon’s heat and humidity, plus distance and crowds, we decided to go back to our local temples. We had walked up to one on our first night in our McMansion neighborhood, but got lost in a warren of monks’ quarters and never found the temple with the huge Seated Buddha.
Today we found it. And it was stunning, a beautiful smile, skin painted white, lips red, snails-hair in perfect curls. We only saw one other foreigner and he looked like a missionary, talking in English to an clearly well-informed Burmese guy in board shorts and a Cools t-shirt. I asked a question and got a long, intelligent response, though he was not a guide but a serious theological student of Buddhism. The missionary-type said he was late getting back to his wife, and the Buddhist guy offered to show us the way to the Reclining Buddha across the way.
It turned out to be probably as big as the famous one in Bangkok, but was not covered in gold. Lying on his left side, propped on one elbow, this is the Buddha at the time of his death, with a calm only Enlightenment can provide. He knows all his past lives, but that this would be the last. And his body appears to be about the size of half a football field, or at least a full basketball court. At the end you see the soles of his feet, about 25 feet high, covered in a pattern of arcane signifiers representing all the past lives he walked through.
We were able to ask our guide about the monastery we had walked through that night. It turns out there are 46 separate monasteries for monks and novices, and assorted Dhamma centers or schools for children, connected to the Reclining Buddha temple! And sixty-some more around the Sitting Buddha. It is a huge concentration of monks, each walking in file every morning to receive rice and curry offerings for their daily meal, along the same road that houses the German Embassy as well as the house and museum of General Aung San. This is where he was assassinated in 1946, two years before the British granted Burma its independence. It is the house where Aung San Suu Kyi was born, and her baby brother drowned in the swimming pool before the family moved out in 1953. The Victorian era houses on the hill followed the monasteries by many thousands of years, of course, not vice versa.
Our guide’s teacher joined us for the visit to the Reclining Buddha. And was happy to answer questions before he left us for the noon meal, the last time monks eat during the day. He was less theologically inclined than his student, but told us the story of the Monks Protests. In response to a raising of gasoline prices by the military government, which of course led to much higher food and living costs for the poor, the monks had held peaceful prayer vigils at some offices. They did this because regular people would have been imprisoned if they had tried even this mild form of protest. But the military, paranoid to the nth degree, sent police and fired on the monks, killing some. The protest vigils continued and31 were joined by regular Burmese. This was the real turning point in the military dictatorship’s stranglehold on power based on fear.
We gave a donation to the monk’s order, placed in his Buddhist prayer book (in English!), and received a blessing for safe travels and good luck. After the guide helped us through the same maze we had gotten lost in the other night, he also asked for a donation. Theravada, the type of Buddhism found in SE Asia (different from the Mahayana of Japanese Zen) places more emphasis on merit, the gaining of it through offerings, as well as the usual rules of right living. We were glad to contribute, both to the school’s master and to our helpful guide. It was a real pleasure being led through the monastic quarters, seeing dozens of dogs that had discovered some sanctuary there from the rocks and kicks and starvation outside the temple walls, monks bathing in a building near a centuries-old royal Victorian house, knowing when to take off our shoes (including for one 100-meter stretch past an old imperial cemetery). Sadly, the one thing we forgot to ask was why the Buddha has snail hair. It is a mystery.
So who is responsible for the sea-change going on in Myanmar? Certainly the monks, standing in for the whole population. Credit is due to Barack Obama for brave leadership that encouraged the people to believe that the world cared. And of course, to the national heroine Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for her quiet determination over 25 years of arrest.
But the change will not come without problems. The loosening of dictatorship, as we have seen in countries from Iraq to Egypt, does not only lead to freedom. There are rightwing Buddhist monks urging genocide against the Muslims in the South, pitting one ethnic minority group (the Rakhine) against another (the Rohingya). And Aung San Suu Kyi has maintained silence on this, at least publicly. In fact, she must be very careful about how she first exercises power. The military retains control of all state resources for now, and talks about a “slow, careful” transition. Which probably means they feel there is still money to be raked out, and are in no hurry to give up their scams.
But change will come, if not as easily as one hopes. The finch bird is on the branch, puffing out its breast feathers. And the crows are on notice.