It is now almost 36 hours since the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) took over Myanmar by detaining legally elected party leaders. It has been a hard day for me. I can just imagine how hard it would be to the people of Burma. Burmese friends are aware that they will be cut off from the world at any moment. I do not know how to reach out to them if this happens. I do not know how to support them. I feel devastated. But I also feel determined to stand with the people of Burma.
I had an opportunity to stay in Burma for two and half years. I had many conversations with Burmese citizens – across political affiliations, ethnicities, gender, class, education, and age. With all hope and positivity, the conversation always ended with the statement: “We don’t know how long this (the freedom, the democracy) will last.” So, we all knew this was coming; but we hoped and prayed that this would never become reality. Alas! It has. Once again.
Before arriving in Burma, my knowledge about the country was limited to couple of points. That Rangoon (Yangon) is its capital (which is Nay Pyi Taw for more than a decade); Burma was part of British India (so we have similar colonial experiences) and Vipassana (meditation) is practiced in Burma.
When I landed in Burma in June 2016, Burma was breathing fresh air with the new formed democratic government. I found the country like an innocent child – just waking up from decades of alienation and exploitation to see that the world around has changed so much. Credit to Burmese people, they geared themselves to the new reality – with the hope that they can cover the decades they have missed during the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Military) exploitative rule. There was so much of hope in the air that I still feel it.
It is disheartening to read some of the posts on social media rejoicing detainment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I know some people were disillusioned with her sometimes; I was one of them. But there is a democratic way to remove a political leader /party that you do not find fulfilling your expectations. You vote for another party. The fact is Myanmar voted in 2020 for National League for Democracy (NLD) in the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The Tatmadaw claims of ‘election fraud’ are as imaginary as Trump’s claim in the recent USA elections. To all those, who rejoice the downfall of NLD and ‘The Lady’ (as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is called by many) do not know what Tatmadaw is capable of. Mind you, I am not using the word capable in good sense! No people on earth should have to face Tatmadaw like rule!
I have heard many stories from my Burmese colleagues about the Tatmadaw atrocities. I have read many books on this topic. In addition to that, I have personal experiences of ‘Big Brother is Watching You’.
When I went to one NGO office in Yangon (and I am not going to mention any names to protect them from the possible harassment), there was a small shop at the entrance of the building. I was searching for the address and confirmed with the shop person. He confirmed and asked me who I was and what was the purpose of my visit. Being new to the country, I assumed it to be a friendly conversation and provided him information. When I entered the office, the NGO workers looked stressed. When I asked what happened, they wanted to know whether I met the shopkeeper. I was amused that it could be a topic of stress. Later they told me that Tatmadaw has this practice of putting their people in disguise and keeping watch on the citizens. This was in 2016 – when NLD had just taken the charge.
Once we (the NGO I was volunteering with) invited media persons to share our plans of our upcoming series of activities. The activities were aimed to generate awareness about violence faced by women and girls. As the meeting started, two plain-clothed men entered and asked, ‘why you have not taken permission from the authorities to hold press conference’. We were confused as there was no press conference. When I looked at the journalists, I realized that some of them had come with their video cameras. But how did these guys come to know about these journalists? Someone must be watching this office and had informed the authorities. The two guys did not reveal their identities to us, they refused to sign the meeting attendance and listened to every word that was spoken in the meeting. This happened in 2017.
In 2018, I moved to Nay Pyi Taw (NPT), the capital of the country. To stay in the city (not in the hotel, but in the house and for long term) we had to take permission of the concerned immigration officer. While signing the documents, the immigration officer told me that every time I move out of NPT, I must inform him in advance. He used to call randomly to check my whereabouts. He was a nice guy and was doing his duty. Once my earlier meeting got delayed and I had to rush to the bus station to catch a bus for Yangon. So, I had not informed the Immigration officer that I was going to Yangon. The bus had just left NPT, and my mobile rang. The Immigration officer at the other end was terribly angry at me for not informing him about my movement. Again, how did he know that I was on this bus? Who informed him? I apologized to him and assured him that now onwards I will never forget to him. I never forgot.
There are many such experiences.
I can understand keeping an eye on foreigners. Protecting your own citizens is an important duty of every government. For that if they watch people like me, it is fine. I have no issues. If I do not like being watched by Myanmar officials, I can always return to my home country. But imagine what would I feel if I were watched in my own country? That is not the idea of Freedom. People across the world need to understand the ‘Constitutional Power’ Tatmadaw has given to itself and how difficult it is to change it.
There are people in Burma who criticized Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD. But every person who criticized; knows in their hearts of hearts that on any given day if they have only two options, they will always choose Daw Aung San Suu Kyi over Tatmadaw. Period.
‘The Lady’ is not perfect. But honestly, tell me one name who is perfect. Each one of us commits mistakes. Learning from mistakes and moving forward is what makes us human beings.
I learned many things from Burma. Two things stand out: Kindness and Forgiveness. Taxi drivers will always donate money if someone asks for it at the signal. They will not complain about their poverty or insult the person asking for money. They will especially keep some change to distribute. At four in the morning, even when the signal is green, the vehicles will patiently wait for the monks to cross the road. I was once talking to a man, a political activist (in his 40s) who had spent 20 years in jail. I asked him why they do not take the army to the court for violation of human rights. He calmly said, “I did my duty. Things are now fortunately becoming better. At this hour of reconciliation, do you think revenge will help us? In fact, revenge never helps.” I do not think I would be so gracious if I were wronged.
Burma made me realize the value of forgiveness, the value of kindness. Not for others, but for ourselves. The Pagodas, the Pathana (chanting of sutta), the kindness, the friendship, the smiles, the laughter, experiments with Burmese food and language, Burmese longyi …. Living in Burma made me a different person. - a better person - I would like to believe. It was a kind of healing process for me – healing from the pains of living, healing from the pains rising from my ego. Amidst all the problems a social activist has to live with, Burma introduced me to the inner peace. Burma will always have a special place in my heart.
No, Burma is not a paradise, definitely not for all. Apart from the Tatmadaw atrocities, people have many other issues to grapple with. Some are natural, some are made by the society. It is a long way to go for Burma. Burmese people have an immense potential to dream big and strive to achieve that dream. They are peaceful people and happy souls. What they need is Freedom to realize their immense potential.
Tatmadaw has once again taken their freedom back from them. The world has to take the responsibility – all those who have entertained Tatmadaw for years – knowing their atrocities too well; and ignoring them. People’s lives are at stake. We need to stand with Burma.
Let us get our Freedom back from Tatmadaw.
To Burma: With Love!