Saturday, October 6, 2007

The First Blow and The "Revolution of the Spirit"

**As of now, there are a total of 9 ONLINE PETITIONS calling for collective action on the parts of the UN Security Council, the UN General Body, China, and Myanmar. Please consider signing HERE.

(This entry's going to be a bit more personal)

Today I got the most shocking of rude awakenings. I just came back from tonight's Global Day of Protest for Burma event in the city where I am currently. Sponsored by various local religious organizations, it took the form of an interfaith prayer gathering. Catholic, Protestants, Muslims, and Buddhist religious leaders attended and led the 150 or so participants in prayer. It was one of many global events whose idea was sparked by Burma Watch, the website complement to the enormously popular 'Support the Monks' protest in Burma' Facebook group (The website has good news round ups and lists other actions / protests. The next one is Oct. 9 against Chevron).

After prayers, the event organizers opened the floor to members of the audience who wished to speak, and of course, I went up to take the microphone. I spoke about 4 minutes on the background of the situation in Burma and actions that attendants could take, namely signing online petitions, calling / emailing / visiting Myanmar's embassies and consulates and those of countries that sponsor Burma's military regime.

After I left the stage, one of the attendees came up to me and told me he thought the content of what I said was inappropriate for a religious event like this one. He said he felt lectured to. My response was, "They said it was ok for people to say what they wanted to say. I'm sorry you feel that way." I understand that this was hosted by religious institutions, but the situation is a political one that centers on human rights and democracy. The man, I think an American or Canadian, said that for the other attendants, they relied on faith, not on politics.

Then he said point blank. "I've done more than Burma than you have. I gave up my career and my family." Or something like that. Not to mention a curse word or two.
Then he said, "What have you done for Burma?" and stormed off.

This was something that I totally didn't expect, and I didn't know how to answer. I'm the type of guy who's slow on the draw, and will always have something uniquely insightful to say, but only think of a response minutes after the debate is over and after the other party has already left the scene.

For the past couple of hours, I have reflected on what that guy said. And what he said really bothered me. The critique has taught me an invaluable lesson; that even amongst those most willing and committed to fight for social change, there lacks unanimity on which approach is the correct one. For me, the question was not an issue of separating religion and politics, but of how to turn faith into practical action. Speaking out for human rights and democracy is not inimical to religious and spiritual teachings and principles, but rather, encouraged and demanded by them. Take H.H. The XIV Dalai Lama, Pope Benedict XVI, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. All have called for international action to bring peace and stability to Burma. This is socially-engaged religion at is best. (Buddhism permeates every facet of Burman culture, and the ongoing protests have epitomized socially-engaged Buddhism).

I was not sure if that man's idea of the perfect gathering for Burma was to pray and sing songs, and that be that. By no means am I trying to downplay the spiritual or personal enrichment gained from a deep faith, or attacking the freedom to do it. Actually, after much thought, I realize that this event wasn't religious hermeticism but rather INDEED collective action, for it did much to galvanize spirits and raise awareness. But I think in my mind, to get world leaders and corporations to act, it may have a stronger effect if there was an accompanying political component to every demonstration. While it may be integral for this gentleman to have solidarity for Burma shown in a religious gathering, would it have compromised the spirit of the prayer gathering to take political action to help the situation in Burma improve? Perhaps I have been misunderstood. I do not mean that all religious adherents should put down their Bibles, Qurans, rosaries, and other religious texts to take up a strong political fight. But while I think there should be a balance of both political and apolitical/religious responses, I admittedly am unsure of what that balance is. Again, this speaks to the wide range of responses to the conditions of Burma and the difficulties in getting one united front.

While I do not know the true intentions of that man, nor his background, I do not doubt that he cared about Burma. But the outright hostility and furor with which he attacked me, and the shortsightedness in his approach struck me as quite unfortunate. Yes, people have died, and people have suffered the utmost pain for democracy in Burma. I didn't mean to say that I was better than anyone in that crowd. However, maybe that guy took it as my intent, which it wasn't. But at least I can see where this guy is coming from. I just wish that we had talked more. I don't have his name or the name of the organization for which he worked. I also don't know what he did.

In any case, in no way do I profess to be an expert in Burmese affairs, and I definitely have much to learn in terms of social activism, but I felt that the guy should've seen that we are both on the same side. It shouldn't be to compare our accomplishments to activists next to us and see who is better. Every opportunity should be taken to exchange viewpoints and engage in healthy dialogue in order to get a more wholistic view and understanding of what the problem is and how we can address it together.

Yes, if that man had sacrificed much of his personal life for the Burma causes, I emphathize with him, and I feel for him. I really do. But I do not know his circumstances. What was surprising to me about this episode was that instead of educating me, he belittled me. Through the nature of my studies and work experiences, I have come across many individuals who have suffered much hardships, having lived through atrocities such as the Viet Nam War, the Khmer Rouge, the Cultural Revolution, the refugee experience, etc. And in every account, each individual was willing to share with me his or her life, no matter how tragic or disheartening. It wasn't that I forced them, rather, they wanted me to understand these events and to learn from them, so that history does not repeat itself for my generation. Unfortunately, the willingness of dialogue was not present tonight.

I came not as an adherent of any particular faith or as a national of any specific country, but as a concern global citizen. I could not, as a person with a mindful conscience and a heavy sense of duty, not speak when given the chance. While everyone present knew about the current developments in Burma, I felt that most people present really didn't know what else they, as ordinary citizens, could do, and some appeared to not have as deep a grasp of the situation as I did. While I was unsure of the response I would receive, I had to try.

While I took the event as a chance to further educate others, I surmise this man took it as an opportunity to introspect. But if we keep the knowledge that we have to ourselves, how can we possibly hope to expose these abuses and raise international awareness? Perhaps the last thing the guy needed was some kid come and rant on the situation. Maybe they were all expecting a religious approach. But I really didn't see what lasting tangible good was coming from it and was trying. I'm still processing all that happened. If you have any thoughts on this incident or any and all Burma-related issues for that matter, please, let me know at

Apart from taking in that guy's criticisms, after I spoke, a few people clapped, one of the organizers and a woman who had links with Amnesty International asked me for further information on petitions and on sources with reliable and up-to-date coverage on Burma. That did in some way take the sting off of what that guy said. For me, what was lacking in the coordination of the event was any direction in how people could concretely help. And I'm glad that I somewhat filled in the gap, even if it's only those 2 people out of 150 who were interested in what I had to say. At least it did some good. My hope is those 2 will tell 2 others, those four will collectively tell 8, and so in, in a sort of pay-it-forward / spread the word idea. However, I do wonder if others in the crowd felt the same way as that guy.

By now, the effects that man's criticisms have worn off a bit. I think, when it boils down to it, it was about different attitudes towards our work. Right now, I'm not trying to validate myself or to say that I'm infallible, but I think that instead of a self-importance towards myself in terms of work, I have more of a selfless awarenes. Which is important to me. True, I am relatively new to the 3rd fight for Burma's independence (the first in 1948 and the second in 1988), and there's still much about the situation that I don't understand. I am idealistic, but have not been tempered through the trials and hardships of those who have sacrificed their families, careers, loved ones, and even more. I have not been persecuted for my beliefs in equality and democracy. But I suppose the misunderstanding of tonight presents a couple of challenges to me.

"What have I done to help Burma?" It's not about proving that guy wrong, but about putting my words to practice and DOING SOMETHING. Tonight's events, as a whole, has also have helped me identify my weakness in social work and action. I didn't know about tonight's gathering until half an hour before it was to start. I luckily made it before it started, and hoped that I would have an opportunity to talk. So I began jotting down a few talking points. While it was more or less and on-the-fly talk, I realize that my greatest shortcoming is in ad-libbing and in presentational skills. The facts are all there, but I need to be able to communicate them to others. I think I did an ok job, nothing great. But I need to work on powers of persuasion and expository speaking. A lot of what I said could have come across stronger. Task #1. While, in my opinion, I can write a truly analytical and persuasive article, speaking is my downfall. I'm working on it.

But back to the events of the past couple of days. I'm doing about 10 hours a day researching the current situation in Burma, reading up on its past history and emergence of a rights discourse, and blogging. Currently, I'm reading Aung San Suu Kyi's collection of essays Freedom From Fear. Through it, I'm learning about the aspirations and motivations of Suu Kyi's father, Bogyoke Aung San in his daughter's words. He was all about the selfless awareness that I spoke about earlier. Aung San made it clear that he believed the armed forces should have no part in politics. He created the army to protect the people. Had he not been assassinated, Burma most likely would have been one of the best examples of democracy in Southeast Asia. But it is Suu Kyi's own thoughts that struck me. And I actually quoted her at the rally tonight from her essay of the same title.
It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it...The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit...Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration. It is not enough merely to call for freedom, democracy and human rights. There has to be a united determination to persevere in the struggle, to make sacrifices in the name of enduring truths, to resist the corrupting influences of desire, ill will, ignorance and fear.

The essay "Freedom From Fear" is HERE, probably one of if not the most moving of Daw Suu's work's that I have read to date.

The fight for Burma should not be divided religious or political lines, and perhaps cannot be won by relying solely on religious or only on political means. As we have seen that while even monks of the Sangha, the holiest and most respected institution in Burma, are not safe from the bullets and batons of the junta and its cronies; political initiatives lack the moral authority and faith that can unite the Burmese. Perhaps this is being overly simplistic and idealistic, but as an acitivist, I have to learn how to bridge these divisions and see that the rallying flag that binds us all should be woven with the strands of common human dignity and universal human rights. Only then will Burma be free.

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