Letter from Yangon: forwarded by David Kilgour

29 September 2007

We live in a quiet neighbourhood a good 15 minutes taxi ride from the downtown area of Yangon. The market vendors give us extra fruit, the Buddhist monks collect alms every Saturday, the bicycle rickshaw men yell greetings at the children. It is a friendly, cheerful society to live in, welcoming and yet not intrusive, peaceful and yet not subdued. One does not have to look very hard to see the distressing evidence of poverty in which so many people are struggling to survive, but always one can also find the generosity, spirit and dignity of a society that maintains a rich level of social values of which any country could be proud.

Not far from here, tens of thousands of people have been walking in solidarity with equal numbers of Buddhist monks through the decaying centre of this extraordinary city. They are protesting against the policies of the military regime that has systematically destroyed the lives of millions of families here over the last 40 years. Despite the pent up anger and frustration and misery that so may of them feel, the demonstrations have been wonderfully, inspiringly peaceful – and humbling.

The shaven monks, many barefoot, clad in their traditional burnt umber robes, chant prayers for peace and non-violence. They generate an extraordinary, undeniable force that pricks one’s eyes constantly and which, even to an anti-religious cynic like myself, is undeniably spiritual. I still struggle to understand what it is about these monks that it so moving. That they are so obviously loved by the population is part of it. Their sheer numbers (a line of monks walking three abreast perhaps 3 kilometres long) coupled with their quiet orderliness and obvious self-discipline. Their courage and selflessness is certainly humbling and inspiring. And it may have much to do with the apparent paradox that their strength arises directly from their physical vulnerability.

The local people either line the streets, or walk along side them, holding hands to form a pathetically thin and breakable line of ‘protection’ against the horrors that all too many anticipate will come. Some are upbeat, laughing and defiant; others are thoughtful, anxious, constantly checking over their shoulders. Some onlookers applaud, others kneel down and pray, or offer drinking water – but most just drink it all in, thirstily and almost unbelievably that such a protest of such a size could really be happening. When we joined hands and walked with them with our young children on our shoulders, so many thanked us and applauded us and warned us to take care. No one for a moment even hints that perhaps this time, when the situation deteriorates, we should not all fly out (as we surely will) to follow the demonstrations from the comfort of a luxury hotel in Bangkok.

The air is charged with a desperate sense of hope, almost forgotten having been buried for so long under the drudgery of survival, mixed with an awful sense of foreboding. All involved know the risks. The last demonstrations of this size were seen in 1988 when many thousands of unarmed students and other civilians were brutally massacred and many more tortured and locked up in prisons in appalling conditions. The memories of those harrowing months are still fresh for any that witnessed them. Last night the Minister of Religious Affairs made clear that the Government would do what it deems necessary to stop the peaceful demonstrations which have been declared illegal. The message was anticipated and is understood – continued demonstrations, however peaceful they may be, will be met by heavily armed soldiers ready to shoot to kill.

Most recognise however that, tragically, threats alone will not stop these protests now. People are too charged up to return straight away to the life of shocked acquiescence that they have been living since the horrors of 1988. Too many families can not afford to feed their family or educate their children or prevent their babies dying from easily avoidable and treatable diseases. And all watch while their military rulers continue to siphon off enormous riches for their own gain. Perhaps this is the single biggest crime of this regime: not the political oppression or the brutal human rights abuses, but the devastating levels of poverty imposed on so many millions of families in a country of such abundant natural wealth. Myanmar could so easily be a country of economic well being even without political freedom – but mismanagement, greed, investment only in the military and a total disregard for the well being of civilians have made most of its population one of the poorest on the planet.

Does this matter to us all at home? With so many problems at the moment in the world, why should we worry about Myanmar as well? Many reasons come to mind, but let me suggest just two. One is that the current protests represent one of very few examples at present of unarmed, people-led efforts to change regimes, especially to change military regimes. In a world where the use of violence becomes increasingly and appallingly normalised, shouldn’t we be making every effort to support an alternative – and peaceful – approach to political change? The other reason is that if we act now, we might actually make a difference. People power alone is very unlikely to promote much change, but if enough, appropriate international pressure comes at the same time then many believe change can happen. It is not every day that we have the chance to make a difference, but right now, for at least a week or so, we have that precious chance.   This really does represent an hour of need for the people of Myanmar.

Tonight is our first night of curfew and martial law. All seems so peaceful; the crickets are singing, the evening jasmine smells wonderful and we can see stars after days of rain. It is even cool. But it will be difficult to sleep. The Government no doubt will again be making its night-time raids on the monasteries and homes of people identified in the protests – hauling innocent people off to prisons, torture or execution. We know that here we can do so little to help those courageous people when the horrors of an aggressive military crackdown get into full swing. But perhaps you can. Please write to your MP urging her or him to increase the political pressure on this regime to start real discussions with the leaders of these protests and avoid from using force. If enough people say no, the blood shed can still be avoided.

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