Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Buddhism

Etc Etc Amen. Part Two of a review of a novel by Howard Male

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 3 2015.

Part One can be found here:

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/etc-etc-amen-part-one-of-a-review/

 

 

male plus cat

 

Howard Male has written on music for the Independent, Songlines, The Word and other publications and on the arts in general for theartsdesk.com. He is also a musician. Etc Etc Amen is his first novel.

cover

Part Two

“Let go of your belief – it’s more trouble than it’s worth! Many have  died fighting over the small print from the undeniably ambiguous texts of their holy books. Belief is an End not a Beginning. Making a choice with regards to a theological position is patently absurd. Because…We. Know. Nothing.”

 

Male’s novel deals with rock god Zachary Bekele who founds a non-religion called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis.

KUU Theology

KUU stands for the Knowing Unknowing Universe. Male says: “I wanted to see if it was possible to devise a theology which went completely against the troubling grain of all that had gone before it, yet made perfect if eccentric sense as an alternative.” “Knowing” suggests something that demonstrates intelligence as well as something beyond our comprehension. “Unknowable” means we have to be content with unresolved guesses because all religion is guesswork. “Universe” symbolises what we find impossible to understand. The more knowledge we acquire the more fragile and contingent we feel. “The Gratuitous just keeps on raining down”.

KUU-ism is a middle way between theism and atheism; an escape from the “tribal binary prison”. Even our greatest thinkers only seem to pose either/or questions or definitive statements. Everything is reduced to the taking of sides while the truths remain ambivalent and overlooked. “Sitting on the fence might actually give us the best view”.

The Tripod built in Marrakech symbolises this third way. It is a middle way between the belief in an interventionist or non-interventionist deity. The KUU is semi-interventionist, and recognises `Cosmic Nudges’ – KUU-incidences (what Carl Jung called Synchronicities). KUU offers a welcome to refugees from any faith or even “agonised agnostics” and atheists. Bekele describes himself as “part evangelical agnostic and part woolly-minded fantasist”. He also says he is, “just a born-again questioner with a novel interpretation of the facts”.

KUU asserts that science is just as likely to be made up of bizarre hypotheses as ancient religion was made of bizarre gods. Scientists have not “made a dent on some of the central mysteries of mind, soul or creation”. KUU is not a personifying name of an entity that explains everything. “Why should we suddenly have all the answers now any more than we did two hundred or even two thousand years ago?”

Religions have dumb rules. The bible gives equal weight to sartorial and dietary advice and serious misdemeanours.  KUU Ground Rules are not Commandments. There are Eleven KUU Non-Commandments (or Gentle Suggestions), concerned with the individual’s well-being, sense of self and relationship with the possibility of a spiritual realm. Here are a few from the eleven: “You can laugh. You can doubt. Meditate on the Mystery of Music. Embrace and delight in the hello of the Cosmic Nudge. Forget about love, Empathy and respect are the real deal. Respect is rarely blind, stupid, jealous or crazy because it requires prior thought and has to be earned.

The central idea is that a connection can be cultivated between The Knowing Unknowable Universe and the receptive “entertainer of the possibility on Earth”. You may be enlightened if you entertain the possibility that unexplainable events such as coincidences are Cosmic Nudges. “It is part of our hardwiring that the unexplained is not worthy of our attention…the fact that you have never witnessed a serious car crash does not mean that car crashes don’t exist…the one form of unusual occurrence that we don’t feel self-conscious about discussing is coincidence…what if coincidences are the subtlest form of supernatural  phenomena?” “The Cosmic Nudge is the light of infinity glimpsed through a tiny rent in the opaque curtain of everydayness”. We are neither favoured nor persecuted by a higher being. Cosmic Nudges do not reward or punish, they just gently tease, they are playful not frightening.

“Here are some suggestions on how to live a more fulfilling life while also getting the occasional glimpse that there could be to that life than meets the eye. Let those glimpses enrich your daily existence but don’t let them go to your head. Be aware and creative, pursue wisdom knowing it can’t be attained, and find someone to love and have a good time with”.

“Get up off your knees! Don’t pray. Dance!” When you lose yourself in dance you lose your ego.

Optimistic doubt: “instead of living in constant disappointment at not receiving what you think is rightfully yours , you live for the moment and so experience pleasant surprise when good fortune comes your way. Life is the now. “

In spite of this sensible approach, the KUU’s followers decide to interpret KUU doctrine in a way that redefines the KUU as a supernatural entity.

Influences and comparisons

While I was reading the book, a number of possible influences came to my mind. I was not suggesting plagiarism but was intrigued enough to ask the author. I was reminded of Vonnegut’s Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent, and of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood in which Hazel Motes grows up struggling with doubts regarding salvation and original sin. Hazel’s war experience turns him into an atheist and he preaches a gospel of antireligion through his Church of No Christ. I wondered if there might be echoes of The Dice Man by Luke Rinehart.

 

The film Privilege starring Paul Jones (a rock star playing a rock star) directed by Peter Watkins and written by Johnny Speight dealt with a music idol who develops messianic powers.

 

 

Male has not seen the film. He admits to being influenced  by “in some sense every decent writer who has ever made me forget I was reading a work of fiction while I’ve been reading their work” However, he has not read Wise Blood and only vaguely recalls The Dice Man.

KUU seemed to have a bit of Buddhism in it, with the absence of a supreme being and prescriptive commandments and the notion of a “middle” way. All faiths except KUU are focused on blinkered certainty. “All moral codes stem from a paradoxical blend of selfishness and altruism…KUUism is about responsibility, rather than the handing over of that responsibility to a higher order, be it human or supernatural”.  I noted that Zachary’s band was called The Now. Male told me: “Buddhism, oddly enough, I only began investigating with any genuine curiosity after I’d finished writing the novel, as my sister – who has been a halfway house Buddhist for about eight years – saw a lot of Buddhism in KUUism.  The new novel Serious Fun explicitly shows this influence in that it centres on a character who has recently taken up mindful meditation.”

Male told me: “KUUism had – as its two starting points – the number of unlikely remarkable coincidences that were happening to me as I considered the idea of the cosmic nudge, and the self-appointed task of devising a religion (non-religion) that was the opposite of the existing religions yet morally and (to a degree) rationally sound.”

 

Reception

Male has written much rock journalism and continues to write expertly on what has come to be known as “World Music”. He brings his own personal inside knowledge of the rock world to the writing of this novel.  He was encouraged by supportive comments from respected music journalists like Charlie Gillett, Robin Denselow, Mick Brown, David Quantick  and Nick Coleman. Coleman described the novel as “an art-school rock-theological satirical thriller.” The book  received glowing praise from Tony Visconti, an American record producer  who has had a long association with David Bowie. Visconti said: “It’s a wonderful book! I am even more awestruck the second time around. Very few novelists get it right when they use Rock as the context for a novel. Howard Male got it right. One of the best novels I’ve read in the last decade’. Whitbread prize-winning novelist Patrick Neate thought it was “something really special”.

Howard Male tells me that he has completed a sequel called Serious Fun  and has started work on the third novel of the trilogy. He is now working on a screenplay of Etc Etc Amen. Etc Etc Amen is available on Kindle.

 

 

 http://www.nation.lk/edition/insight/item/40333-howard-male%E2%80%99s-novel-etc-etc-amen.html

Reconciliation in Burma

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday August 5 2012

Colonial background

The British forced Burma to become a part of the colonial export economy. Vast tracts of land were taken to cultivate rice for export. Indigenous farmers lost their lands and most jobs went to indentured Indian laborers. Grass-roots control was exercised by burning villages and dissent was suppressed by mass executions.

 
The imperial power introduced a secular education system and encouraged Christian missionaries to found schools. Buddhism and traditional Burmese culture were discouraged as part of a plan to deprive the Burmese people of a cultural unity.

Independence

A nationalist movement began to take shape in the form of Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA). By 1930s, a new radical movement known as the Thakin was formed. Its leading figures included Aung San, U Nu and Ne Win.

 
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San sought support for the Burmese independence struggle from Japan. Japan invaded Burma in 1942 but never succeeded conquering the whole country. On August 1, 1943 the Japanese declared Burma to be an independent nation. Aung San was appointed War Minister but he became disillusioned with the Japanese. He was assassinated on July 19, 1947. Former prime minister U Saw was tried and hanged. Middle-ranking British army officers were also tried and imprisoned.

 

Dictatorship

For most of its existence independent Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship. In 1988 unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression led to demonstrations. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators.  General Saw Maung staged a coup and established SLORC – the State Law and Order Restoration Council. In May 1990 the government held free elections for the first time in almost after 30 years but ignored the results. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy won 80% of the seats.

 

Ethnic conflict

There are 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Burma. Burma has been the scene of some of the most-sustained and diverse ethnic insurgencies in the contemporary world. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) found that “more people had been forcibly displaced from their homes during the past year than any other since obtaining first data collection in 2002.”

 
Human Rights Watch publicized “atrocities” committed during last month’s clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas which left 78 people dead and about 100,000 homeless.

 
A foreign journalist asked Aung Sang Suu Kyi whether she regarded Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. “I do not know. We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.” This can be translated as “I won’t get any votes by defending a minority group”.

Sanctions

The US had accepted Burma as one of the original beneficiaries of its Generalized System of Preference (GSP) program in 1976. There was also a major International Military Education and Training [IMET] program) until 1988. The implementing of sanctions on Burma did not begin until the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar army) brutal suppression of peaceful protest.
Washington recently lifted some financial and investment sanctions in response to nascent democratic reforms but has retained the ban on imports — a restriction that a US Senate committee this month said should be extended by three years.
Today optimists on Burma have criticized sanctions as stifling key job-creating areas of the economy such as the garment industry rather than hurting the interests of the targets of the corrupted elite. The International Crisis Group(ICG)  has said the sanctions stifle  reform.

 

Human rights

A Boycott Burma campaign stated : “As a tourist to Burma you will travel on roads and railroads, see temples and palaces and stay in hotels built or rebuilt since 1988 which will definitely contain the dead bodies of the slave laborers who made them for you… If you go to Burma you pay to murder the people you visit.”

 
The army has used villagers as human minesweepers. The prisoners sentenced to ‘prison with hard labor’ are used as slaves and many die. Burmese soldiers, who provide security for the Yadana oil pipeline on behalf of the French company forced thousands of people to do heavy work in the pipeline area and to build police stations and barracks.

 

Reconciliation

The TBBC said: “Almost two thirds of households in rural areas of the South East are unable to meet their basic needs.” The TBBC statement said poverty is severe in the “conflict-affected areas of Northern Kayin State and Eastern Bago Region.”
A Burmese academic Maung Zarni said: “Pro-democracy crowds are also cut from the same racist ideological fabric as the military-dominated government.”

Burmese lessons for Sri Lanka?

Some Sri Lankans think that Burma has good lessons for their country. If these commentators think the nation consistently placed at number 190 in the human development league of shame could be an exemplar to anyone they seem determined to think the worst of Sri Lanka.
– See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/international/item/8966-reconciliation-in-burma.html#sthash.LPUswjZk.dpuf

 

THE SILENCE WITHIN

 

 

 

Written after a ten-day retreat at Dhamma Kuta meditation centre in Sri Lanka.

 

Bhikkhu – a Buddhist monk

Anicca (pronounced anitcha) – Pali word meaning impermanence, all things must pass.

 

 

A bhikkhu sneezes. Anicca. Bless you.

Inside the meditation hall, buttocks squirm,

Noses sniffle, throats tickle and phlegm.

Geckos squeak. Outside, temples and mosques

Decibel their faithful to prayer. Sirens police the roads.

Helicopters take the air highway to the war.

Semtex gouges rock from the earth. Rifles shoot wild boar.

A demon hectors on my left shoulder, mocking

My ambition of equanimity.

 

Dawn finds the valley obscured by clouds.

By noon mountains have materialised. Anicca.

Dusk reveals human dwellings climbing the valley,

Lights on top of mountains, the lit pathway to the top

Of Adam’s Peak. Sleep douses the lights. Anicca.

 

The angel on my right shoulder tells me

I cannot silence a sneeze, tame a gecko,

Much less stop the war. Phenomena beyond control.

Anicca. Observe the turmoil without, the flux within.

Search for the jewel of silence at the heart.

Bless us all. May all beings be happy.

 

 

Leonard Cohen, Smokin’, Drinkin’, Buddhist Jew

 

 

Colman's Column3I have recently been reading Sylvie Simmons’s excellent biography of Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man* .

 

According to the Montreal Mirror, Cohen, who first took an interest in Buddhism in 1960, was officially ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk on August 9, 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center, an old Boy Scout camp 6,500 feet above sea level, 55 miles from LA. He was given the Dharma name of ‘Jikan’ (Silent One).

 

cohen-meditating-mount-ba-007

Ms Simmons describes Cohen’s relationship with Buddhism and with his Zen Master Joshu Sasaki Roshi. For years, Cohen had been telling interviewers about his close friendship with Roshi, a monk from Japan famous for his supposedly rigorous style of Rinzai Zen. Leonard liked to tell people that Rinzai monks were “the marines of the spiritual world” with a regime “designed to overthrow a twenty year old”. Cohen was sixty when he decided to sign up full time.

 

sasaki

Reading Sylvie’s book, it struck me that Mount Baldy was an odd kind of Buddhist retreat. Cohen called it “A hospital for the broken hearted”. Further investigation showed me that Roshi was an odd kind of Buddhist.

 

Someone recently recommended that I go to a Buddhist meditation retreat in Sri Lanka where it was possible to eat meat and drink alcohol. Whatever happened to those precepts? Things have certainly changed since I went on a twelve-day retreat on my first visit to Sri Lanka in 2001. We were woken at four a.m. and had vegetarian breakfast at six. One was not allowed to have mobile phones, radios, i-pods, reading material, pens. There was a strictly enforced rule of noble silence. A fellow-meditator broke that rule to whisper to me: “I could murder a gin and tonic”. There was no food at all, let alone meat, after midday. Frugality got such a grip of me that I relished the nine p.m. plain tea as if it were a fine single malt.

 

How different life was on Mount Baldy! Simmons echoes Cohen in stressing the austerity of the regime at Mount Baldy. “It was Buddhist boot camp, grim, with all these broken young people trudging through the snow in walking meditation at three in the morning”. Monks hit meditators with sticks if they dozed off. She emphasises the simplicity of Cohen’s living quarters – a room nine feet square with no stereo, TV or radio. However, there was another room about the size of a walk-in wardrobe with a desk, an old Macintosh computer, some books, a bottle of liquor or two, and a Technics synthesiser. He had his own WC and coffee machine and could go and listen to CDs in his jeep. Roshi granted him a special dispensation to have a coffee and cigarette first thing in the morning. Sometimes he would drive to LA and have Filet-o-Fish at MacDonald’s, later washed down with wine while watching Jerry Springer on TV. Back at the monastery, Cohen was able to find time to write, draw and compose music on the synthesiser.

 

There was also female companionship for this renowned Ladies Man. There were nuns on Mount Baldy and Cohen admitted there were “certain erotic possibilities” but claimed that, because of his age, he “was no longer terribly active in that realm”. Chris Darrow, formerly of the group Kaleidoscope, who had worked with Cohen, lived in Claremont, the town at the foot of Mount Baldy, and saw Leonard in a Greek restaurant in the town, drinking coffee with a beautiful nun.

 

Cohen first met the guru in 1969 when Cohen was best man at a friend’s wedding at which Roshi officiated. According to Ms Simmons, Cohen was fascinated by the ceremony, especially the Ten Vows of Buddhism. He noted that the master ignored the vow relating to alcohol and consumed large amounts of sake. Cohen and Roshi spent a lot of time together over the years and alcohol featured in their relationship. Roshi was in the studio during the recording of Cohen’s 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. During the sessions, much ng ga pay was consumed. This sweet 70% proof Korean liqueur, reputed to be good for rheumatism , was a favourite tipple of Roshi. When Roshi was almost 100, Cohen treated him to a slab of beef tongue and a good cognac.

 

While Cohen was at Mount Baldy for an extended period, his assistant, Kelley Lynch was assiduously taking all his money. He dismissed her in 2004, claiming she had stolen $5m (£3.1m) from his personal accounts and investments and left him virtually penniless. The court found in his favour and ordered Lynch to pay him $9.5m, but her lawyers claimed she was unreachable, and she has never repaid the money or faced criminal charges. Lynch had to be legally restrained from harassing Cohen. She was a Buddhist, a follower of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche as was Neal Greenberg, the financier she had brought in to “manage” Leonard’s investments.

 

At the time I am writing this, Roshi still seems to be alive at the age of 107. It is now public knowledge that for decades he enticed, seduced, tricked or forced dozens of his western female acolytes into various forms of sexual service.

 

There is a reason for the Buddhist precept against alcohol. One thing leads to another – dependent origination. (Although it has to be admitted that there are teetotal, vegetarian marathon meditators who think they are arahats but are vicious to other humans on a regular basis.)he guru whose libido is out of control is also lying continually – covering up, maintaining appearances, saving face, intimidating others to do so. An entire community seemed to have failed many of the women who came to Roshi for guidance.

 

Susanna Stewart wrote to the Rinzai-Ji Board of Directors. “I first became a student of Sasaki Roshi in 1972 and continued until 1985, when I could no longer continue my relationship with him because of my experience of his persistent abuse of power in his efforts to destroy our marriage.” She claimed her husband wrote to the board about Roshi’s misconduct in 1993 and over time had spoken at great length about the matter. She said of the board’s denial of knowledge of the abuse, “I am shocked at this level of fabrication”. Leonard Cohen was a member of the board of directors.

 

Cohen succumbed to panic attacks and depression and left Mount Baldy to seek out a new guru, a Hindu one this time, in Bombay. I do not mock anyone for trying different ways of seeking the truth. Cohen had flirted with Scientology before finding Buddhism and claimed that he remained a Jew throughout his spiritual questing.

 

It not my intention to mock Buddhism. To follow the teachings of the Buddha is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, as with any religion or philosophy, it is possible to pervert or exploit Buddhism. I am fortunate to have the friendship of an eminent monk who is wise, compassionate and humorous and earns the respect of everyone through his tireless work for the community and his ecumenical approach to harmony with other faiths. However, I have also seen monks who have been too fond of fleshly pleasures and, in one case, ended up in prison.

 

I was interested to read that a government minister, Vasudeva Nanayakara, says that the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) should be proscribed by law for endangering religious harmony in Sri Lanka.
ss

 

*Now available in Vintage paperback.

Reconciliation in Burma

What’s in a name?

 
I generally like to call this South East Asian nation “Burma” rather than “Myanmar”. In doing so, I am in line with the US State Department: “Although the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) changed the name of the country to ‘Myanmar,’ the democratically elected but not convened Parliament of 1990 does not recognize the name change, and the democratic opposition maintains use of the name ‘Burma.’ Due to consistent, unyielding support for the democratically elected leaders, the U.S. Government likewise uses ‘Burma’.”

 
Burmese lessons for Sri Lanka?

 
That “State Peace and Development Council “ is the name the dictatorship gives itself. They have been giving a show recently of relaxing their grip somewhat. On July 30,  US Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats told the Washington International Trade Association: “My baseline scenario is they will continue to move in the direction of reform”.

 

 

President Thein Sein

The “new” government, led by President Thein Sein, a former military general, has started overhauling the country’s economy, easing media censorship, legalizing trade unions and protests and freeing political prisoners. The most prominent of those, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader, has been allowed to travel outside the country.

I have seen a  few bizarre  comments in the Sri Lankan media suggesting that the Sri Lankan should look to Burma for lessons on how to conduct itself. These commentators seem determined  to think the worst of Sri Lanka if they think the nation consistently  placed at number 190 in the human rights league of shame could be an exemplar to anyone.

 
“There has been one admirable quality among many Burmese leaders in the past and present, unlike in Sri Lanka. They were modest enough to admit failures. Ne Win himself declared that ‘Burmese socialism’ was a failure and stepped down in 1988. That led to continuous social upheavals asking for democracy.”

 

 

General Ne Win

So says Laksiri Fernando,  author of Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka writing in the Asian Tribune. Fernando can even see the bright side of  the ethnic conflicts in Burma: “There are thousands and thousands of internally displaced people in the country due to the ethnic conflict. No one calls the ethnic conflict a myth like in Sri Lanka!” Another great thing was, according to Fernando, that “no insurgency evolved into ruthless terrorism like in Sri Lanka”.

 

 

Colonial background

 
British rule in Burma lasted from 1824 to 1948, from the Anglo-Burmese Wars through the creation of Burma as a province of  British India. The First Anglo-Burmese War arose from friction between Arakan in western Burma and British-held Chittagong to the north. The British navy took Rangoon without a fight in 1824 but the war itself had cost 15,000 European and Indian troops and cost the equivalent of 48 billion US dollars of today. This caused a severe economic crisis for British India. In 1852, the Second Anglo-Burmese War was provoked by the British who wanted the teak forests in Lower Burma as well as a port between Calcutta and Singapore.

 

The Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 was because of the British desire to get their hands on the resources of the north. The British government justified their actions by claiming that the last independent king of Myanmar, Thibaw, was a tyrant and that he was conspiring to give France more influence in the country. After 25 years of peace fighting started again and lasted until the British occupied the whole of Lower Burma.

 

 

King Thibaw

The Third Anglo-Burmese War lasted less than two weeks during November 1885. British troops entered Mandalay on 28 November 1885 and Burma was incorporated into the British empire on 1 January 1886. The new colony of Upper Burma was attached to the Burma Province on 26 February 1886. Rangoon, having been the capital of British Lower Burma, became the capital of the province.

 
The British tied  Burmese economy to  global market forces and forced Burma to  become a part of the colonial export economy. Suddenly a large amount of Burmese resources were being exported for Britain’s benefit, thereby extracring the resources needed by the Burmese to continue living their lives as they had before colonisation. Vast tracts of land were converted  for cultivation of rice for export. Burmese farmers were forced to borrow money from Indian moneylenders at high interest rates prepare the new land for cultivation. This often led to the eviction of indigenous farmers and most jobs went to indentured Indian labourers.

 
An account by a British official describing the conditions of the Burmese people’s livelihoods in 1941 describes the Burmese hardships as they must quickly adapt to foreign trade:

 
“The peasant had grown factually poorer and unemployment had increased…. The collapse of the Burmese social system led to a decay of the social conscience which, in the circumstances of poverty and unemployment caused a great increase in crime.”

 
Burmese were excluded from the civil service and the military which were staffed by Indians, Anglo-Burmese and minority groups such as the Karens. The Burmese resented both the British and the Indian migrants, and staged guerrilla warfare, often led by former Burmese army officers, against the British army of occupation.

 
The British rulers imposed a separation of church and state and exiled King Thibaw. This was a way of imposing direct control. The monarchy had supported the sangha and the Buddhist monks were dependent on the monarchy and explained the monarchy to the public. The imperial power introduced a secular education system and encouraged Christian missionaries to found schools Buddhism and traditional Burmese culture were discouraged as part of a plan to deprive the  Burmese people of a cultural unity separate from the British.

 

 

Resistance continued in northern Burma until 1890, with the British systematically destroying villages. Grass-roots control was exercised by burning villages and uprooting established families regarded as disloyal. Dissent was suppressed by  mass executions.

 
Independence

 
An independence movement emerged in the early 20th century, initially led by monks and students. A nationalist movement began to take shape in the form of Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA). Between 1900 and 1911 the “Irish Buddhist” U Dhammaloka  (a hobo variously known as Laurence Carroll, Laurence O’Rourke and William Colvin or “Captain Daylight”, who was probably born in Dublin in 1850) publicly challenged Christianity and imperial power, leading to two trials for sedition.

 

 

U Dhammaloka

By the 1930s a new radical movement known as the Thakin was formed. Its leading figures included Aung San, U Nu and Ne Win. They began to look to neighbouring powers to help break the yoke of British rule. One student, Ko Aung Kyaw, was beaten to death by British colonial police in the third Rangoon University student boycott in December 1938. Students had been supporting striking oil workers. In Mandalay,  police shot into a crowd of protesters led by Buddhist monks, killing 17 people.

 

 

Aung San

Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, sought support for the Burmese independence struggle from Japan. Japan invaded Burma in 1942 but never succeeded in fully conquering the whole country. On 1 August 1943, the Japanese declared Burma to be an independent nation. Aung San was appointed War Minister. He became disillusioned with the Japanese. One of his followers told General Slim:  ‘If the British sucked our blood, the Japanese ground our bones!’ When the British defeated the Japanese Aung San was offered the rank of Deputy Inspector General of the Burma Army, but he declined and became the civilian political leader and the military leader of the People’s Volunteer Organisation (PVO).

 

He was assassinated on 19 July 1947 Former prime minister U Saw was tried and hanged. A number of middle-ranking British army officers were also were tried and imprisoned. There were rumours of higher-level British involvement, and/or involvement by Ne Win Aung San’s long-term rival.

 

U Saw with Lord Halifax

Dictatorship

For most of its existence as an independent nation, Burma has been a military dictatorship. There were sporadic protests against military rule during the Ne Win years and these were almost always violently suppressed. In 1974, the military violently suppressed anti-government protests at the funeral of U Thant, Burmese UN General Secretary. Student protests in 1975, 1976 and 1977 were quickly suppressed by overwhelming force.

 

 

General   Saw Maung

In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression led to  pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators.  General   Saw Maung staged a coup and established SLORC – the State Law and Order Restoration council. In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years and the NLD – National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 80% of the seats. SLORC  continued to rule until 1997, and then ruled as the SPDC until March 2011.

 
Ethnic conflict

 
Pace Mr Fernando,  analyst Martin Smith believes “Burma has been the scene of some of the most-sustained and diverse ethnic insurgencies in the contemporary world… conflict resolution––with integrated support from the international community––remains a primary need if Burma and its peoples are to achieve peace, democracy, and a stable nation-state.” There are 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Burma. Martin Smith writes: “In the deep mountains and forests of the borderland periphery, over 20 armed opposition groups controlled, under their own administrations, vast swathes of territory and continued to reflect an often changing alignment of different political or nationality causes.”

 
The Thailand Burma Border Consortium’s (TBBC) annual report on conditions in South East  Burma “found that more people had been forcibly displaced from their homes during the past year than any other since data was first collected in 2002.” Jack Dunford, the TBBC’s Executive Director, said: “A determined and sustained effort to resolve ethnic conflict in Burma is essential to avoid another generation of violence and abuse.” In recent years the TBBC’s and its partner agencies have documented “the destruction, forced relocation or abandonment of more than 3,700 civilian settlements in South East Burma since 1996.” The TBBC statement estimated that during the past year at least 112,000 people were forced to abandon their homes. “While some fled into Thailand as part of an ongoing flow of new refugee arrivals and others returned to former villages or resettled elsewhere in Burma, over 450,000 people currently remain internally displaced in the south eastern region.”

 

Mr Dunford said that while democratic reforms by the “new” government are both vital and welcomed but conflict has increased in ethnic areas.

 
Muslims

 
Even though some wish to be optimistic about Burma, oppression of minorities hits the headlines even today. Burma has a  substantial Muslim population, known as  Rohingyas, of 800,000. Rohingyas have been subjected to persecution for decades. According to Amnesty International, 200,000 of them fled to Bangladesh in 1978 to escape a brutal military operation. Another  250,000 went into exile in 1991-92. The refugees complained of rape, persecution and forced labour by the military. Another 100,000 fled to Thailand, but were forced to leave for camps along the border. Although the Rohingyas have lived in Burma since the eight century they are regarded as illegal immigrants with no rights. A 56-page report released Wednesday by Human rights Watch  group called for strong international reaction to “atrocities” committed during last month’s bloody unrest between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingyas, which left 78 people dead and about 100,000 homeless.

 
Recently a foreign journalist asked Aung Sang Suu Kyi whether she regarded Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. “I do not know. We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.” This can be translated as “I won’t get any votes by defending a minority group”.

 
US involvement

 

The US had  accepted Burma as one of the original beneficiaries of its Generalized System of Preference (GSP) program in 1976. It also granted Burma Most Favored Nation (MFN, now referred to as Normal Trade Relations, or NTR) status, and supported the provision of developmental assistance by international financial institutions.

 

There were also close military to military relations (including a major International Military Education and Training [IMET] programme) until 1988. The implementing of sanctions on Burma did not begin until after the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) brutally suppressed a peaceful, popular protest that has become known as the 8888 Uprising. Starting in the fall of 1987, popular protests against the military government sprang up throughout Burma, reaching a peak in August 1988.

 

Washington recently lifted some  financial and investment sanctions in response to nascent democratic reforms but has retained the ban on imports — a restriction that a US Senate committee this month said should be extended by three years.

 

Garment industry

 
Prior to the passage of Customs and Trade Act of 1990, the Bush pére Administration had suspended Burma’s eligibility for the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program on April 13, 1989. President Bush also designated Burma as a drug-producing and/or drug-trafficking country under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 on February 28, 1990, which required the United States to oppose loans to Burma by international financial institutions.

 

Today, optimists on Burma have criticised sanctions as stifling key job-creating areas of the economy such as the garment industry rather than hurting the interests of the corrupt elite it targets. The
International Crisis Group(ICG)  think-tank is well-known to Sri Lankans. Although it has called for sanctions on Sri Lanka it opposes them on the far worse regime in Burma. It says Myanmar’s reform process had challenged “the dominance” of crony businessmen, who flourished under the disbanded junta, and nudged the economy towards greater openness at the expense of some key hardliners.

 

ICG warned that renewing the US import embargo, due to lapse this year, “could have a serious impact on Myanmar’s economic recovery”. ICG believes the  ban is skewing the nation’s economy towards “potentially problematic” extractive industries at the expense of sectors that employ large numbers of ordinary people.

 

Resources

 
Burma is cursed by being a resource-rich country. Burma’s GDP stands at $42.953 billion and grows at an average rate of  only 2.9% ICG believes that current sanctions will skew the economy towards extractive industries such as oil, gas and gem mining which have long been linked with corruption and also raise fears over environmental damage.

 

Human rights

 
The UN and several other organizations have reported consistent and systematic  human rights violations in Burma including child labour and human trafficking. After Hurricane Nargis devastated the country international NGOs feared that the reconstruction effort would depend on forced labour – be it from children or migrant adult workers. The Tatmadaw  routinely forces civilians to work on state infrastructure projects, such as the building of roads, bridges, military bases or even towns.

 

When friends have enthused about the joys of Burma as a tourist destination I have responded that I could  not be comfortable in a hotel that had been built by slaves. A Boycott Burma campaign stated : “As a tourist to Burma you will travel on roads and railroads, see temples and palaces and stay in hotels built or rebuilt since 1988, which will definitely contain the dead bodies of the slave labourers who made them for you… I never met anyone going to Burma since 1988 to help the people there. Only selfish, ignorant people on holiday who want to see for themselves. See what? Burmese used as human landmine detectors? Burmese slave labour camps? Burmese people dead in piles in the no man’s land? If you go to Burma, you pay to murder the people you visit.”
The army has  used  villagers as human minesweepers to clear the way for the safe passage of soldiers. Convicts are used as forced labour. It is estimated that as many as 20 percent of prisoners sentenced to “prison with hard labour” die as a consequence of the conditions of their detention. It has been reported that at least 91 labour camps operate in areas across the country .

 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that there may be more than 70,000 child soldiers in the SPDC Army. The children are often kidnapped without their parents’ knowledge while on their way home from school. They are then brutalised and physically abused during their induction and basic training before being shipped off to fight in the country’s ethnic states. “Child soldiers are sometimes forced to participate in human rights abuses, such as burning villages and using civilians for forced labour,” said HRW. “Those who attempt to escape or desert are beaten, forcibly re-recruited or imprisoned.”

 


Back in 2009, The Independent reported that Burmese soldiers, who provide security for the Yadana oil pipeline on behalf of the French company, Total, are forcing thousands of people to work portering, carrying wood and repairing roads in the pipeline area. They have also been forced to build police stations and barracks.
Reconciliation

 

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? With poverty, inequality and racism,  there will always be conflict.
In a media statement the TBBC said: “While government figures estimate that a quarter of the nation live in poverty, the survey found that almost two thirds of households in rural areas of the South East are unable to meet their basic needs.” The TBBC statement said poverty severe in the “conflict-affected areas of northern Kayin State and eastern Bago Region.”

 

Jack Dunford said: “As prospects for the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons are directly linked to national reconciliation, the urgency of finding a solution to conflict in Burma has never been greater.”

THE PRESS | Music Reviews

Click Header to Return Home

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -

HoaxEye

A fake image is worth zero words

Poet's Corner

Poems, poets, poetry, writing, poetry challenges

Casual, But Smart

Pop Culture From An Old Soul

PN Review Blog

‘The most engaged, challenging and serious-minded of all the UK’s poetry magazines’ - Simon Armitage

The Manchester Review

The Manchester Review

Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Stephen Jones: a blog

Daoism—lives—language—performance. And jokes

Minal Dalal

The Human Academy