The world is filled with stories. Stories about kings. Stories about love. Stories about life. Stories about the never-ending race in which we all chase our tails to acquire these things. There is a small country in southeast Asia known as Burma. I knew little or nothing about Burma two years ago. This is my story.
In the summer of 2007, a good friend traveled to Burma with his brother Bill and Bill’s wife, Pam. (Burma’s military junta, the State Peace & Development Council, renamed Burma as Myanmar several years ago in an attempt to rid itself of bad karma. It likewise changed the name of country’s largest city, Rangoon, to Yangon.) They went simply to discover an Asia untainted by golden arches, Coke, and other Western vestiges. When I say Steve was a good friend, I mean he was the kind of guy you’d see every few months and have a meaningful conversation as if you’d just seen each other yesterday, and then not speak again for several months. You hug Steve, you don’t shake his hand. Steve, Bill, and Pam were great intrepid travelers who’d book the front end of their trip, as well as an exit strategy, but leave the middle relatively open to chance and possibility. Despite the fact that Burma had been under the heavy hand of an oppressive military regime since 1962, this was a trip ripe with possibilities.
Following a brief Japanese occupation, Burma gained its independence after World War II. Burma was liberated by the British, who had previously colonized the country. Burma enjoyed a brief window of independence from 1947 to 1962, when the government was overthrown by the military, which has remained in power ever since. In 1990, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was elected Prime Minister by a landslide. Her victory was never recognized by the junta and she has been under house arrest or imprisoned for most of the time since her election. She is currently in Rangoon’s Insein Prison and on August 11 was sentenced to an addition eighteen months because of “a violation of the terms of her house arrest” after an uninvited guest trespassed on her property in May.
Steve, Bill, and Pam explored the cities and villages of Burma. They traveled upriver, as far as it was safe to go. Westerners are welcome, more or less, but both access and information are limited. Locals were mostly unwilling to speak freely. Internet cafes smelled of paranoia. Limited two years ago, Web access is almost nonexistent today. When it comes to freedom of either the press or the Internet, Burma is at the bottom of the list.
On the final day of their trip, the trio visited the 2500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. The group spent the entire day there, as many do. It is an immense golden pagoda with some of the country’s oldest and most cherished Buddhas and other relics. There are many quiet areas for peaceful meditation, and numerous monks and nuns walk the grounds. It was here Steve met U Agga Nya Na. Agga, a young Buddhist monk, spent more than two hours talking with our friends about life in Burma under the military junta. Agga shared his story at great risk, as the military comes down hard on anyone who speaks out against it. At this time, the government was raising the prices of food staples, and its Orwellian oppression was making it nearly impossible for an already impoverished nation to get by. Following their heartfelt exchange, Steve offered his card to Agga and told him to contact him if there was ever anything he could do. The following day, Steve left for Wisconsin.
In September 2007 thousands of people marched in peaceful protest in Burma’s streets, reacting to a 500% hike in fuel costs enacted by the military to cover salary raises. Remarkably, tens of thousands of monks also marched in what has become known as “The Saffron Revolution” because of strikingly colorful images of monks’ robes flowing down Rangoon streets. The monks sent a powerful message to the world by “turning over the alms bowls.” With this single gesture, the monks firmly conveyed that the situation was so dire, and the military’s actions so unthinkable, that they were being cut off from the possibility of good karma. Burma’s population is more than 90% Buddhist and monks are held in the highest regard. Giving alms to the monks, even by military personnel, is one of the most common and significant karmic deeds in which one engages. Overturning their alms bowlswas a devastating signal as well as the one and only activist activity in which monks are allowed to engage.
The military responded by beating, killing, and imprisoning thousands of monks. Monasteries were raided. Monks and nuns who didn’t flee were taken away and often not heard from again. Many remain missing and imprisoned today. Many others fled the country, sometimes resurfacing in Thailand refugee camps along the border. Agga ran to one of these camps.
Several months after they met, Steve received a call from Agga, who was distraught and explained in broken English that he needed help. His monastery had been raided and everyone was gone. He was on the run and in danger of being killed. Mind you, he and Steve had only spoken that one day for two hours several months prior to the Saffron Revolution. Steve was in Mexico on a family vacation when he got the call asking for help from a soul with whom he connected from the other side of the world. What would you do?
Over the following days Steve arranged to transfer money to a safe resource in Burma or Thailand to help Agga get to Mae Sot, one of the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. The refugee camps have been there for many years. Around the time of the first student-led protests in 1988 there was a large migration toward the border. Burmese citizens are not allowed to leave the country and are not welcome in Thailand. However, tens of thousands of refugees fill each of the camps. Some have lived in refugee camps their whole lives. Conditions are grim, as one might imagine. The monks had to travel at night, in disguise, and cover several hundred miles on foot.
Steve made arrangements to return to Burma. He also kept a bunch of us up to date on this stuff via email. There was a bit of coverage on CNN and the BBC regarding the protests, but Burma had been off my radar for a while. To be honest, Steve’s emails did not resonate with me much, just as this story may not with you. That would come later.
Steve and Bill traveled to the Thai-Burma border and reunited with Agga at Mae Sot. They discussed plans to bring Agga to the U.S. and kept us updated. Months later, I heard that several monks were being relocated to somewhere in the upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley, where I live. Now I started to pay attention.
It turns out that 3500 Burmese refugees have moved to the Utica area during the last three or four years. There are also Burmese communities in Buffalo, Ft. Wayne, Atlanta, Austin, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), and several other cities. Four monks have arrived in Utica over the past year, and one of those monks happened to be Agga. Three weeks after Agga’s January arrival, Steve came to our house for a new kind of reunion.
Since that fateful weekend, my family has become very close with the Burmese Buddhist monks. We see one another and share meals together often. I have been reading a lot about Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi, and have become quite engaged. When worlds collide gently and meaningfully like this, it’s easy to go with the flow, so to speak.