A Talk with Win Zaw – Burma

A Talk with Win Zaw

“They are so young when they join the tatmadaw (Burmese military). They have no education. Sometimes they are forced to sign up. They learn by being punished brutally and they learn to punish each other. They are ruled by fear and they rule by fear.”

Win Zaw paused to let his shapely sentences sink in. He fixed his robes across his shoulder and poured tea from a thermos.

I am in Pyin U Lyin, sitting under a small, shaky bamboo pavilion. A golden pagoda rises behind me, and a statue of the Buddha sits calmly on the coil of a hooded snake. The snake’s head arches above the buddha’s head, thrashing its tongue menacingly at any malevolent spirit who dares approach.

I am in the company of Win Zaw, guardian monk of this sacred space on the outskirts of town. I wandered in thinking it was somewhere else, and Win Zaw was sweeping leaves from under a banyon tree. He welcomed me as if he were expecting me, shaking my hand firmly and smiling warmly, the wrinkles around his eyes the only sign to betray middle age. Like many older Burmese men, he retains a look of youth and vitality, his sinewy body taut and muscular.

Within minutes Win Zaw was soon drawing the contours of reality onto my very green tourist map. When he paused, he smoked his cheroot, the locally made cigarette handmade by women with the dexterity of concert pianists.

“When princes ruled the country, only the rich got educated and the people remained poor,” he continued. “Now it is the same. Only there is more fear. Between 1948 and 1962 we had democracy. People were happy, public transport ran on time, there was optimism in the country.”

After the assassination of Aung San, revolutionary hero and father of Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, the task of trying to steady the lurching fortunes of the country fell onto U Nu. It was a heavy burden. Burma is home to over twenty major ethnic groups and 100 distinct languages and dialects. U Nu struggled to keep the faction fighting under control while the country tried to find its democratic feet after 60 years of colonial rule and centuries of feudal tradition.

The country was in such turmoil that a military coup in 1962 was easily accomplished, headed by General Ne Win and his 100,000-strong army. Compared to what would follow, maybe Win Zaw’s rose-tinted view of democratic perfection is understandable. By the early 1970s every aspect of Burmese life was nationalised under the spurious banner of “The Burmese Way to Socialism.” This particular path enforced isolation from the world, collapsed the economy, nurtured a mushrooming black market and outlawed any political opposition.

In the 1980s, four different units of currency were demonitised, without compensation for the most part. Increasing hardship and a prophecy that the auspicious date of August 8, 1988, would liberate the country spurred thousands to take to the streets. And thousands died. The peaceful demonstrations were brutally quashed by the tatmadaw. Within a year, a newly monickered government, State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) had established martial law and defiantly acknowledged ownership of the country by changing its name to the Union of Myanmar.

In the 1990s, the persecution of the people increased. Armed ranks swelled in size to 300,000. As the tatmadaw spread its clutches deeper into the country, it muscled thousands into labour and human portering to build roads and buildings. It forcibly relocated whole communities to quell political activism. If any of the residents returned to their villages, they were shot on sight. Rape became an institutionalised weapon.

Arbitrary taxes and protection money are squeezed from a people on the brink of starvation. And the prices of rice and oil, the staples of the Burmese diet, steadily go through the roof because of artificially created shortages.

“There are many things that we have heard about in this country,” said Win Zaw calmly. “Air mail, human rights, health care, education, free speech. We have heard of these things but we have never tasted them.”

I brought up an often-quoted observation about the Burmese with Win Zaw that their deeply-believed Buddhism contributes to their fate. According to their religion, they must accept their lot in this life to atone for sins in previous lives. What must be, must be. Win Zaw shot back immediately. “The people are religious, yes. But they are sick of this regime. They are sick of being poor and hungry. What is stopping them is not their religion. They have no means of entering politics, they cannot even talk to one another about the situation, the country is full of spies. And so many have no education. Many join the army thinking that it is GOOD for their country.”

On saying these words Win Zaw raised a hand, as if I had broached some unimpeachable boundary. I followed his gaze over my shoulder to realise that his gesture was merely to stall the conversation, to receive two guests who were approaching us from behind me.

The Burmese girls slipped off their flip-flops before stepping under the bamboo roof and bowed low to the monk. He motioned them to rise and sit on the bench before him. I sat there stuck, not wanting to be there but not wanting to make an awkward exit either. I was glad of the break, however. Win Zaw’s epigrammatic descriptions of horror and repression had blitzed my brain.

Both girls wore long floral patterned skirts and thanaka streaked across their cheeks. They began to talk, explaining something of obvious importance. Something had changed in Win Zaw’s demeanor. His lip twitched, making him appear to momentarily snarl. He listened to the girls carefully and began to reply with the slow deliberation of a teacher, explaining the workings of a problem.

Although I could not understand his Burmese, there was no mistaking the change of voice register: it was clipped, authoritative. To aid his explanation, he slowly rubbed his index fingers together, as if describing the meeting of opposing forces. He could have been talking about magnets or marriage: I had no idea how to interpret the body language or tone.

The girls listened intently, hands on lap, demure. When he finished, they bowed low again and left without acknowledgement of my presence.

I asked him whether he often received visits such as these, my question implying a desire to know what was discussed. “Never,” came the reply, lost in thought. Silence descended, both of us in very different worlds. Suddenly, with an air of finality, “They are my tenants. I told them that they can either buy my house or leave by the beginning of March.”

The theme of evicting landlord was not something I expected to arise from my conversation with Win Zaw. Confused that a monk should own property and beg for his dinner every day, I suddenly found myself unable to pry further, foundering on territory that I did not know how to negotiate. I nervously dropped the topic completely by focusing on his tattoos.

His face lit up, as if relieved of a burden. “Those are the teachings of the Buddha,” he said smiling, as we both traced the fading hieroglyphic streams trickling down both arms. “In tattoos are a sign of courage. They are very painful! So the more tattoos a man has, the more he is brave!”

I wondered which was more important, the bravery or the holy messages that bravery brought. How did he like being a monk?

“I like it now. When I do not like it, I will leave.”

“Is it that easy?”, I asked ignorantly, my mind more in Catholic Ireland than in Buddhism.

“Of course. You become a monk if it feels right. If it doesn’t, you leave.”

At any one time five percent of the male population are monks, though fewer women enter convents. Because of the constant traffic between religious and secular lives, it is impossible to gauge the exact amount at any one time.

“I was not always a monk,” he explained matter of factly. “I was married. I have two sons, grown now. My wife and I no longer live together, we received a separation. She lives in the south. I became a tailor. Later, I was a tour guide, but then I decided I must change my life. I have provided for my family but now I no longer see them.

“To be a monk is difficult. You must leave all your possessions and desires behind. You must beg for your food. You may accept charity but never ask for it. If you have no place to stay, you may not ask someone. They must offer it to you. We can ask only for food, nothing else. In the beginning it was very hard. I missed my family and the comforts of life. To live the life of a monk as the Buddha did is nearly impossible as you deny yourself in every way.

The Buddha’s followers asked him how many people would follow in his footsteps. The Buddha picked up a tiny piece of earth on his fingernail and said that only this portion of all the earth in the world would follow his footsteps. Monks who achieve such incredible heights of self denial and prayer become national heroes. Their faces with their sunken cheeks and harsh serenity adorn restaurants and buses along with pictures of famous holy sites.”

“Do you have good friends who are monks?”

“Monks are like everyone else. Many are lazy, gossipy and mean. Some I like. There are spies among the monks too, so it is not possible to trust everyone. But some do good. A monk in another town was the only person who gave The Lady a place to speak when she visited there. He said that, as a monk, he answers only to Buddha, so he let her speak.”

The Lady is, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi. She had returned from married life in England to look after her dying mother not long before the 1988 uprisings. She soon became a spokesperson of the National League for Democracy and the spiritual figurehead for the democratic movement. In a democratically-contested election in 1990, the NLD took 392 seats out of a possible 485. The tatmadaw outlawed the result and imprisoned many of the political activists. Aung San Suu Kyi was made Chairperson of the party.

She was promptly placed under house arrest, a fate she has suffered on and off until 2002. So dedicated is she to the peaceful transition to a democracy that she had to let her husband die of cancer in England without seeing him. She would not have been let back into the country if she went to his deathbed and the democratic hopes of over 50 million people would have been extinguished. Only her presence and the international spotlight placed upon her keeps these possibilities alive. She is called The Lady because the people are not allowed to speak about her.

As Win Zaw and I talked under the fading light, a young boy, maybe 12, approached us wearing an outsized combat jacket and tracksuit bottoms. He was grinning and had a wild look in his eyes. He appeared as if he were drugged. Win Zaw barked at him, an unmistakable order to get lost. The boy’s face fell and he skulked off, turning around to look at us, hurt, as he left.

I was startled. He was just a kid, and this, after all, was a holy temple. “He’s probably homeless. The tatmadaw pick up kids like him and turn them into slaves.” Yet you turned him away, I thought to myself, again confronting a side of this man at odds with his robes.

It was getting late. We had sat under the pavilion for nearly five hours. Win Zaw had wrapped himself in his robes like a swaddling baby and I was rubbing my sunburn to generate warmth. Win Zaw said he would walk me down the road, but first he must light the pagoda. “It is the rule. We have many rules – how to drive, how to live.” He turned to switch the lights on, but looked back mischievously. “Many rules, but only in the book.”

We walked down the road. Large Isuzu trucks thundered past, scattering the cyclists to the edge of the road and coughing up clouds of dust. “Military trucks,” said Win Zaw absently. Their presence seemed to focus his mind. “Always remember how lucky you are, Sean. In the West you have the key – you can change things if you desire.” I remained silent, unable to answer.

We were at the bridge. Its symbolic significance did not escape me even then. It increased my difficulty in saying goodbye. Win Zaw said simply, “Sean, you must excuse me.” He shook my hand and left, leaving me to walk over the bridge, avoiding cyclists in the dusty dark.

I felt that I had been privy to a unique experience with an extraordinary, though contradictory man. I was later to learn, however, that Win Zaw is a quite a tourist attraction, visited by many. It makes sense.

The history lessons delivered in soundbytes were the result of controlled practice. He had the winning charm of the politician, a characteristic at odds with his robes, which demanded silence and solitude. I do not question Win Zaw’s religious belief, but I am sure that were The Lady to assume power in the morning, he would discard his robes for the double-breasted armour of democratic office. I think that becoming a monk was, for him, the ultimate political statement. The man of prayer answers to Buddha only. The tumeric coloured robes and vow of poverty were the most potent protest that Win Zaw could throw at the government he hated – a silent scream. The coiled serpent who guarded the Buddha has earthly enemies to contend with after all.

After leaving Win Zaw that evening I walked back into town to get something to eat. Graduation families in their good clothes paraded along the street with their officer sons, savouring the feeling of being on holidays. They looked like decent people. Mothers and fathers appeared stiff walking down a strange street with no other purpose than the pleasure of it. Girlfriends were smiling and pretty. The boys were cleancut and deferential to their elders. Good boys, polite boys. What can anyone say to these people? The truth? Congratulations, Madam: Your son has just graduated to be a bona fide instrument of terror. No. You keep your mouth shut and say nothing at all.


Traveler Article

Leave a Comment