The Monk Revolution
We were walking barefoot up Mandalay Hill, to see the sunset over Myanmar’s second largest city, when two monks saw us and stopped in their tracks. By then I was used to being stared at, and Denzil, with his black skin, was always a visual feast in Southeast Asia.
“Say hello,” I nudged Denzil, and he greeted the wonderstruck monks with a smile and the musical Burmese greeting “Mingalaba.”
“Mingalaba!” Grins spread like sunshine over their brown faces. “What country do you come from?”
“The U.S.? Both of you?” They were incredulous, as most people were.
“I was born in the U.S.,” I explained, “but my parents are from China. And he’s from Jamaica but now lives in the U.S.”
“I thought you were a Burmese girl,” the shorter monk told me. “I was barking up the wrong tree. It’s once in a blue moon we meet someone from Jamaica. You look like a footballer,” he said to Denzil. “You are the cream of the crop.”
At this point, Denzil and I were in stitches at the garrulousness of this young monk.
“Where did you learn English?” Denzil asked them. “You speak it so well!”
“Oh, I’m still wet behind my ears,” the taller monk said.
“We take classes every day,” the shorter monk said. “We love to practice and shoot the breeze with foreigners.” He introduced himself as Vijananda and his friend as Dhammapala.
We had met many young people in Myanmar who were taking English classes and who loved meeting foreigners to practice. But these two monks loved idioms. They used all kinds of sayings, some of which weren’t even in use anymore. “Our names are a tall order to remember. Your names are easy-peasy.”
We had reached the top of the hill, which was teeming with tourists dashing around with cameras and tripods waiting for that most cliché moment: the sunset.
Vijananda shook his head gravely. He was a strikingly photogenic monk, tanned skin and shaved head against his burgundy robes, with delicate features and a perpetually solemn expression. “Foreigners take so many pictures. They don’t talk to anyone or see anything, just take pictures.”
Ashamed, I left my camera in my bag, while Denzil had wandered off to grab the photo op. Vijananda continued, “Foreigners say Myanmar is such a nice country, everybody always smiling. But they don’t know inside we are crying.”
This was a frankness I hadn’t encountered in Myanmar. An honest criticism of the ignorance of many travelers in the country, and an admission that Burmese people suffered in silence. I, too, was guilty of having marveled at the Burmese welcoming smile. Left mostly untouched by mass tourism, the smiles I encountered in this country seemed pure, unlike the tourist-hardened, money-hungry smiles of its neighboring countries.
We were soon joined by a dozen more monks and non-monks. All seemed to go to the same English class and to use Mandalay’s main tourist sites as hunting grounds for English-speaking tourists. They were getting a lot of mileage out of the English expressions they had learned from their teacher.
“We have to practice to become top banana,” Lamin told us. He was an eager fellow, outspoken and funny.
“Cream of the crop,” another echoed.
The sky had faded from fiery orange to a steadily deepening dark. The tourists were descending with their cameras.
Our monks walked us to the bottom. We agreed to visit a village, Mingun, the next day with Vijananda, Dhammapala, and Lamin.
The next morning, we wandered around Mingun with our new friends. They taught us useful phrases in Burmese and answered our endless questions about Myanmar.
During our stroll, Vijananda turned to us and asked in a guarded voice, not without some intensity, “Do you know the lady?”
“The daughter…” He didn’t want to say her name.
“You mean Aung San Suu Kyi?” I asked him. He nodded quickly, looking around to see if anyone was listening.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is run by a hateful military dictatorship, ironically called the State Peace and Development Council, that tightly controls and represses its people. Burmese live with no freedom, no information (there are no newspapers in Myanmar, much less the internet), in abject poverty and a severe time warp while countries around them progress. They dream of a way to escape. Burmese are very careful not to speak about politics because government spies are not uncommon. “The lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the father of Burma’s independence, and leader of the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in a 1990 general election. But the military regime refused to honor the election results, and placed her and many other dissidents under house arrest. As the thugs in the military crush democracy at every turn, the people are suffering from malnutrition, lack of water and sanitation, forced displacement, forced labor, torture, and arrest.
Visitors to Myanmar wonder about how life is for people under the regime. The image the government gives is of a happy and beautiful country. Ridiculous beer posters show beautiful Burmese women in situations that are alien to them in real life: holding a saxophone, hiking, boxing, having a drink in a fancy restaurant. The ubiquitous karaoke videos show lovestruck couples cavorting in gardens and beaches. But what is life really like for these deeply traditional people? It’s a mystery travelers leave with, because the locals usually can’t or won’t talk about such things. Foreigners can only visit a handful of places and we can only speculate about places on the restricted list.
Our friends wanted to talk politics. Nothing earth shattering, but they wanted to share their discontentment, their situation.
“What do you think needs to happen for there to be change?” I asked them, curious what these peaceful Buddhists might answer.
“We want to build a library,” Lamin replied without hesitation. Denzil and I blinked at this quick and unexpected answer. “We have books, maybe 200 books altogether. People can borrow and share the books. We can talk and learn together. We can even try to write a book, maybe have a newsletter.”
Innocent enough, I thought, but organizing and unity are two essential ingredients in any movement. Such an enterprise, however, would be nearly impossible in the current situation.
“Please come to our monastery tonight,” Dhammapala asked us shyly. “We can talk more there.”
That night, Denzil and I made our way through Mandalay’s night market and dark streets until we found the monastery. We were ushered inside and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by about 50 monks grouped around a very serene, smiling monk. His name was Kovida. He was the famous English teacher, lover of idioms, mentor of monks. We sat down and answered Kovida’s many questions, while all the monks listened intently to the interview.
“By the way,” Kovida said causally, “we sometimes have discussions here. We like to have foreigners participate in our discussions.” He raised his eyebrows as he emphasized the last word, and we nodded in understanding. My skin prickled as if the walls had ears.
We went into another, more private building. Mosquitoes were thick in the air and many monks covered their heads with their maroon robes. Kovida sat at the center of a circle. There was a moment of silence. Denzil and I exchanged a glance, wondering how a clandestine revolutionary meeting of monks would proceed.
Kovida told us they must first say a prayer. The monks bowed their foreheads to the ground and chanted in unison. Then Kovida asked us to say something.
Denzil cleared his throat nervously. “Um, first of all, I think it’s important that you have these meetings and that you invite foreigners to talk about these things.”
Kovida nodded. “We don’t like foreigners who just come to buy souvenirs and take pictures, but don’t talk to us, don’t care about us. We are monks. We are not violent people. We want a peaceful solution.”
With this, he turned to the monk on his right and spoke in Burmese. The monk read from a piece of paper and turned the floor to the crowd. Since most of the monks there didn’t speak English, what followed was a lively, sometimes heated discussion, of which we only understood two words: United Nations. After an endless half-hour, I turned to Vijananda beside me and asked him for a translation.
“They’re discussing the name of our library,” he whispered. Apparently, one monk was dead set on naming it the UN.
So that was that. The political meeting was a planning session for a pipe-dream institution in an envisioned better society. It wasn’t what we had expected, but the intense involvement of everyone present was inspiring and provided me with another precious insight on Myanmar.
Finally Kovida brought the meeting back to English. He asked for my advice.
I told them their library was a great idea and that they should try to get as many people involved in making change as possible. And that I, although just one small person, would try to see what could be done from the outside. Petitions, calling politicians, boycotting multinationals working in Burma, spreading the word…I was filled with hope before these fifty young men who were looking to me for help. If international pressure had resulted in an independent East Timor, something could be done here.
“Please tell people about Myanmar. Tell them to visit our monastery and help us.”
I promised I would tell as many people as I could.
Hours later, we emerged famished and exhausted from the monastery. Vijananda, Lamin, Dhammapala, and Kovida accompanied us to an all-night teashop for some fried rice and Chinese tea.
As we said our good-byes, I felt a complex surge of fear and aching hope for these beautiful monks who were doing what they could to dream and improve their plight. As always, words were inadequate to tell them what I wanted to say. So I showed them my crossed fingers, and said, “Do you know this is? It means – “
But Vijananda beat me to it. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you,” he said, smiling. And this time I knew what lay behind the smile.