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A Burmese Monk Speaks Out Against the Government

"I think I was happiest when I was a child in my village with my parents," S___*, a 25-year-old monk, told me. "That was before I came to [city name], got an education, and learned about the country, the people, and the situation [in Myanmar]. Now I cannot be happy."

I met S___ at a pagoda on my first night in [city name]. My friend Dave stuck up a conversation with him and, because of S___'s good English and friendly personality, we became friends.

Initially, the most remarkable thing about S___ was his willingness to discuss the government situation in Myanmar, a topic that's strictly off limits with most people. On that first evening, S___ spoke at length about the country's poor economic state, the troubles his sister had in financing medical school, the uprising in 1988, and the sorry salaries of everyday people in Myanmar.

On the following night Dave and I rode a trishaw through the dark, bustling streets of [city name] to visit S___'s monastery. An older monk ushered us through the monastery's weathered concrete gates. "S___ is a very wise man," he said.

S___ lived in a small house across a courtyard from the main classrooms and living quarters. He was reading a newspaper when we arrived. Happy to see us, he gave us a tour of the monastery, introduced us to his friends, and treated us to tea and cakes at a nearby tea shop.

I arranged to return to the monastery the following day to have lunch and then interview S___ on camera.

"There's no reason why Myanmar people should be so poor," S___ said. "This country has many natural resources – teak wood, gems, rice. The country is rich. The government makes us poor. "

S___'s chief criticism was with the state of education in Myanmar. Education is very expensive, he explained. Anything beyond primary school is unaffordable for most people.

For many young men like S___, the only option for education was at the monastery. "My mother knew that it was my only chance." So at the age of 13 he left his village to study at a monastery in [city name]. "I like being a monk. I like studying Sanskrit and the teachings of the Buddha. But I don't know if I'll be a monk forever."

Change in Myanmar must begin with the Myanmar people, S___ said. "We must make a protestation, demand a democratic election. Especially in the big cities, people must gather and protest. Then maybe the United Nations or America will notice." But such a protest could result in violence. "I think the government will shoot. Sure. They will shoot and kill five, six hundred people."

S___ was unsure how many people in Myanmar would be willing to participate in such a protestation. "People are afraid," he explained. "I think we will have to wait to change something – at least twenty years. For me it will be too late. Forty years old is too old to get an education or get ahead in Myanmar."

* Name withheld for safety of subject

Posted on November 21, 2002 09:49 AM


Comments (post your own below)

Isn't a face a more unique signifier than a name? Why did he allow you to put his face on the front page of your website and not use his name? Did he consent to having his face be this visible? Food for thought........If Myanmar's govt is what you say it is and they ever see that don't you think it would be easy enough to find him? Protecting the anonymity of your informants is crucial!

Posted by: Concerned amateur anthropologist on November 25, 2002 01:22 PM

In terms of locating someone in a country of 40 million, a name is a far better clue than a face.

For the record, S____ signed a release consenting to have his likeness *and* his name used in print and in video (I excluded the name just to be on the safe side). He's one of the few people in Myanmar who is willing to take a stand.

Posted by: mike on November 25, 2002 11:00 PM

How many monasteries are there in [city name]?

Posted by: concerned on November 26, 2002 09:11 AM

There are easily a thousand monasteries in Myanmar, and millions of monks. I'm not kidding - just about every man in the country becomes a monk for a month or two.

I agree that it's crucial to protect S____'s anonymity. To that end, I've deleted the city name from the entry.

Posted by: mike on November 26, 2002 07:45 PM

Thank you for reconsidering- I know it is unlikely that anyone would see this and actively seek him out but you never know I surely wouldn't want to be reponsible for something like that. Take Care.

Posted by: concerned on November 27, 2002 02:16 PM

I think you, your travelogue and especially your videos should replace all the crapy 'reality shows' that are taking over the world!
Or maybe, this is TOO REAL for the majority to handle!

Your an amazing mind! Keep up the good work, I wait anxiously for the next story!

Posted by: Avelon on December 16, 2002 04:12 PM

Are you single?

Posted by: courtney on February 26, 2003 09:14 AM

Comments closed.


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