Burma on My Mind

The Saffron Revolution

The Saffron Revolution

Last week, on the one year anniversary of the Saffron Revolution, when Burmese monks took to the streets in protest, the PEN American Center hosted a benefit reading at the Cooper Union.

Over the past year, I’ve been thinking lots about Burma.  When news coverage exploded last year with celphone videos and citizen journalism, the world got a glimpse of life under this harsh junta.

For me it triggered this deep connection… or connections.   My grandfather worked in Burma as a civil engineer and during this time he befriended Mahatma Gandhi and decided to quit his engineering job and move the family back to India and be part of India’s Freedom movement.  I began thinking about India and Burma at that time, pre-independence, and how they developed post-independence, their relationship to each other in my grandfather’s time and mine.

Last year, I was researching for a documentary film on child soldiers, and learned that the Myanmar junta holds the largest number of child soldiers in the world.  Many of them were used in the crack-down on the monks.

I remembered when I was flying to Cameroon in 2002, I met an oil guy who was working on the Chad-Cameroon pipeline, whose previous work was in Burma.  This year, protests all over the world erupted with the huge increase in food and fuel costs, including both Cameroon and Burma.

When Cyclone Nargis hit, I thought about how I wished I could go and some how contribute as an engineer to the relief efforts, (if the junta would allow it)

I’ve been drawn to my family connection to this country as well as these issues of resource extraction, disparity and oppression.

All these things came back to me while I was sitting in the Great Hall of Cooper Union last week, the place where I studied civil engeering, half a block from my first introduction to Burmese food (Cafe Mingala). (More on food during VeganMofo)

A small community of Burmese Monks were the honorary guests including U Gawsita, who spoke into a megaphone last year igniting the Saffron Revolution.  This group of monks-“the sangha” is part of the root of my name: sanga-mithra: “friend of the community.”

Waiting for the program to start, I wrote in my journal…About the solitude i can feel in a crowd of many, and how i  retreat in my mind to places and thoughts far away, and what a beautiful thing it is to allow something so natural as writing.

But it was this very act of writing that led to the torture and incarciration of the Burmese writers we were acknowledging that evening.

Joseph Lelyveld talked about censorship in Burma and how everything published goes through the Press Scrutiny Review board.  Some writers resort to cryptography to voice their criticism.  Saw Wei on Valentines day had a poem published that he was later arrested for because the first letters of each word spelled out “General Than Shwe is crazy with power.”

U Win Tin, 79, a poet, journalist and political prisoner since 1989 was released from prison last week.  Paulo Sergio Pinheiro spoke about his visit with U Win Tin during his time in prison,  how he was denied pen and paper and would etch verses on the earth of his prison cel, memorize them then clear them.  Pinheiro recited one of his poems, in which he speculated if “death will be my release.”  And wondering if the outside was much different from the inside of prison.  Upon his actual release last week, U Win Tin remained in his prison uniform in solidarity to those still in prison and his colleagues who died in jail.

George Packer interviewed U Gawsita.  He spoke about the problems the poor were having for a long time in Burma, his work with HIV patients in Burma, and how he hoped the Saffron Revolution would bring dialog with this regime.  Packer asked how the soldiers, who are also Buddhists, could shoot monks during the protest.  U Gawsita, spoke with some of them after and was told that many of them were on drugs.

Kiran Desai read accounts from the victims of Cyclone Nargis, while Orthan Pamuk in contrast spoke the words of the “Official Press.”

One of the most powerful passages from the evening were from Burmese comedian and imprisoned activist, “Zargana“, recited by Siri Hustvedt.  She read from his unpublished memoir about his first time in prison in 1988 and the torture he received.  Zargana was active in organizing some of the relief efforts after Cyclone Nargis, but was put back in jail in June and remains in prison.

There was an excerpt of one poem, and i couldn’t jot down the full translation, but these words stirred me…

“We cry out with joy, with both arms…. when we lose, both arms rise again.”

another translation:


We cry out
“We’ve won!”
And raise both arms in glee.
But when we lose
Both arms go up again.

Salman Rushdie closed the evening with a tribute to the late U Tin Moe, with translation of the poets words.

These fragments lingered in my mind:

“we are not poetry,  we are not human,…this is just a waste of paper,  the years we didn’t see the dawn.”

For more on the event and about taking action to release prisoners like Zargana visit here and here.


~ by sangamithra on September 28, 2008.

2 Responses to “Burma on My Mind”

  1. This post touched me. Thank you for bringing attention to this situation. I spent my university years working on the Burmese struggle in WDC. I have been to the refugee camps at the Thai Burma border and met with many of those in exile. The stories your wrote are familiar to me and it’s sad that so little has changed and it’s been so long. I’m no longer directly connected to the movement, but most of my close friends are. I wonder if we have crossed paths some home. I can’t remember how I found your blog to add to my feeder, but glad I did.

  2. Thanks Pamela! Glad you found it too. Maybe we crossed paths from VeganMofo.

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