Milwaukee Buddhists march against oppression
Myanmar Peace Rally in Milwaukee
By Debby Tewes
     Over the years, a number of uprisings have taken place as the citizens rebelled against the authoritarian rule, including a 1974 uprising at the funeral of U Thant, a former secretary general of the United Nations, and another uprising in 1988. These uprisings were brutally suppressed by the military and have engendered a culture of fear and paranoia among the citizens. The 1988 uprising, led by students, met with reprisals that resulted in the deaths of 3000 participants, according to the handout at the march on Sunday. This uprising spurred another coup d'etat, ending with the imposition of martial law and the formation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). This was also when the decree was enacted to change the name of the country to Myanmar. When Aung San Suu Kyi was elected by a sweeping majority vote, it was SLORC that prevented her from taking office.
      The spokesperson for the Milwaukee march, Dr. Ingrid Jordt (
top right), has devoted much of her career to researching and helping the people of Burma whom she knows almost as an insider. Dr. Jordt lived in Burma for several years as a Thilashin, or nun in the Buddhist faith, in Yangon and Masi Thathana Yeiktha. In 1988, after an invitation to dine with the former Prime Minister U Nu, she was banned from the country for a number of years and branded subversive. She wasn't able to return to the country for several years. Dr. Jordt writes of her experiences and the relationship of Buddhism and the Burmese government in her book "Burma's Mass Lay Meditation Movement" [Ohio University Press, 2007]. The book addresses the climate of fear that she now sees in Myanmar and the furtive glances and signals that their conversations are being listened to. Often in her travels now to Burma as a researcher, she was often assigned a "minder" or friends would point out people who seemed to be watching a bit too closely.
      The situation in Myanmar has worsened recently with the junta imposing price hikes on fuel and consumer goods that are causing extreme hardship for the average Burmese citizen. The regime has plundered the natural resources of the country and mismanaged the finances. As a result, they must raise money from those who can least afford it. The monks, in an ultimate affront to the regime, turned their alms bowls upside down when the military and their families approached with offerings. The simple but nonviolent act of turning the alms bowl upside down indicated to the military "they were withdrawing their moral support." The Buddhist faith prohibits the monks from participating in politics, but their moral imperative was to withdraw the very thing that gave the junta some semblance of legitimacy.
      As people gathered at 2 p.m., the clergy from the temple instructed the participants to march in complete silence although they were encouraged to chant the Metta Sutra or "loving kindness" meditation, which is exactly what the monks in Burma chanted as they marched 20,000 strong through the streets in Rangoon. The march in Milwaukee included people of many cultures and faiths. At the end of the march, Dr. Jordt addressed the participants (whose numbers were estimated at about 185 or more people).
      A quote that Dr. Jordt sent me from her speech that was particularly chilling is a message from one of the monks who helped organize the nationwide protests in September. This Burmese monk has been on the run from one safety house to another while the military regime has taken his parents, brothers and sisters hostage in the effort to force this monk to turn himself in:
      "To Buddhists all over the world and activists and supporters of Burmese movements, please help liberate the Burmese people from this disastrous and wicked system. To the six billion people of the world, to those who are sympathetic to the suffering of the Burmese people, please help us to be free from this evil system. Many people are being killed, imprisoned, tortured, and sent to forced labor camps. I hereby sincerely ask the international community to do something to stop these atrocities. My chances of survival are very slim now. But I have not given up, and I will try my best. I might not have very long to live. Please try your best to relieve our suffering."
      The monks of Burma stood against the military in the only way that their religion allowed them, by refusing to accept alms offerings. The least that people of conscience can do is to support them through nonviolent measures and ask our governments to apply political and economic pressure to end the violence.
     
Note: iIf you are interested in Dr. Jordt's book, you can visit http://www.ohioswallow.com/ and search by her name or the book's title. Dr. Jordt has an intriguing insider's view of the current religious and political climate in Burma/Myanmar.
[Note: "Myanmar" and "Burma" are used interchangeably in this article.-Ed.]
      On Sunday, October 21, the Milwaukee Buddhist Peace Fellowship encouraged people of conscience to join them in a silent march along Milwaukee's Lakefront to show solidarity with the monks of Myanmar (Burma) who have protested their country's brutal military regime. Many of these courageous Burmese monks have sacrificed their lives, been beaten, imprisoned or simply vanished.
      Priests of the Milwaukee Zen Center sat in silent meditation facing the busy traffic on Lake Drive, a popular spot on a warm, sunny fall day. Dressed in the robes of their faith, they presented a peaceful oasis as marchers gathered. A diverse group of people joined the march as it proceeded south along Lake Drive, causing curious stares from passing traffic and occasional horn blasts to acknowledge the
procession. The marchers carried placards with the faces of Aung San Suu Kyi, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of the opposition and the duly elected head of government who has been held under house arrest for 12 years, during which time she has been denied the right to attend the funeral of her husband or to experience the simple joys of a mother watching her children grow up. Even more inconceivable though, is the terror that was unleashed by the military on the very soul of the country, the Buddhist monks.
      From about 1948 to 1962, Burma had a fledgling democracy led by Sao Shwe Thaik as President and U Nu as Prime Minister. (The term U is an honorific title akin to Mr. or Sir.) A military junta has ruled in Burma (Myanmar) since 1962 when the military overthrew the democratic government in a coup d'etat led by Ne Win on the pretext of strengthening border regions.
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December 2007 Issue