December 13, 2009 — Article ©2009 by Alice Walker
To paraphrase our beloved James Baldwin: the world is held together, really the world is held together by the love and compassion and clarity of thought of a very few individuals. Though this idea may be frightening, the world being in such distress, it is also comforting. At least there are a few people who can be counted on to lead us in a proper direction for survival as humans, and for thriving as a species. Aung San Suu Kyi is at the top of the list. That is really the reason she is jailed and on her way to being imprisoned in Insein Prison, in Burma, where conditions are notoriously horrific and from which inmates often emerge, if indeed they do emerge alive, broken and in need of things like wheelchairs. What can we do?
My parents grew up in a society very much like Burma’s, in the Southern United States of North America. Repression of every kind, for people of color, was the order of the day. They taught their children to hold an inner dignity as the highest possible sign of human development, and they taught us to believe in education. These are things that, when I traveled in Burma recently, I recognized immediately in the Burmese people. These people, like the Palestinians who suffer a fate remarkably similar to theirs under Israeli occupation, are holding a sacred thread, not unlike the thread of Ariadne, which we can use, if we lend our whole selves to the effort, to lead us out of the labyrinth of confusion, and away from the people eating Minotaur that has turned out to be human greed. It is as astonishing as it is fascinating to see so clearly that it is our own greed that is eating us.
In Burma it is the greed of a faceless mob of generals who dream up ways every day to further ransack and impoverish the Burmese population and the land of Burma itself. Selling its precious woods, gems and minerals, and routinely enslaving its people to work on “public projects” designed to enrich those in power. I am sure the Junta viewed a recent film made in Burma by unbelievably courageous journalists, journalists with cameras, called Burma VJ: Report from a Closed Country that thoroughly exposes their implacable brutality. In graphic detail it shows the relentless attempt by the Generals to dominate and destroy the Burmese people. It depicts the soul stirring solidarity of common people with the monks and nuns who rise in defense of them, and the slaughter of monks whose very chants, as they’re bludgeoned or shot down, remind the Burmese people of their non-negotiable belief in Non-Harming. This is one of the places I suggest we start: viewing and widely distributing and discussing this film. From the point of view that everyone on earth is Burmese. Greed knows no nationality or boundary, and if we wait for things to change in Burma of their own accord, we will have abandoned what is most threatened in all of us: our human dignity and our freedom to pursue the life we choose for ourselves; in other words, democracy. Indeed, true democracy is what Americans, from all the Americas, are working toward. Largely because of centuries of greed and theft, we are far from the goal.
When I returned from Burma in February 2009, I wrote a long letter to Aung San Suu Kyi. I understood she might never see it; the point was to send it as a postcard for the world to read, for those who knew nothing or little of her situation, of Burma’s situation, to have a quick study in preparation for the struggle to free her and to give her country back to her, and to the people who love it. As an offering to a contemporary view of a tiny part of Burma, by a North American, that I was able to grasp in less than two weeks, I offer this letter/postcard to anyone who wishes to read it.
There is also an Aung San Suu Kyi webpage where one can find suggestions for actions. There is a petition that asks the United Nations to intervene. There are suggestions for places to contact and people to write. I personally feel we as a world have almost passed the following point, but I will offer it: It is time for people to descend en masse in places like Burma and Palestine and to …. Well, show up. Do I know how to get hundreds and thousands of people on this journey? No, I don’t. But somebody does; it has been done before. People showed up en masse in Mississippi decades ago, and changed the direction of the world. Without the Mississippi struggle there would be no Obama, for starters; there would be no possibility of Americans, black and white, feeling the freedom and joy in each other’s being that is so frequently the most pleasant and astounding surprise of the recent quarter century.
What makes Aung San Suu Kyi so very special – and Buddhists will yawn – is that she is a meditator. This means her mind is well trained to grasp the implications of actions, especially violent ones, too many of our world leaders seem clueless about. They talk about annihilating, obliterating, beggaring, starving, impoverishing, raping and pillaging other human beings as if this behavior has no consequences to themselves or to those they represent. This is an incredibly antique way of looking at our problems: that we can bomb them away. War is a dead end, literally. And, what is more, we simply can’t afford it. Not morally, and not financially. How long will it take the citizens of the United States, one wonders, to recognize that the house their country bombed in Iraq is the same one they were living in until it was foreclosed? We see, if we care to look, that everything really is connected, and, not only connected, it is the same thing. Aung San Suu Kyi gets this, which is why she renounces violence in the face of one of the most violent regimes in the world, while at the same time not condemning those who, driven to desperate measures by their mistreatment by the regime, resort to violence in an attempt to defend themselves.
I can’t think of anything more important than Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle, which she is waging so brilliantly. She has proved she is not afraid of death, and one feels imprisonment will be to her – as being jailed was for Martin Luther King – simply part of a necessary pilgrimage of the soul. I am not as concerned about her, to be honest, as I am about the rest of us. We need Aung San Suu Kyi. We need her example of integrity, courage, a raging and revolutionary loving kindness that has kept her steady in her long years under house arrest. It is amazing to think of the discipline she has taught herself over these years: to see through the masks of even the most brutal dictators, and to discern the confused, unwell, frightened persons behind the masks. To say, even after years of house arrest: I would hope one day to be friends. I would sit down and talk with them.
This is a rare being. But not too rare for this world. It was this world and the Burmese culture and life in India and England, and her own special spirit that produced her. A spirit, for all its rareness, not of “heaven” but of Earth. Reading her thoughts one finds nothing vaporous or otherworldly; she is among the most practical of people. Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma are world treasures; if we lose them, we lose knowledge of a human capacity for wisdom, and an instinct for understanding our human responsibility for the gift of life, that will mean we may never know what, on this endlessly giving and radiant planet, a planet that bows to us every single day, we are doing here.
It is up to the citizens of the world to free Aung San Suu Kyi and all Burma’s political prisoners, as well as the country of Burma itself. Our governments, bogged down with the accumulated mistakes of the past, and burdened by their own entanglement in greed, are not likely to be sufficient help, even when they are willing. We must remember as we look about the pla
net at people like ourselves who are oppressed and discouraged, that we are the majority. Sometimes the feeling of being very small in so large a scheme of suffering hinders us. But, take heart. Before the ice at the polar caps completely melts and we are all submerged, along with our dreams, we can do a lot. Especially if we can commit to do even a little. Once someone pointed out to Sojourner Truth how insignificant she was; a black person, a woman, recently enslaved. To paraphrase her acerbic rejoinder: If I’m only a flea on the back of the stubbornest mule on earth, by God I intend to keep him scratching.
That we can do. Somebody who reads this, perhaps in China, Cambodia, Thailand or Burma, will know how to be a flea on the backs of the Generals in Rangoon. Somebody in Washington, D.C. may know how to do this. Each of us must find our own mule. Meanwhile, we cheer you on!
With metta, and in Solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Brave People of Burma, especially the monks and the journalists!
With much respect,
21st of May 2009
(Read Alice’s letter to Aung San Suu Kyi a few posts down this page from February.)