Following are excerpts from a conversation with Alan Clements which took place in January 1991, just after he had returned from a three-week journey to Burma.
My recent trip into Burma was a journey into terror. The people have been physically and emotionally tyrannized, and many have been tortured and killed. Let me put it in the words of someone I talked to in Burma who said, “We never dreamed that what is happening to us could occur. It’s like waking up to the reality of the worst nightmare imaginable. They’re killing us in every way possible.”
From what I could gather, the prisons are filled with political dissenters and there are nineteen known centers of torture around the country. People are routinely reported missing. I heard one eyewitness account of a truckload of frightened children being driven off with armed military personnel in the front and rear.
My contacts told me that the Burmese secret police are everywhere. I was informed that they are on every street corner and in every shop; they are even planted as nuns and monks and as meditators in monasteries. It’s to the point where people suspect their friends and in some cases even their families. Once while I was speaking to someone, another person knocked frantically on the door and said, “They know you are talking politics.” That’s a dreaded phrase in Burma, synonymous with imprisonment, torture or death. For the first time in my life I felt what political terror was like.
All over Rangoon you see the large red-and-white-lettered propaganda billboards of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). “Love and Cherish the Motherland,” “The Military is Here to Protect the People from All Riotous and Destructive Elements,” “Down with the Minions of Colonization,” “Only Through Discipline Will Democracy Be Won.” The people are not fooled. Someone told me, “The Burmese smile by nature, but don’t be deceived. Underneath, the people are seething with contempt for the SLORC.”
One of the most appalling propaganda tools of the SLORC is state-controlled television. There you can see the military leadership in obviously staged settings, with large groups of Burmese people giving them flowers and bowing down to them with gestures previously directed only toward monks. You also see the military bowing down to monks whose monasteries they had previously raided and closed down.
The monasteries are not sacred to the military regime in Burma. Recently, in support of the Amnesty International report on human rights abuses, some monks refused to accept food offerings from military personnel. The military responded by surrounding their monasteries with soldiers and tanks. Monks were taken away and forcibly disrobed. Some monks were killed.
The people I talked with are crying out. They said, “Please tell the world before it’s too late. All the dharma brothers and sisters in the world who have a regard for Buddhism, people who have a regard for humanity, please do whatever possible at this dark hour in Burmese history. Let the officials of democratic nations and leaders of Buddhist organizations know what is happening and ask them to respond to our cause.”
I feel that the only hope for Burma is if freedom-loving nations listen to the cry of those forty million people at this very moment and respond urgently, as if the Burmese were our own family. We must put ourselves in the body of the tortured before we turn away and say no. Burma is a nation that goes largely unnoticed, very much as Cambodia was; rather than having compassion after a genocide, I hope we can come to the rescue of a people before the genocide.
Our personal challenge is to keep an open heart in the face of the darkness that veils the world right now. Suffering is everywhere. From the war in Iraq, to the civil war in Sri Lanka, the struggle in South Africa, the hardships in the Soviet Union, the forty thousand children that die every day of starvation, even the homeless that curl up on our own city streets—all the figures that jump out at us nightly from the television like haunting electronic skeletons. The suffering is everywhere and it’s our challenge as human beings to keep an open heart, to have compassion for those who suffer in the world, and respond according to our own set of priorities to where the help is needed most. I plead for the people of Burma who have given us all so much.
In order to raise public awareness, Alan Clements and the Buddha Sasana Foundation started The Burma Project [now administered by World Dharma]. For more information, or to make a tax-deductible donation, visit http://www.worlddharma.com/burma/