I knew that we were coming back to Massachusetts the next day, and I really, really wanted to visit my friends at the Burmese Monastery in Brooklyn.
Last year we met them at the beginning of the peace walk at a temple in the woods somewhere in Montpelier Vermont.
They were there for the film festival promoting a film called Burma VJ. When we met they talked to us about the 2007 Saffron Revolution and how they came to be in this country as refugees from a militant dictatorship. They had a big impact on me, and I’ve been wanting to meet up with them again since.
In August they invited me to the inauguration of their new home in Brooklyn, but unfortunately I was unable to make it.
I realized that if I wanted to see them before I left I would have to do so immediately.
I found an old email with the street address and googled directions.
I was hoping that they would all be home (or at least U Pyinya Zawta the monk I had emailed the most)
I was walking through Brooklyn and wasn’t sure which way the temple was. I went up to a parked cop car and asked both of the officers which way my street was. They pointed me in the right direction. (Say what you will about cops, but that was the second time during my trip that NYC PD had saved me from getting lost)
It was a beautiful day in Brooklyn, and it was easy to remember why I loved it so much. The sun was shining and there was music playing out of cars and storefronts. I passed one guy working on his truck outside and he had a picture of Malcolm X in his windshield — everything was so lively. It’s like, you couldn’t help but feel energized.
Only a few blocks away from the subway station I found the street I was looking for. The temple wasn’t that hard to find, they had prayer flags in front of the house.
I rang the doorbell wondering who would answer.
I saw an eye peering through the window and the door opened.
Zawta ushered me inside and as I took off my shoes he told me I could just leave them by the door. Gawsita and Agga were in the kitchen. I said hello to everyone and we sat down to catch up on what we’d all been doing over the last year.
Agga told me that they were going to see a film Burma Soldier that evening at HBO, and that if I wanted I could go with them.
We spent the next few hours talking. Zawta showed me some of the pictures from colleges they had visited, and I showed him work we’d been doing at the Pagoda.
At around 5:00 another monk showed up who was apparently coming with us to see the film.
His name was Marma and he’s studying in Toronto. He was a really intelligent, kind of hilarious monk and we got along pretty quickly.
It was time for us to go, so Zawta, Agga, Marma and I headed out to Manhattan. At the HBO studio we met up with some of their friends and headed inside.
I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to get in since I wasn’t on the list, but there was no problem. They checked off our names and told us to go to the 15th floor.
Upstairs I got nervous.
I was in jeans, puma flats and a pink t-shirt. I had on a drawstring backpack that said BARBADOS on the back with the individual parishes outlined in bright colors.
There were all these rich, well-dressed people walking around taking pictures drinking and eating small bits of filet mignon and pineapples and crap.
I saw down on a bench next to Zawta. People kept coming over to him to take his picture and ask him questions, so I just kind of moved over to observe everything.
I turned around to see who was talking to me.
I recognized this older man who had welcomed the monks warmly when we came in.
“Hi.” I said, and smiled.
“What would you like to drink? Whatever you want, I will get it for you.”
I was kind of overwhelmed.
“Thanks,” I said. I looked at the glass in his hand and asked, “What are you drinking?”
“White wine and sprite. What do you want?”
I thought about it, and told him I would have white wine as well. A few minutes later he came back over with a drink for me and sat down across from me. He asked me who I came with and I motioned towards Zawta.
“You’re lucky then,” he said with a smile. “What is your name?”
I told him Vanessa. He was Mr. W. He asked my name again and said it slowly.
“Ba-ne-sah?” he said, and I nodded. “Like Benazir, from Pakistan. You remember her?” I nodded again. “Your beauty matches hers.” he said and left me with a pat on the shoulder.
A few minutes later Marma walked over towards me and I told him to come sit. We talked for about 20 minutes before the lights started flickering on and off. We all started walking towards the theatre.
A few of the members of our group went to use the bathroom quickly while the rest of us waited in the hall. As we were standing there Myo Myint came over and embraced Zawta. I saw his crutches and noticed that where his right hand should be there was a stub that stopped at the bone, not too far after his elbow. He and Zawta started speaking in Burmese to each other, oblivious to everyone moving around them. Zawta took Myo’s left hand in his right one and held it as they talked. I wanted to hug him. To share that kind of intense immediate connection with anyone.
The conversation ended and Zawta told me we should head into the theatre. I think people thought the front seats were reserved, so we all sat in the third row –very good seats.
The producer and a woman from HBO gave a little intro.
the film started.
It told the story of Myo Myint being born into a Burma that was full of poverty and war. He talked about the respect members of the army had when they got home and wanting to be like them when he got older.
The movie told — mostly through stories Myo Myint told himself of the craziness he had suffered through war. But also of the insanity that is still happening in Burma today.
He joined the army at 17. As a young man in the army he frequently walked through minefields with a small map guiding him to safety.
One day he heard a shell raining down and was thrown backwards.
2 days later he was brought to a hospital where the doctor recognized his name and address and called in his family.
The only one who could recognize him was his mother.
After his hospital stay he moved to Rangoon to live with his mother.
The severity of his situation hit him, and he sunk into depression. Drinking often.
and then he started to read.
He read books about the civil army and about non-violence. He read about war and came to realize that a democratic government was needed.
He worked as an activist for a few years doing things which could have easily gotten him shot and killed.
In 1989 he organized a rally at the request of Aung San Suu Kyi. He was captured by military intelligence. They put a black bag over his head that was covered in dry blood.
They tortured him for days, making him stand on one leg and calling him a traitor to the army.
Finally they brought him in to be sentenced. He said, “I don’t believe in the military government.” And they took him away.
He was in jail for 15 years.
for 4 months he was locked in a dark room alone, not able to tell when it was night or day.
For a year he was not allowed to read or write. All books and pens or paper were banned. Some guards took pity on the political prisoners though, and tried to sneak them writing implements and books.
Anyone found helping the political prisoners would be imprisoned themselves, and in Myo’s time in jail he knew of 7 guards who got locked up.
Finally he was released, but not long after things were starting again to get suspicious.
Myo was concerned that he might be taken back to prison, so he went to a refugee camp at the border of Thailand and Burma.
After years of staying here, he came to the United States and was reunited with his siblings who he had not seen for 20 years.
“I am a fighter for peace” he said.
I can’t even begin to make clear how important a movie this was. It was intense and hard to watch, but a necessary film. Much of the footage was smuggled out of Burma illegally and as a result has put many people in jail.
When the movie was finished the floor was opened up for Q + A. Myo spoke for a few minutes about the film, and said that many of his friends right now are in jail serving 65 year sentences of hard labor for the parts they had in helping him.
Myo Myint is a hero.
He is a man that has been faced with more adversity than anyone should ever have to experience time and time again, and has had the courage to tell his story to the world.
I feel it would be a dishonor and an insult to he and all the people of Burma who have struggled and are still struggling to not share this story with as many people as humanly possible.
Many of the refugees here from Burma both Monks and citizens have no hope right now of returning home again. To go back would mean death.
There’s that Martin Luther King Jr. quote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to Justice everywhere” and I think it’s obviously true.
In this country even the most severe situations people are living in can in no way rival the most ordinary day in Burma.
I think the least anyone can do is to get the message out. By telling the true stories of Burma we are giving her and her people a voice. And when the stories are told enough time, the voices become so loud that people can no longer ignore them. And when that time comes, change will also come.
I am glad to know the real truth of the world, not some glossed over edited American version and I feel obligated and driven to do something to change that truth
I sincerely encourage you to watch this movie when it comes out — I believe it’s airing on HBO2 on May 18th and to share it with everyone you know
Another film to see is Burma VJ
Some groups that are working to change what’s going on in Burma:
http://uscampaignforburma.org/take-action US Campaign for Burma
https://twitter.com/#!/uscb Twitter: USCB
https://twitter.com/#!/BGAN Twitter:Burma Global Action
all burma monks alliance.org
Something I would really suggest doing is taking these films and showing them at libraries, community centers and churches. Also just your homes, dorms, apartments and student centers.
All throughout history when governments have abused their people
those people have united in defense of their basic human rights. Those people have refused to give up, and through their defiance have made empires fall.
That time has come again to stand up and change the world.
I propose we forget our minor meaningless worries and also our differences. That we ignore the boundaries of race, religion, sex and age and stand in solidarity with those that are suffering.
As long as we continue to feel that we are different it will always be okay for another person or group of people to be marginalized and abused.
it’s time to empower the people