The “meek shall inherit the earth.” That’s the promise, but through human history it has not proven true, especially during the past hundred years. The punishing treaties after the violence of World War One led to World War Two and the violent deaths of millions of innocent civilians and then to the restrictive, often violent Soviet empire in Eastern Europe.
More recently, we’ve seen the aggressive colonial and economic ambitions of European powers lead to local dictatorships throughout the Middle East and Asia. In Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Burma, the innocent and meek were quickly subjugated to the strong and ruthless.
Burma is one of the most heart-rending examples of how the powerful and merciless have subdued the “meek.” When we visited Burma, or Myanmar, as the military dictatorship prefers to call the country, we were instantly charmed by the beautiful and gentle Burmese people. Most of them have little to be happy about, yet they seem to go ahead with their daily lives, wearing the traditional ankle-length sarong called a longhi, with quiet resignation. Even the Burmese written language – patterns of connecting circles, suggests a gentle, innocent society. Someone has described the written words as “bubbles mating.”
The military took over the Burmese government in 1962, then ten years later assumed control of all business in the country. The Burmese people have had almost no contact with the outside world for forty years. Because most Burmese are devout Buddhists, they try to be nonviolent and forgiving at all times, so protests were few and mild. Besides, as we were reminded several times, “the generals have the guns.”
How, we asked, does the behavior of the generals fit in with Buddhist precepts?
“They are not very good Buddhists,” was the whispered answer.
Burma is a country of temples, thousands and thousands of temples, large and small, many of them ancient. Some are crumbling, some have become museums and historical sites, but most of them are revered places of daily worship. Traditionally, most boys and men spend time in their youth in Buddhist monasteries. As you travel through the country, you encounter them everywhere. We visited many temples and monasteries, always welcomed by the red-robed monks and priests.
Every Fall, the great Balloon Festival is held at the northern city of Taunggyi. Thousands of Burmese gather to create and send aloft their prayers on scores of huge, beautifully decorated paper balloons powered by little burners producing hot air. Each balloon is studded with tiny lit candles, creating spectacular effects as the balloons rise above the excited crowds.
One afternoon, before the evening balloon rising, we watched a long parade on Taunggyi’s main street, hand-made floats, decorated cars and trucks and wagons and carts, moving slowly through town. Most of the vehicles were crowded with monks and priests and many more monks lined the streets, with local citizens and visitors. Many of the monks were children and teenagers, some as young as eight or nine, even four or five years old. I remember one very small Buddhist monk with a shaved head and red robe, watching the parade, eyes wide, his hands clutching a teddy bear purse.
Young people everywhere, however, are not good at being patient when they are oppressed. Gradually, they became restive, even in Burma. In 1990, the political party headed by Lady Aung San Sui Kyi, daughter of the murdered World War Two hero and leader of a short-lived democratic government, received 90 percent of the vote, but they were not allowed to assume control of the government.
Until recently, the generals kept The Lady, as she is called, under house arrest. Whenever I tried to talk about this with the Burmese, they ignored my questions, changing the subject. It was as if I had not spoken. It is impossible to know how many Burmese have been arrested, tortured, and murdered over the years, but the number is not small.
Now, it appears that Burma is gradually moving toward a market economy and starting to open to the West. However, most of the money beginning to flow into the country as hotels and restaurants are built to welcome tourists is going into the pockets of the generals. So far, the citizens are receiving little benefit from this “progress.” Once again, the meek are excluded.
The pattern is the same in many countries: the ruthless and powerful do as they please while ordinary people suffer. The depressed economies of the Middle East have left their citizens hungry and living in hovels and with no hope for the future, while dictators – often installed and supported by West – live in luxury. Is it any wonder that the young people – and most of the populations of these countries are under 25 – are angry and demand change?
For decades, since ancient Palestine was divided into Israel and the Palestinian Territories, people in those lands have suffered, struggling to survive while their neighbors prospered. Then the great walls began to appear, ripping through farmlands and orchards, tearing apart villages, denying access to jobs, medical care, schools, and even families. Once again, the powerful had their own way. Is it surprising that young people are angry and demand change? Sometimes, it must seem to them that the only way to fight violence is with violence.
Delphine, in my new book, is shocked and confused when she first encounters the situation there. Gradually, as she travels and asks questions of both sides, she realizes that the history is long and complex, but she also comes to grasp the truth that the powerful always win. Must it continue to be this way, she asks? Is there no alternative but violence?
Bruce Douglas Reeves, author DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the Texas A & M University Press Consortium, as well as your local bookstore, by order.