Thursday, 25 October 2012

Burma Voices

This is the voice and story of one person from Burma. Spoken in freedom. Without fear of harrassment. As stories should be told.
Inside Burma, however, many voices cannot speak. This does not mean Burmese people have no voice. Or no opinion. Or nothing to say. There are a lot of stories. Project Burma Voices collects voices, opinions and views from Burmese people. Spoken in liberty. Screaming out. To the world. To be heard. We will keep you updated. will be launched soon. With many more stories. Ashin Kovida’s story is one of them.
Ashin Kovida’s Voice
Burmese monk Ashin Kovida was born in 1973 in Magwe Division, close to Sidoktaya Township.
This is his story. Told at the end of February 2010 in Mae Sot, Thailand.
Ashin Kovida grew up in a small village without electricty and running water. His parents were famers. When he was 15 years old, he joined the village monastery. “My father told me, he wanted me to become a monk. He thought a monk’s life is more peaceful than family life. Being peaceful is a mental state, though.”
It is not very usual in Burma to send your only child to the monastery. “My father wanted a better life for me. I wanted to be a farmer. Grow rice, sesame seeds, vegetables and have animals, just like my parents did.”
“When I was 20 years old, I left the village monastery and went to Mandalay. Contrary to many other monks, who change monasteries a lot, I stayed in one monastery. In 2001, I became more ‘politically involved’. I met an educated monk who ‘enlightened’ me. One day I was complaining to him about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘she keeps on going on about wanting democracy, but she did not educate the people about it’. The monk asked me: ‘Do you think she even has an opportunity to do that?’ That made me think. ‘Ability is of little account without opportunity’, the monk told me.”
“I was working as an English language teacher at a school in Mandalay when I met a Belgian man. I asked him to bring me one of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s books, Freedom from Fear. He organised it: he had torn away the cover and removed the pictures and the book was smuggled in via other foreigners. It was a true eye-opener. I learned a lot from her book.”
Then Ashin Kovida met another monk called King Zero. They were introduced to eath other through Ashin Kovida’s students. “We talked a lot. About many things. We were free to talk freely, because my abbot lived alone and couldn’t control us.”
What was Ashin Kovida like as an English teacher?“In Burma many teachers are very distant and strict. I wanted to have many friends and was a very easy and friendly teacher. I used to eat and drink with my students. Officially it is not allowed to learn a foreign language in a monastery. I learned English anyway, secretly: by self-study, by visiting other monasteries and private schools. After all, the Buddha spoke another language too..”
Ashin Kovida became more and more involved with foreigners. He spoke to tourists and gave them information about the situation in his country and the real life of his people, which many tourists never witness. “Together with King Zero, we reformed The Best Friend – the group had ceased to exist a few years before.”
What made him leave his country?“After reforming The Best Friend, we organised many activities and were very busy. On one of King Zero’s birthday parties, there were many people. We had organised a poem and article writing competition. Apart from that, there was also a debating contest. King Zero’s birthday was a good reason to organise something like this and get many people together to talk and discuss. The officials were suspicious. We were being watched. We visited different monasteries and we knew it had become more dangerous. They knew about our secret discussions about politics, also in my English classes. I was invited to go to Switzerland by a Swiss family and took up their offer. Via friends and other contacts and bribes, I managed to get a passport.”
“I’ve been in Europe since 2006. Here, I cannot do for my country what I would like to do. I can only do a little bit. In the West, the situation in Burma is pretty unknown. I give information to the people: I visit schools and speak to people. Especially children are interested in my life as a monk and ask questions. I also speak to them about education.”
“The biggest difference between the Swiss and Burmese culture is that the Swiss people are more open in different ways. There are no other Burmese Buddhist monks in Switzerland, so my position there is very different from inside Burma. In Switzerland, they do not know how to treat monks in the Asian way. And they are not interested in learning, either..”
What does Ashin Kovida think about the upcoming elections in his country?“If the elections will happen in 2010, the people will suffer more under the same dictator. I don’t expect any change for the better. I usually say: ‘We’ll change from general Tan Shwe to Mr. Tan Shwe’ – meaning: Tan Shwe will take off his uniform and lead as a puppet master from the background. They are trying to find their own securities.”
The Burmese monks are known for their non-violent struggle for peace and democracy. This struggle has been going on for decades and so far, change is not in sight. What is Ashin Kovida’s opinion on the non-violent approach?
“Non-violence is good, but in some cases violence is necessary. At the time of the Buddha, the Buddha was trying to teach the Dhamma to a naga (dragon) called Nandopananda. The naga though, was too big. The only option to defeat him, was to create an even bigger naga. One of Buddha’s disciples changed into a enormous naga and victory was theirs. I believe, it will be necessary at some point.”
What can people abroad do to help?“Western people should make an effort to learn about Burma. Unfortunately, only few people visit my country and when they do, mostly for their own pleasure. When you visit Burma, make an effort and speak with the locals. Ask them about their sufferings and their opinions. Inside they are very eager to express themselves to the outside world!”
“I believe tourists have an obligation: they should be free messengers. To the outside world. Apart from that, they can also open up eyes and ears of the Burmese people by telling them about the outside world. It goes two ways. Many tourists, however, are reluctant to talk about politics once inside the country. They are afraid of putting people at risk. Understandable, but Burmese people know they’ll have to pay a price..And they are ready to pay for their freedom. Nothing comes for free.”
“I would like to call on people to support education, organisations like The Best Friend. We desperately need higher education in Burma, even after we achieve democracy.”
Ashin Kovida then brings in a few of his own subjects to talk about.
The Best Friend started as a friends’ literature group and its main activity is to establish and run libraries. Why is The Best Friend involved in other activities, besides the libraries?“Don’t forget The Best Friend was founded inside Burma, where we could not openly practise political activities. This made us focus on libraries. This way we could bring about change. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said: ‘Politics is the everyday life of the people.’ So education is also part of politics. Like working on a farm is as well. Her father, Bogyoke Aung San once said: ‘Politics is simple. Some say it’s dirty. It isn’t. It’s only politicians who can be dirty.’ We don’t see The Best Friend as only practising politics; we want to bring a change in Burma. A change for the better. By any possible way.”
“Many Western people ask me about the organisational structure of The Best Friend and about who’s the boss. I can tell you, nobody is the leader. Everybody is a leader. We do everything by discussion. We decide and discuss together.”
What is The Best Friend’s future plan for Burma? “The Best Friend works for Burma. At the moment, we work both for the people inside the country as well as Burmese people outside. Even if we achieve democracy, The Best Friend will be needed. Many things will still need to be done inside the country: education, health programmes and many other things to help and develop the people.”
“Many people ask me about what’s it like to live as a Burmese Buddhist monk in a Western country in Europe. People ask me who gives me food in my country. They think I came to Switzerland because I did not want to work or went hungry in Burma. Many Swiss people do not know anything about Buddhism and monkhood. The biggest problem is that they are not willing to learn about it either.”
When asked about his message to the Burmese people, Ashin Kovida is loud and clear:
“We will win!
We will win!
We WILL win!”
Interview by Elke Kuijper

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Sat 10 Nov 2012
BABSEA 2nd Annual Access To Justice Public Interest Fair
"justify">Get information and help support local community-based organizations, build a network, and find out about job and volunteer opportunities at this fair showcasing the work of NGOs working in Southeast Asia.
Where: Kantary Hills Hotel, 44 Nimmanhaemin Road, Soi 12, Chiang Mai
Time: 11 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Entrance: free

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