Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Revolutionary Leader- page 3 | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Aung San Suu Kyi, photographed in June 2012 (Getty Images)

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Revolutionary Leader

The Nobel Peace Prize winner talks about the secret weapon in her decades of struggle—the power of Buddhism

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(Continued from page 2)

The physical and mental strain of prison life, along with continued harassment, took a heavy toll on Gambira. In March he reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown. The monk left the monastery, returned to layman status and moved in with his mother near Mandalay. “He does not want to speak to anybody,” she told me when I called. “He is not in good mental condition.” Gambira’s plight, supporters say, is a reminder of the tenuous nature of the government’s liberalization.

I visited Gambira’s former monastery, newly reopened, tucked away in a leafy section of Yangon. The golden spires of an adjacent temple poked above a dense grove of coconut palms and banana trees. Sitting cross-legged on the veranda of his dormitory, the abbot, also a former political prisoner, told me that the monastery is still trying to recover after the devastation inflicted by the military. At the time it was forcibly shut in 2007, “there were 18 monks, a dozen HIV patients and three orphans living here. Most have disappeared.” I asked if he was grateful to Thein Sein for the reopening. “I do not need to thank this military government for returning what belongs to us,” he told me. He was bitter about the treatment of Gambira, whom he considered a protégé. “Gambira was moved to many prisons and tortured. He has not been right since.”

Gambira is not the only monk who has run into trouble in the new Myanmar. I traveled a dirt road through rice paddies two hours outside Yangon to meet with Ashin Pyinna Thiha, 62, a prominent Buddhist scholar and political activist. A spiritual adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi and critic of the junta, Pyinna Thiha tried to instill a spirit of political activism in thousands of young acolytes at his Yangon monastery. He met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she visited Myanmar early last December, and honored Aung San Suu Kyi with a Nobel Prize ceremony at his monastery in January. Late last December, the Supreme Council of Burmese monks—47 abbots approved by the regime—banished Pyinna Thiha from his monastery and ordered him into domestic exile.

He now resides with 15 monks in a rural compound donated by a supporter. “We are out of touch here,” said the moon-faced, pudgy monk, as we gazed out on fallow fields from a thatched-roof structure, its bamboo walls decorated with photographs of Pyinna Thiha with The Lady. “Things are changing in Myanmar,” he said. “But one thing has not changed, and that is religion.”

Monks are the biggest potential organizing force in Burmese society, he explained; the government remains fearful of them. The council, he says, serves as “a puppet” of the regime, its members corrupted by privileges. “They get houses, cars,” he told me. “This is not Buddhism. This is luxury.”

Back at the reopened NLD headquarters in Yangon, Aung San Suu Kyi is reminding supporters that the struggle is far from over. Standing on the third-floor balcony of the tenement, festooned with yellow, white and red NLD banners, she tells them that the Yangon police have been bullying street vendors and urges “mutual respect” between the authorities and the people. Then she turns her attention to the crisis of the moment: crippling electricity cuts across Myanmar, the result of rotting infrastructure and the selling of most of the country’s hydroelectric power and gas to China and Thailand. As if on cue, the downtown lights go out. Enveloped in darkness, the opposition leader, again invoking the Buddhist spirit of nonviolent protest, urges the crowd to “light a candle.” The street is soon transformed into a sea of tiny, flickering flames.

Watching The Lady from the VIP section is a rising member of her inner circle, Kyaw Min Yu, 43, a founder of the 88 Generation, an organization that includes many former political prisoners. Sentenced to life in 1990 for his role as a student organizer in the 1988 uprising, he was freed in February after nearly 22 years, as part of the general amnesty. A wiry man with chiseled good looks and capable English, Kyaw Min Yu believes that his embrace of Buddhist practice saved his life in prison. Initially he was “full of rage” at his captors, he tells me after the rally; he was tortured and placed in solitary. Then, Kyaw Min Yuu found himself in the same cell as a monk, who began to teach him vipassana meditation.

Soon he was meditating for an hour each morning and evening. Other prisoners began to follow his example. “I diminished my anger and hatred, so I could see the guards as poor, illiterate men, with small brains, who understood only two things—following orders and making threats,” he said. He ended outbursts toward his guards. The beatings gradually ended, and guards who once brutalized him began to smuggle radios, food, novels and an English-language dictionary to him and to his fellow inmates. “These things helped us survive,” he told me. Even in the darkest corners of the regime’s gulag, Buddhism served as a source of light.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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