musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Monks & Politics

I popped into a branch of Asia Books last week to hunt down a copy of the new Neil Young biography that one of my customers said they had seen. I was ecstatic to find that book (and more about that in a later post), but I was also shocked to see another book in stock: Burma’s Plea by Dimitra Stasinopoulou.


The book was displayed behind the counter, but it was one of those huge coffee table-sized photo books so it was very easy to notice. My mouth must have dropped open when I saw the cover photo: a huge shot of one of the novice monks from Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, a monastery that I visit frequently in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe. Perhaps “frequently” is an understatement. I usually drop by Shwe Yan Pyay on a daily basis when I’m in Nyaungshwe, taking donations of fresh fruit and snapping photos, sometimes chatting with the Abbot (Saya Daw), the novice monks, or senior monks. I’ve been going there for the better part of decade and in recent years have taken groups of the monks on trips to places in the area such as Kakku, Pindaya, and Taunggyi. They’re a nice, polite bunch of kids and the Saya Daw and his assistant monks do a fine job of educating and taking care of them.


So anyway, I see this huge book and the cover photo was clearly taken at Shwe Yan Pyay, and even the novice monk looks familiar; I’m just flabbergasted by the whole thing. But what I found most unsettling was the book title, Burma’s Plea, along with a big quote plastered on the cover: “Please use your freedom to promote ours.”


That’s more than a little creepy. I can understand and even empathize with the desire to promote “freedom” and other human rights issues in the country I know as Myanmar (I’ll leave the name debate alone for now; that’s something I’ve written about in the past), but I find it troubling that they are using the photo of a young novice monk to highlight their human rights agenda, no matter how righteous it may be. What does this young monk have to do with promoting freedom? You can rest assured that novice monks like this kid have scant knowledge of politics or human rights issues. Yes, many older monks in Myanmar are known to voice their political opinions and some have marched in various protests in recent years (witness the famous, but misnamed, “Saffron Revolution” in 2007), but novice monks from Shan State have not been among the participants. This book, published in 2011, looks like a gorgeous one (see the “YouTube” link below), containing 407 pages of photographs that highlight various parts of the country. While the photos may be captivating they don’t seem to focus on “freedom.” In any case, the author and/or publisher really should not have used a photo of a novice monk on the cover to make a political statement.


And what’s with that horrible book title? Burma’s Plea? It almost puts the locals on the same pitiful level as beggars: Help us because we can’t help ourselves! I have a problem with Westerners sticking their noses where they don’t belong, particularly when it comes to domestic political issues in other countries. I look at any sort of intervention or “assistance,” no matter how dire the situation may appear, to be the wrong course of action. To title a book “Burma’s Plea” makes it sound like “those poor pitiful people” can’t fight for their rights without the benevolent assistance of Westerners. I think that most people in Myanmar have enough pride that they don’t want to be seen as helpless in the eyes of the rest of world. That’s not to say that they don’t appreciate — or need — development work and humanitarian assistance, but whatever political problems the country may have, let them work it out amongst themselves without know-it-all Westerners trying to butt in and dictate the “proper” way to make changes or do things.


I’m also still not clear where the proceeds from the sale of this book are going. On the website of The Border Consortium (an organization that has an office in Bangkok) it states that:

“This private edition is available in Thailand from TBBC’s Bangkok office for 1,500 baht each. Dimitra has generously agreed that proceeds of books sold by TBBC in Thailand will be used for TBBC activities.”

And those “activities”, judging from what they say on their website, include a lot of worthwhile projects. But a news report on the website, states that “funds from the sale by the TBBC will be donated to Burma Campaign UK.” Now that gets a little trickier. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of Burma Campaign UK. They are one of those organizations that used to strongly discourage (condemn might be a better word) tourists from visiting Myanmar, deeming it not only politically incorrect but tantamount to enriching the coffers of the military junta. But in 2010, after Aung San Suu Kyi (along with her NLD party) changed her tune and decided that tourism ain’t such an evil thing after all, the folks at Burma Campaign UK, in parrot-like fashion, followed her lead and no longer opposed the idea of tourists visiting the country. Except for package tourists: they were still evil and were helping the generals get richer. At least that’s the opinion of Burma Campaign UK. Their heart may be in the right place, but I think that the strident, no-compromising stance of groups like Burma Campaign UK has done more harm than good over the past 20 years.


During one of my trips to Mandalay I saw a shocking reminder of just how negative and counter-productive that these “campaigns” can be. I was visiting the Moustache Brothers (the famous dance and comedy troupe who are very politically active, two the “brothers” having spent time in prison) at their house one afternoon. In between serving me tea, Lu Zaw (the “funny one”) played a DVD that had a public service announcement produced by Burma Campaign UK. It was in such bad taste, and catered to such pathetic stereotypes, that I was appalled. I don’t even think Lu Zaw — who has always encouraged tourists to visit his country and see the situation for themselves — was properly aware of just how insulting and one-sided that this video message was. It certainly wasn’t going to help his business or encourage anyone to visit Myanmar.

You have to wonder what organizations like this do with all the donations that they receive (consider their overhead, for starters: they have to pay healthy salaries for their director and staff members, rent an office, etc.) and how much of the money really goes to helping the people in Myanmar/Burma? On their website, they state their goal as:

“We play a leading role in raising awareness about the situation in Burma, and pressuring the international community to take action in support of the people of Burma.

Okay, those appear to be admirable goals on the surface, but what does “pressuring the international community to take action” involve exactly? More boycotts and sanctions? A lot of good that did! In other words; not at all. Meanwhile, all those “misguided tourists,” ones who defied calls for a boycott, visited the country over the past two decades, met many local people, and were able to put money directly into those people’s pockets, something that groups like Burma Campaign UK could never do.


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