I set my radio alarm clock to NPR every morning and listen to it while I get ready for work to catch up on the world news. Today I woke up to reports of violent clashes in Myanmar between the Buddhist monks and the military government. Normally I would shake my head, appalled at the news, without ever really letting it sink in. But just a few months ago I was one of the few tourists to visit the country. And once you’ve been to a place, the news suddenly becomes so much more real.
In Myanmar, I’d rise at dawn to watch the monks—dressed in their bright saffron robes—collect their daily alms from the villagers. I climbed a few of the thousands of pagodas that decorate the countryside. I rode my bike to the local market with 10-year old boys acting as impromptu tour guides in exchange for an English lesson.
I love the way spirituality is woven throughout daily life in Myanmar. There’s prayer and mediation and temples everywhere. Tourists weren’t allowed to talk to the people about their government for fear that they’d be punished. Heck, we couldn’t even send messages back home because all web-based email was banned. On my visa application, I had to say I was a student rather than a writer to even be allowed in the country.
I’d like to believe that tales of government officials killing monks couldn’t possibly be true. But, after visiting the Killing Fields in Myanmar’s neighboring Cambodia, I’ve seen how fear of an oppressive government can make people do horrible things. I feel helpless, like I’m just one person in billions on the other side of the world. I feel like there’s nothing I can do to stop a violent regime. But maybe if everyone did just a little something, that would add up to something bigger. So I signed a petition to urge the UN to step in and take action. (Check it out at http://www.avaaz.org/en/stand_with_burma/tf.php?CLICK_TF_TRACK). And I’m doing what I always do after learning to meditate in SE Asia: I’m grabbing my prayer beads and praying for the best.