Evil Dreams and the Military in Burma
by Ken and Visakha Kawasaki
There is a dramatic sequence of paintings which a visitor often finds hanging in pagoda walkways and monasteries throughout Burma. The style of painting may vary from place to place, but the allegorical scenes are always the same. Foreigners might be puzzled by such things as tiny frogs swallowing gigantic black snakes, huge blocks of solid stone floating on the water while dry gourds sink to the bottom, people holding an expensive golden basin for an ugly jackal to piss into, and cows sucking milk from their own new-born calves. Ordinary Burmese people have no problem explaining their significance, however. The story on which these paintings are based is Buddhist, but it is not exclusively Burmese. When one understands the meaning, however, it becomes obvious why the paintings have become so popular in contemporary Burma

The story, called "Mahasupina Jataka," is one of the 550 stories in which Buddha related His past lives during which, as the Bodhisatta, he perfected the Ten Paramis or virtues requisite to achieving Buddhahood. At various times the Bodhisatta was born as an animal (never larger than an elephant nor smaller than a quail), as a deity, or as a human being. Rather than being bloodless morality tales, the Jatakas might be said to be the earthiest part of the Buddhist canon. In these stories, the Bodhisatta repeatedly displayed supreme patience, generosity, and wisdom, but he also stole and even killed on some occasions. In no instance, however, did the Bodhisatta ever tell a lie. By his very aspiration to Buddhahood, he was in harmony with the Truth, or Dhamma.
Mahasupina Jataka relates sixteen great dreams which Pasenadi, King of Kosala, had one night. The king was so upset by these dreams that he summoned his Brahmin advisors to interpret them and to prevent the evil they seemed to portend. Predictably enough, the Brahmins forecast disaster unless the king ordered a great sacrifice of living animals. The Brahmanism of that day often involved bloody sacrifices, which meant great feasting and increased wealth for the greedy brahmins. However, before the brahmins were able to slit any creatures' throats, Queen Mallika urged her husband to consult with the Buddha and to learn the true significance of his dreams.

Upon hearing the dreams, the Buddha reassured the king that he had nothing to fear from them. The Buddha explained that these dreams described a future time when rulers would be dishonest, avaricious, and wicked. Since King Pasenadi himself had nothing to fear from the dreams, there was no need to slaughter any animals. In this instance, as in many others, Buddha prevented dreadful bloodshed and taught the value of the non-harming of living beings..

Depictions of Mahasupina Jataka became popular in Burma after the 1962 military coup by Gen. Ne Win. Huge painted panels, commissioned by pious believers and hung in pagodas and temples where they can still be seen today, are an expression of the frustration ordinary Burmese Buddhists have felt about the cruel military dictatorship that grinds them so hard. The similarity between the Buddha's description of the future time and present situation in Burma is, to say the least, striking. In discussing these paintings we can see that what was true of Ne Win's regime is even more applicable to SLORC.

Consider the third dream, in which full-grown cows knelt to suck milk from their own new-born calves. The Buddha explained that this foretold a time when age would no longer be respected. At that time, old people, destitute and dependent, would survive only by the favor and whim of their children, like cows nursed by day-old calves.

In Buddhism there has always been a strong tradition of respect for age, but in Burma today, the military makes no allowance for age when it comes to slave labor or porterage. Men as old as 70 have been swept up and forced to work for the army. How can SLORC soldiers treat civilian porters, especially those older than themselves, so brutally? The answer lies in the statement made by countless porters: "They just didn't think of us as human beings." In SLORC's Officer Training School, soldiers are indoctrinated to think of porters as simple pack animals there to serve the military. All officers use the same lines, almost word for word when talking to the porters: "Medicine? This is not your mother's house! You are not our relatives! It is your fate to carry things like this." If any soldier should hesitate to capture or beat porters, he will be asked, "Are these people your fathers? Your brothers-in-law?"

Buddha taught us that we should respect all those older than ourselves because there is no one who has not been our relative, at some time during the samsaric past. Burmese soldiers are indoctrinated, however, to believe that the Army is their only true family, and that civilians are less than human. On the front page of every issue of the military newspaper, Doye Duha (Our Affairs), published every two days for distribution to the armed forces, printed in bold letters is the slogan, "The army is your only true parent. Don't listen to outsiders; trust nobody but your own blood."

In the eighth dream, the king saw a big pitcher outside a palace gate, already full to the brim. Around it there were many empty pitchers. From all directions came a steady stream of people carrying on their heads pots of water which they poured into the already full pitcher. The water from that single central pitcher spilled over and soaked wastefully into the sand. Still the people came and poured more and more into the overflowing vessel. Not a single person even glanced at the empty pitchers.

Buddha explained that when the world was in decline, the rulers would be poorer, yet far more demanding than in normal times. These rulers in their poverty and selfishness would force the entire country to work exclusively for them. Laboring only for their sovereign, the citizens would have to neglect their own livelihood. For their rulers' sake the people would be forced to surrender their own land, to plant sugar cane, to make sugar mills, and to boil down molasses. Peasants would harvest the crops and fill the rulers' storerooms and warehouses to overflowing, but they would be unable to even glance at their own empty barns and granaries at home. Their forced labor would be like filling to overflowing the full pitcher, heedless of their own empty ones.

Forcible conscription of civilians into compulsory labor duties for the military is widespread in Burma today. The period of service may last months, and in some cases even years, but no pay is given. Even pregnant women, children, and the elderly are regularly conscripted to work for SLORC. Typical labor duties include the construction of roads, airfields, army barracks, and railway lines in government controlled areas, while in war zones civilians have been forced to work as lookouts and as porters. The number of civilians conscripted for such duties can be immense. On May 8, 1992, Working People's Daily proudly reported that over 300,000 people had "contributed voluntary labor" on the Aungban-Loikaw railway line alone.

Burma's military rulers have also wantonly expropriated land from the people without compensation and have forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of citizens. The army has taken land, established plantations for its own purposes, and then forced people to work without pay on those plantations.

A 1994 U.S. Department of State Report Burma Human Rights Practices, describes Burmese forced labor conditions as "inhumane" and when coupled with the "forced resettlement of civilians [accounted for] hundreds of deaths due to disease, harsh treatment, and overwork."

What makes the slave labor in Burma even more unpalatable is SLORC's repeated claims that the people are happy to toil for them and that it is a proud part of the country's Buddhist heritage. The most unforgivable aspect of these abuses is the use of Buddhism as a shield and an excuse. In an official press release on December 14, 1992, the government stated that Burma has a "tradition of labor" and that, in a Buddhist country, the contribution of such labor is a "noble deed."

In the ninth dream, the king saw a deep pool with sloping banks overgrown with lotuses. A variety of animals approached the pool to drink, but strangely enough, while the deep water in the middle was terribly muddy, the water at the edges, despite all the thirsty creatures stirring it up, was clear and sparkling.

Buddha explained that when rulers grew increasingly corrupt, ruling according to their own whim, they would never give justice or make judgments according to what was right. Being greedy, they would grow fat on bribes. Never showing mercy or compassion, they would be fierce and cruel to their subjects. These rulers would amass tremendous wealth by crushing their subjects like stalks of sugarcane in a mill and by taxing them to the last coin. Unable to endure the oppression, the citizens would abandon their villages, towns, and cities and would flee as refugees to the borders. The heart of the country would be like a wilderness, while the remote areas along the borders would be teeming with people. The country would be just like the pool, muddy in the middle and clear at the edges.

Even a cursory look at the present situation shows how closely this description fits Burma. Millions of Burmese have fled to escape the military's oppression. Those refugees who have managed cross the borders are but a few compared to those who, displaced from their communities, have been unable to reach the comparative safety of a second country. In addition to these obvious refugees, there are also hundreds of thousands of Burmese who, abandoning the country in despair or fear, have sought to make a living elsewhere. Many of these are well-educated and able, but they could not survive inside the country because of the incompetence and cruelty of the military rulers.

During 1989 and 1990 alone, the Burmese military forced more than 500,000 citizens to relocate from their own settled communities and neighborhoods to satellite new towns. Such moves contradict Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares, "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home, or correspondence." In one case alone, nearly 100,000 people were moved to the new town of Hlaing Thayar near Rangoon. While conditions varied, local health workers privately reported high fatality levels at many of the new sites due to malaria and poor sanitation.

Burma's continuing political and economic crisis is forcing ever greater numbers of inhabitants to leave their homes. In mid-1994 over 300,000 refugees, mostly ethnic minorities, were officially recorded at camps in Thailand, Bangladesh, India, and China. Unofficial estimates were over three times that figure, meaning that over one million exiles and migrants were subsisting precariously around Burma's troubled borders. Those figures told only half the story because there were also over one million internally displaced persons inside Burma itself, including relocated villagers from the war-zones, those forcibly resettled in recent SLORC development projects, and refugees still trying to survive in the hills.

In the tenth dream the king saw rice boiling endlessly in a pot. The cooking continued in three stages which were sharply delineated and separate from each other. One part of the rice was sodden, another part was hard and raw, while the third part was perfectly cooked.

Buddha explained that this dream also referred to a future time when kings would be unrighteous. Following the king's example, the entire kingdom, including nobles, brahmins, artisans, merchants, and even farmers would become corrupt. Even the winds blowing over the realm of such an unrighteous king would be cruel and lawless. As the spirits of the skies became disturbed, there would be a drought, but if rain did fall, it would never fall uniformly and evenly throughout the land. In some places a heavy downpour would damage crops, while in other areas crops would wither from drought or thrive with adequate rain. The crops, like the rice in the pot, would have no uniform character. This can be interpreted as referring to sharp divisions among the population between the rich and the poor.

Taking this dream quite literally, SLORC's greed has tragically disturbed the spirits of the skies. Burma has been losing more than 800,00 hectares of forests each year since 1988. All of its teak reserves, once the largest and best maintained in Asia, may be gone within five years. In Karen, Kayah, Mon, Kachin, and Shan States, large areas have been stripped of all forest growth. In the past several monsoon seasons heavy flooding occurred for the first time in remote valleys in both the Karen and Kachin States where some of the heaviest logging had been taking place. In 1991, over 140 people are known to have died from floods. Local villagers had no doubt that uncontrolled forest destruction was to blame.

Since 1962 when the nationalization of so many enterprises began, the rich in Burma have been the military elite and their families. Ne Win's reign was corruption itself, based as it was on an ubiquitous secret military intelligence (MI) network which intruded into the private lives of anyone who might threaten him. Along with this spy network was an overwhelming pursuit of private gain at the highest level through smuggling, bribery and the black market. Those Ne Win chose to run the country have never hesitated to line their pockets, but he frequently exposed that corruption in order to remove a potential rival. Ne Win is said to have smuggled prize pearls through his own gem emporium in Zurich, to hold bank accounts in Switzerland and extensive property in Germany.

Recently there have been much vaunted changes toward open-market capitalism in Burma, but here, too, corruption is rife. Burma's largest financial institution, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), set up by SLORC in 1990, is totally controlled by the military. Shares in UMEH are held by the Ministry of Defense, Defense Service personnel, regimental institutes, and senior ex-service men. Both its chairman and managing director are senior SLORC officers. The military, their friends, and their relations are also in positions to benefit from mass resettlement programs, because all land in Burma can be seized without any compensation. During a government auction of mineral rights in Hpakhan in 1990, for example, many indigenous Kachin jade miners were forced by army-backed newcomers to abandon land which their families had traditionally owned and worked. Likewise, the military sold to Thai companies for tremendous sums the rights to fish in the Andaman Sea. Subsequently, local Tavoyan, Karen, and Mon fishermen were forbidden from entering their traditional waters, and entire fishing villages faced starvation for the first time.

In December 1987 the United Nations granted Burma the status of "Least Developed Country," but luxury hotels, restaurants, discos, and department stores are springing up like weeds in all the major cities. Burma's already grave humanitarian crisis is rapidly worsening. UNICEF has called it "Myanmar's Silent Emergency."

Like the rice in the pot, the divisions in Burma between the rich and the poor, the military and the people, are sharply and clearly delineated. The military elite and their families have access to the best food, the best medical care, and the best education in the country, while the rest of the population must do with very little. In Burma there is only one doctor for every 12,500 people, the inflation rate for rice is 800 percent, three out of four children don't complete primary school, 40 percent of the children under 3 suffer from malnutrition, and only 2 percent of the people have access to electricity. Half of the national budget is spent on the military, which has doubled to 300,000 in only 6 years. By its corruption, SLORC has blighted the country.

In the fifteenth dream a disgusting, vulgar crow was escorted by a retinue of magnificent Mandarin ducks with shiny golden feathers.

Buddha explained that this dream foretold a time when weak and incompetent rulers would themselves be cowards and fools. Fearing revolution because of their stupid failures, they would elevate their lowest servants, the uneducated riff-raff, to nobility. Unable to support themselves, the real nobles and the educated elite would have to dance attendance on the upstarts, serving them as the regal Mandarin ducks had to serve the crow.

In Burma, the military rulers have granted all positions of authority and responsibility, not according to qualifications of education or merit, but simply according to loyalty. The heads of all organizations and government departments, as well as the members of all committees and trustee boards, are military or retired military personnel. Few of these men were educated at even the high school level. Furthermore, they can be likened to crows, who are described as destructive, reckless, greedy, gluttonous, rough, merciless, weak, noisy, forgetful, and wasteful. The former elite, those with proper education and qualifications, are forced to bow and scrape before these parvenus.

In the last of the sixteen dreams the king saw goats chasing leopards and devouring them. Merely seeing a goat in the distance was enough to make the leopards flee in terror and hide in thickets.

Buddha explained that this dream also would be fulfilled in a time when rulers were unrighteous. The low-born would be raised to important posts, while the truly noble would sink into poverty and distress. Gaining power in the law courts, the parvenus would claim the property of the impoverished old nobility. When the true owners pleaded for their rights, the rulers' minions would have them tortured and thrown out, saying, "That will teach you! The king will hear of your insolence, and we will have your hands and feet chopped off!" Hearing this, the terrified nobles would agree that black is white and that their property had never been their own at all. After that, they would simply cower at home in an agony of fear. At the same time, evil monks would harass good, worthy monks, until the worthy ones fled from the monasteries to the jungle. This oppression of those truly noble by the low-born would be like the intimidation of leopards by goats.

The unmistakable climate of fear in Burma is apparent even to official visitors like Prof. Yokota, UN Human Rights Expert, who was carefully isolated from ordinary people. Some estimate that as many as one out of every five people is connected to military intelligence. With spies even inside the monasteries, many monks have fled either to the border areas or to refuge overseas.

It is perhaps this last dream which holds the greatest import for Buddhists. Many Cambodians, also pious Buddhists, stated that they could forgive the Khmer Rouge for having murdered their families, but added, "How can we forgive them for trying to destroy our Buddhism?" In Burma, the action of the military against Buddhism and the Sangha is certainly on a different scale, much slower, and less dramatic but, nevertheless, extremely destructive.

The military crackdown on the Sangha began soon after Ne Win's coup. In 1962 he ordered all monks to join a national register, but many refused. In 1965 there were mass protests against the creation of a central All Buddha Sasana Sangha Organization, and seven hundred monks, including senior monks, were arrested. Some of these monks were harshly abused, disrobed, and imprisoned. In 1974, when the military blocked a proper funeral for U Thant, UN Secretary-General, six hundred members of the Sangha were arrested, and several monks were bayonetted and shot. The military junta continued to put pressure on the Sangha and to issue defamatory statements through the state-controlled media. There were numerous instances of trumped-up charges being brought against senior monks. Some were arrested, their monasteries closed, and their property seized by the government. Government propaganda was relentless in claiming that monks were shameless parasites, while soldiers sacrificed everything for the country.

In the brief democracy summer of 1988, monasteries quickly broke free of the administrative shackles imposed by the Ne Win regime. As respected community figures, monks were elected to lead many of the Strike Committees that proliferated across the country. Several monks were killed when troops opened fire on crowds in demonstrations in Rangoon and Moulmein. Of the more than 10,000 people killed during August and September, at least 600 were members of the Sangha. In many cases, soldiers were ordered to strip dead monks of their robes and to dispose of the bodies secretly.

On July 6, 1989, the army desecrated sacred Shwedagon Pagoda by setting up barricades on the platform to search all pilgrims. After they themselves behaved provocatively, soldiers killed 11 monks and 17 students and closed the pagoda for five days. Also in July, Ven. U Kawainda, a senior monk in Mandalay who had been one of the leading advocates for human rights in 1988, was arrested. On September 9, 1991, BBC reported that this monk had been tortured to death in prison.

By mid-1990, as violence and oppression continued, as many as 400 monks had arrived to take sanctuary in Thai monasteries in Bangkok, while hundreds more sheltered in make-shift monasteries along the Thai-Burma border.

Inside Burma, public ceremonies involving monks have continued to be closely watched. On May 17, 1990, for example, the entire Pyitaingdaung Drum Band was arrested for illegally playing songs supporting the NLD at an ordination ceremony for a monk. In July of the same year, seven civilians were reportedly sentenced to five years' hard labor by a Military Tribunal for breaking Order 2.88, which bans gatherings of more than five people, when they joined a peaceful monks' protest outside Shwedagon Pagoda. The monks were demonstrating because soldiers had refused some of them entry to a service commemorating the anniversary of the Buddha's first sermon.

On August 8, 1990, in commemoration of the second anniversary of the democracy uprising, over 7,000 monks and novices solemnly walked through the streets of Mandalay accepting alms from the people. Soldiers confronted the monks and opened fire, killing two monks and two students and wounding seventeen others. One novice disappeared.

Following this massacre, the Monks' Union (Sangha Sammagi) of Mandalay, led by Ven. U Yewata declared an act of the Sangha called "overturning the bowl" (pattam nikkujjana kamma). Recognizing that the army had committed at least one of the eight kinds of wrongdoing against the Sangha, monks formally decided to refuse alms from army members or their families or to solemnize their funerals. This boycott spread very quickly, and throughout Burma monks refused to attend religious services organized by SLORC. Though the purpose of the boycott was compassionate--to help the evil doers atone for their deeds and forsake their evil ways, Saw Maung and Mandalay Division Commander Tun Kyi refused to repent. They declared that their actions were completely justified and that they were not afraid of going to hell.

The monks' boycott was the excuse for SLORC to instigate a massive clampdown on the Sangha. Monasteries were surrounded by armed troops. Electricity, water, and communication lines were cut, and monks were prevented from going on their daily alms rounds. After one week of blockade, armed troops entered the monasteries and arrested the leaders. More than 350 monasteries were raided, and more than 3,000 monks and novices were arrested. Twenty monasteries were seized and nationalized. These mass arrests were swiftly followed on October 31, 1990, by a SLORC declaration that there would be only one monks' organization in Burma with nine legally-approved sects. Any monk trying to set up a new Buddhist group would be subject to up to three years in jail.

What is even more reprehensible is that these evil acts against the Buddha Sasana have been carried out in the very name of Buddhism. The miliary leaders have proclaimed that they are actually trying to protect and purify Buddhism in Burma. At the same time they are arresting, torturing and exiling senior monks, they are making a big show of offering color TV's and other fancy items to monks who either collaborate in their evil designs or who simply cannot refuse.

It is not difficult, however, to see through the transparent ruse of the military. Their actions have consistently shown that they are not Buddhists.

Morality is the foundation of all Buddhist practice. The minimum moral practice for laymen is the five precepts; abstaining from killing any living being, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from unlawful sexual intercourse, abstaining from lying, and abstaining from the use of intoxicants that cloud the mind.

In Burma these fundamental moral principles are systematically and explicitly violated by the military leaders in the way they govern the entire country. In February 1995, Prof. Yozo Yokota told the UN Human Rights Commission that the conduct of the Burmese military must be brought "into line with accepted international human rights and humanitarian standards so that they do not arbitrarily kill, rape, confiscate property, force persons into acts of labor or porterage, relocate them, or otherwise treat persons without respect for their dignity as human beings." In his 1993 report, he wrote, "forced relocation and forced portering has led to a systematic pattern of torture (including rape), cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, disappearance or arbitrary execution of Muslim and other Rakhine ethnic minorities by the Myanmar authorities." In his 1994 report, he wrote that among other "atrocities," rape was "being committed consistently and on a wide scale by the soldiers of the Myanmar Army against innocent villagers (particularly those belonging to ethnic minorities)."

Whereas Buddhism teaches tolerance toward other religions, the leaders of SLORC have attempted to use the religion to subdue or to eradicate some of the ethnic minorities. In Chin State SLORC is using various tactics to subvert Christianity, which is the dominant religion there. Young Burman soldiers who are stationed there are promised promotions if they marry Christian girls. Chin Christian missionaries are prevented from moving from one section of the state to another. Last year, when SLORC offered free education to Chin youth who agreed to study in Rangoon, several Christian families sent their children to the capital. A few months later they learned that all the children were staying at Kaba Aye monastery. The boys had had their heads shaved and had been ordained as Buddhist novices, but the girls had so far successfully refused. SLORC refused to let the children return and even to allow members of the Chin community in Rangoon to meet them. When representatives from Chin State finally met the children, they all begged to be taken home, but SLORC refused permission. Such forcible conversion is totally in conflict with the Teaching of the Buddha. The Dhamma is ehipassiko (inviting one to come and see for himself); and coercion to become Buddhist is a contradiction in terms.

In late 1994 and early 1995 SLORC launched a massive offensive against the strongholds of the Karen National Union (KNU). The government claimed that it was not directly responsible for the attacks, but that they were organized and carried out by a group of Buddhist Karen, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), who were rebelling against the Christian leadership of the KNU. There is overwhelming evidence that the DKBA is entirely controlled by SLORC. The monasteries supporting the movement were set up and supported by SLORC. Those very monasteries were used as weapons caches. What is even more contemptible is that SLORC would have the world believe that there could ever be a Buddhist "army." Here too SLORC is using Buddhism to further its own evil goals, and in the process weakening the very foundations of the Buddha Sasana. No war has ever been fought in the name of Buddhism, and it is unthinkable that the advice of the Sangha would ever promote anything but peace and prosperity, both at home and abroad. The DKBA with its SLORC companions are a band of outlaws, threatening Christians and animists with violence, kidnaping helpless refugees, robbing them of rice and jewelry, and wantonly killing any who stand in their way. Since monks neither use nor advocate violence , SLORC's propaganda about DKBA is nothing but demeaning lies. The Sangha has but one message for any ruler: "Never in this world does hatred cease by hatred: it ceases only by love. This is the Law Eternal."

The Buddha clearly taught that a government must uphold the moral and spiritual law. Being the means to enlightenment, Buddhism demands that a Buddhist state recognize that the true goal of life is to attain Nibbana, and that it has the duty of providing for all its citizens a political and social organization within which both monks and lay people can live in accordance with Dhamma. Not a single page of Buddhist history is lit with the flame of inquisitional fires, darkened with smoke of heretic cities ablaze, nor red with the blood of guiltless victims of religious hatred. Buddhism wields only the Sword of Wisdom and recognizes only one enemy, Ignorance. The evils that we see in Burma are explained by the greed, hatred, and delusion of the military rulers. It is no wonder that the Burmese people see their country in the sixteen great dreams of King Pasenadi. The greatest sin of these rulers, however, is that they work their wickedness under a pretense of piety.

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