If you are really stressed out and discouraged by the headlines and looking for news that will feed your hope about the future of our planet, pay attention to what has been going on in my first adopted homeland, (I only have two—the U.S. is the other one) Burma, also known as Myanmar. A historical change and transformation for the better is taking place with very little attention or support from the rest of the world. Decades of patience, perseverance and endurance, in the form of peaceful resistance against one of the most brutal regimes in recent history, are finally bearing fruit for the noble people of Burma. This great nation is teaching the global human community a great lesson of hope and non-violent resistance. Burma, the jewel of Southeast Asia, is finally about to get what she deserves—God willing.
What feeds the intensely optimistic tone of this column is recent political changes taking place in Burma. The brutal military regime, which has been ruling (read as ruining) the country since 1962, is finally giving up and relaxing its iron grip on the Burmese people. If anyone is wondering how a country of great prosperity and cultural richness could deteriorate to become one of the most bankrupt and miserable countries in the world in a only few decades… study recent Burmese history. This former British colony was one of the rising stars of Asia after WWII—with its booming economy and vibrant intellectual life—until a communist military coup took over the country on March 2, 1962. The military junta has consistently crushed the people under its boots, regularly killing people and creating one of the most inhuman societies. North Korea, which is much better known than Burma, is strikingly and ironically similar. All this bad luck has been changing as pro-democracy movements led by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi gain more momentum and influence in the country. Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party (NLD) has just won 43 of the 45 seats being contested in recent parliamentary elections. The angel is out of the bottle. The country is on an irreversible path of change.
For five years and four months I lived in this beautiful country. I fell in love with the land, people, culture and history from the moment I first stepped on its soil. I thought I was going to live in Burma for the rest of my life until my forced departure separated us. I learned Burmese pretty well, I dressed in the Burmese style for all those years, I ate Burmese food, I dreamt in Burmese for many years and I often still do. I even bought a pair of grave sites for me and for my wife, which are legally required if you want to be buried in a Muslim cemetery in Burma, thinking that I would die there. What made me deeply connected to this great but out-of-luck nation is beyond any rational explanation because it was mostly an emotional connection. However, if I have to name one thing that has filled my heart with intense love and admiration for Burma and its noble people, it would be my profound dismay and humble empathy for the decades-long injustice and oppression the Burmese people have been going through.
The Burmese are one of the most peaceful and resilient people that I have ever seen in my life. Despite the harsh social, economic and political calamities that they had to go through, the spark of life is always present in their smiles and in their peaceful presence. Quite honestly, I see more unhappy and stressed-out people in the U.S. than in Burma. They may have a lot less than we do. They may have been going through much tougher realities than we have, but their souls have not been crushed and they remain hopeful for the future.
The people of Burma deserve almost all of the credit for the recent positive changes in the country. The international community did very little other than levy ineffective sanctions and employ useless political rhetoric as the Burmese people suffered over many decades. The global superpowers who “love” going after oppressive regimes, toppling bloody dictators and “liberating” people never got interested in Burma and the Burmese people during all of those years. A half century of Burmese cries for help often fell on deaf ears because Burma didn’t have the oil or the strategic importance of other countries. Humanity fell woefully short in its ethical and moral responsibilities to this nation of over 60 million people.
As this nation expels its demons through its own internal struggles, how can we fulfill our moral and ethical responsibility toward this deeply wounded nation? Shouldn’t we be in solidarity with the noble people of Burma as they try to build a better future? Shouldn’t we urgently rush to their aid in their efforts to build their nation in the post-junta era? Isn’t a call from Mount Sinai inviting if not commending global society to serve the Burmese people as they try to establish currently non-existent social, economic and civic institutions? We have so much to make up for, and now this nation is giving us ample opportunities to do so. I hope and pray this column will encourage all of us to think and act: “What can I as an individual, my society as a whole and my nation collectively do to be in service of Burma in this very critical time?”
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim Chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Tuesday.