Joah McGee doesn’t like to talk about himself. In fact, his name is not to be found anywhere on the website of the charity he founded: Better Burma. He just wants to tell the story of the people that stole his heart and who have been silenced by violent oppression. His vision: To bring support and warmth to the Golden Land.
But on a day at the beginning of November 2023 he stands before us at a Zoom gathering of Mitgefühl in Aktion (MIA), the german branch of Buddhist Global Relief, an organisation founded by the famous monk and translator Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is also present and gives the introduction.
Joah has come to introduce Better Burma to the supporters of MIA, who have so kindly raised funds for food-distributions to those in need inside a country torn by violence. The quiet Native American man seems a bit uncomfortable to be put into the spotlight. Usually he is the one who listens and shares the stories. But today he makes an exception and he talks about himself, first hesitant but then more confident, and sometimes emotional, as he progresses.
Joah has spent 15 years living in Myanmar and in this time he has learned to love the country and it’s people. He talks about the days after the coup in 2021, when he could withdraw into the safety of a western country, but it was a country that was no longer his own and where life seemed almost meaningless and irrelevant in the face of the suffering of his friends back in Burma. Being called by friends on the run or in hiding, hearing of others being arrested or killed, he felt helpless. Fueled by his background in Buddhist practice and meditation, inspired by the bravery of the Burmese people themselves, he decided to use his podcasts, his wide network of friends across Myanmar and his understanding of the Burmese culture to try and help, to tell the stories of those who otherwise remain unheard, and to raise funds for a variety of projects to help a people in crisis.
Over the last 3 years Joah has built up a charity that can bring relief where larger organisations can’t with the help of Burmese locals on the ground who risk their lives every day to bring food and medicines to people who are starving, whose houses have been burned down and whose livestock have been killed. He brings the stories of people within Myanmar and raises awareness of their plight. He supports soldiers who want to defect and not fight their own people any longer.
Joah talks about how Buddhist meditation is supporting him in his work and how the Burmese find strength in the practice, even in the most harrowing of circumstances. And how Buddhist practice is about helping others and not about closing your heart. Joah has made it his life’s work to bring a little bit of support and warmth to the Golden Land.
You can find the entire transcript of the evening below.
Joah McGee tells his story and that of Better Burma, shares his insights about Myanmar and relief work and answers Questions. This is the transcript of an online Zoom meeting on 2nd Novembre 2023, organized by Mitgefühl in Aktion.
Thank you very much for the invitation. Thank you for your support and your faith in the work that we’re doing as an organization. Thanks also go to Bhikkhu Bodhi for everything that he has done, also trusting and overseeing and introducing the work we’re doing. And from the podcast side, I would like to thank Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi and Venerable Vimala, both of whom are on this call, who also appeared on the podcast and to talked about their life, views and experience.
I will give some brief introduction about myself. I have a 20-year relationship with Myanmar. It began exactly 20 years ago in 2003. And of those 20 years, I lived there for about 15 years. My interest in Myanmar began with meditation. It began with being of a Vipassanā meditator in the tradition of S.N. Goenka. And hearing about Myanmar, where the lineage came from, this lineage that had provided the teachings, which as a very young person had transformed my life and aroused an interest to go to the place where those teachings originated and learn more about the society there. At the time I was a bit naive in my understanding and I hope I’ve learned something in those 20 years since. I went as a meditator on a one-month visa in 2003. Afterwards I then felt drawn to find a way to come back. This was no easy thing because of the very severe military regime at the time.
But very fortunately, I was able to get a job in my field, which was training. And I worked as a trainer for the US embassy for several years. And so I was able to have my dream job in my dream place, and that began my involvement in living actually not visiting but actually living and integrating into Burmese society through professional work as well as through this interest in Buddhism and meditation. I began by training English teachers how to teach English, but that grew into training about civil society and capacity building and bringing together individuals from diverse groups to be able to learn and work with each other.
I think that my opening into Myanmar put me in a very interesting intersection that I think many foreigners who comem are not exactly in. I had a deep appreciation of, hunger for, and curiosity about Buddhism and meditation. And yet my profession was in the embassy. I was definitely aware of and affected by the political reality and the democracy and human rights. And so, from the very beginning of my life in Myanmar, I was, constantly interacting with these two different sectors, which I think other foreigners don’t necessarily find themselves in, because they’re usually coming for one or the other. That started my perspective of trying to understand the different layers of Burma. I think that on one hand there is tendency among people that are interested in the Buddhist aspect to try to understand that in its own terms, and on the other also people coming, looking at human rights, democracy or the military’s role and coming just from that perspective. And I think what I’ve tried to do, first, casually just from my own life, because I was living there and doing these two things, and then as a podcast host and nonprofit leader to be able to really share and emphasize the importance to people of how these two things are constantly intersecting with each other. You can’t understand one without understanding the other and bring a more holistic and integrated understanding of the country and society to a foreign audience.
After my work ended at the embassy, I wanted to spend more time meditating. I had learned some Burmese by that point, learned the way of the land and I wanted to spend time living remotely and in Burmese monasteries, meditation centers, even caves, delving deeper into Buddhism.
But as luck would have it, this was just when the democratic transition was starting. What had begun as an interest in pursuing my own individual meditation turned into writing a guidebook for meditators on the different traditions, lineages, practices, as well as to start leading pilgrimages. So during the several years of the transition, I spent many years doing research into the different great Buddhist traditions as well as starting to lead pilgrimages for meditators going to those remote yet important places.
In 2019 I started Insight Myanmar podcast, and at that time it was focused on stories of Buddhism and meditators and having lived in the country over 10 years at that point, I felt that the understanding of Buddhist communities outside of Myanmar of these traditions within the country was very different than my reality. Myanmar was a closed country, it’s not like Thailand or Sri Lanka, where foreign practitioners can come and stay for long periods of time. That’s never been the case in Myanmar because of the political difficulties. And so also the great meditation masters don’t have an opportunity to go outside. And so I wanted to be able to bring those voices to the public. I don’t have the arrogance to think that I can speak for that, but I wanted to capitalize on the trust that I had developed with various people involved in meditation and Buddhism connected to Myanmar and start a podcast where we could have conversations about their lives in the Buddhist communities and also to give a different voice to Buddhist practice
After the military coup in February 2021 it seemed irresponsible and really unconscionable to be talking about the spiritual stories of practice in Myanmar, the golden land, when the monasteries were literally on fire, and people were dying in the streets and monks and nuns were also being killed and imprisoned. And so we made the emergency decision to use our platform to tell stories of the wider movement that may or may not include Buddhism. And after some time we realized this was a permanent transformation which I’m very happy about. We continue to have many stories that are entirely about Buddhism or somewhat about Buddhism, but we also have stories that are about history and economics and Christian or Muslim ethnic communities or some political reality. Our podcast has become a combination of telling stories about Buddhism and the intersection of Buddhism with other parts of society, as well as other topics that are of concern. We are the only platform that engages in long form discussions about these various topics and we’ve grown to an audience of about 80,000 listeners now.
I’m really proud of the role that our platform has been able to take on. We have, in addition to the many Buddhist and monastic voices that we’ve posted, we have now had ambassadors, foreign ministers of countries. We are listened to by most of the democratic leaders in Myanmar, as well as many organizations and embassies and so have become a platform to engage in critical conversations.
Just to quote one anecdote> I was very humbled to have a conversation with the EU ambassador to Burma whose name is a Ranieri Sabatucci. And he said that when he first came to Myanmar, the grandson of the former UN Secretary General U Thant told him that to understand Myanmar you need to understand Buddhism. And he looked for all the different books and sources he could find. But he didn’t find anything that really informed him how Buddhism was relevant to his work as EU ambassador. He said that through listening to our podcast and listening to the voices of the people who have came and talked about Buddhism, that our panel has been his teacher about Burmese Buddhism. I think that’s a beautiful story about how the stories of the spiritual journey and Buddhism that we’re telling are reaching not just people in the spiritual side, but reaching many people from many positions who care about Myanmar, and giving them greater information and access to understand how to make better decisions.
Another example we have an episode coming out later this month with a Ashin Kovida, who is a longtime democratic advocate, and a Burmese monk. I was speaking to him about the rise of 969 Movement, U Wirathu and the anti Islam part of the Saṅgha, and asking him to explain this. He said that when foreign journalists came to Myanmar to report on the hateful anti Islam monks, he went to those journalists and he said, “we have progressive monks too, like myself, and we have been working against these other monks our whole lives, and please talk to us as well. We also have things we want to tell you about the kind of Buddhism that we’re promoting that’s very different from them”. The journalists didn’t want to talk to him. They were not interviewed because, as he put it, the story was not so interesting. It’s a more exciting story to have monks who are hateful than monks who are peaceful. We recorded a two hour interview. And so, going places where some of the larger foreign media don’t go, we’re able to give those voices to people who are trying to be heard but are not. And you look at what the foreign journalists did in putting fuel on this fire to make worse the hatred and the reputation that was going on in the Saṅgha, by not reporting on the progressive side because it wasn’t as interesting. That’s a role that we’re very passionate about, about being able to fulfill and bring those voices on.
Now I would like to talk about our humanitarian work after the coup. In 2021 I formed a nonprofit called Better Burma that is registered as a NGO here in the United States, and this nonprofit was intended to be able to get emergency relief and humanitarian funds to vulnerable populations with the hope that through my work on the guidebook, the pilgrimages, the podcast, there was something of a following among Buddhist and meditator groups in the west who trusted me to some extent, even though I’d never asked for anything, but trusted my time in Myanmar and my networks to be able to give donations and then through our contact with local networks, we could give those funds to populations that needed urgent relief.
In the time since the coup about two and a half years ago now we’ve funded over 100 different projects all over Myanmar, all different populations of ethnicity and religion, in the border regions of India and Thailand and have given funds to everything from education to food for monks, impoverished communities, emergency COVID relief, the military defection campaign (CDM), Civil Disobedience Movement, medicine, medical training, a wide range of different projects that we’ve supported in this time of need.
Myanmar is a trust based society, and so things happen, not based on protocols or systems because they’ve lived among broken systems for generations, but on face and trust, and that’s the way I think we’ve been able to be effective and getting the aid where it needs to go. It needs to be able to go through trusted local networks that are outside of the bigger organizations that don’t necessarily have those connections to be able to properly assess where the need most is and then work through this trust based format to get the aid where it needs to go.
Things work very differently there just as a funny aside for anyone that would have gone there would know this. If you want to go to a monastery to become a monk or nun or to a meditation course, you can make phone calls send letters or emails, but you’re not very likely to have an effective response from that. If you, however, just show up at the place where you want to go and annoounce your intention, probably you’ll be given a bed that night.
Things just work differently. You need to know the system, you need to know the protocols. Part of it is cultural and part of it is that the Burmese have lived in a country where they had to navigate broken systems and institutions for far too long and so there are these workarounds. The workarounds are really built on face based trust, on giving a word, on having a mutual connection and those are much stronger than any system-protocols or -contracts or anything else. That’s been the way when I lived there and that’s the way that we’re now working with for our fund delivery.
The first year after the coup was just awful, obviously awful for them, but it was awful for me too. I was living in America. I mean, I was displaced, like many people, by the coup. But I was living in safety in America, a privilege that the Burmese did not have. But I did not know how to live normally when everything I knew and everyone I knew was in danger. And phone calls would come in the middle of the night of people literally on the run, escaping. Friends would disable their phones and I wouldn’t hear from them for weeks or months. I didn’t know if they were hiding or had lost connection or if they were in prison or if they were dead. This was a trauma that I experienced as someone privileged, living in safety yet overcome by the extreme danger and fear and trauma of a community and that for so long had embraced me. It broke me down several times. It also gave me strength and knowing how to live a life very different than anything I’ve ever known. It was difficult hearing a friend tell me about his feelings about a new TV show or my mom talking about some exchange with a friend she just meet for lunch, and to just see all of it as meaningless compared to the the problems of people that were escaping such terror and were being so courageous and their ideals. And on a personal level it took some work to learn how to live in both worlds and how to engage with privileged people that I care about living in a safe place, and then turning to my computer or my phone and talking to people that were sometimes fleeing for their life or trying to prevent an execution or trying to help vulnerable people who had, who were all on the run after the village was burned and to understand how to live in both fields. And I think it took a full year to learn how to integrate those things that are not easy to integrate for anyone.
I get a little emotional talking about this time. I’m usually not the one who talks I’m usually the one who listens. So sometimes when I access these feelings it gets a bit much. But, you know, the courage of the people in Burma right now is something I’ve never seen. The things that we might care about, gender equality or democracy or human rights or freedom are small compared to the stakes in Myanmar which are higher than anything we can imagine. To continueto write poetry, even though it can get you to killed, to make documentaries or art or whatever else it is, they do it because they believe in these things and no one’s helping them, and these ideals that their societies are formed by and how courageous and selfless they’ve been. Of course I don’t want to overstate it, it’s a society like any other.
Whatever I’m going through is nothing compared to what people in Myanmar have to deal with. And they’ve given so much to the world, they’ve given so much to me, and their voices aren’t being heard. And if there’s some small way that we can help their voices being heard and provide aid when there are so few places for them to turn that’s just a good thing. The people that we’re working with and the people that we’re talking to, the values they’ve shown in the hardest of situations, is just so inspiring. Those that are Buddhists are into the Dharma, and their understanding of Buddhism is coming to them in such inspiring ways of providing mental balance and compassion and stories. We don’t hear enough about all of the people, monks or lay people, democratic leaders, political prisoners. Their democratic principles and understanding of human rights is derived from a Buddhist understanding, and they will quote Buddhists suttas and ethics and meditation instructions to give them courage and to justify the support for a society that they’re hoping to build.
When you’re talking about engaged Buddhism in the West, there are some very noble examples of protesting nuclear proliferation or environmentalism or racism or other things that are very important. But when you’re practicing engaged Buddhism when your life is literally on the line, when, you’re, you hear of Ko Jimmy, the democracy activist who was executed by the state, and his last words before being executed are assuring his mother that he’s continuing to observe his mind and body as he’s going towards the gallows, and he knows that he’s done the right thing and his support of a better country, and so he feels free. When you’re bringing this kind of engaged Buddhism to these kinds of stakes of real life and death, again these stories are so inspiring for whatever lives we’re trying to live and we can only imagine how we would do in such situations in such context. You know, many political prisoners turned to meditation in prison, and that’s how they find their strength and balance. It’s something we can not even begin to imagine in those situations
I did a podcast interview with U Linn Thant, who’s the National Unity government’s representative in Europe, and he was a political prisoner for 20 years. When he started his meditation practice, the next day one of the prison guards had a car accident. And so the guards thought he was practicing black magic, and they were afraid whenever they would see him start to meditate. So whenever U Linn Thant would get into a meditative posture, they would come and beat him, they would physically beat him. And you think that the one thing they can’t take away from you is mindfulness and to have the image of a prisoner sitting in silence alone in his cell cross legged in mindfulness and he would tell them, “What I’m doing is also good for you. I’m also trying to develop love for you”. If you can think about getting beaten for practicing meditation, and yet still carrying on Buddhist principles still refusing to hate, still working for democracy to this day, that is something that I can only tell the stories about. I can’t imagine myself facing those same circumstances.
Our donations, in the various networks they go to, are largely delivered by volunteers who have to take extreme precautions on every step of the way from how they receive the money to how they purchase the goods to how they transport the goods to how they deliver them. People have been imprisoned simply for liking a Facebook post, and having a car full of rice or medicine that are outside of the regime’s infrastructure can lead to serious repercussions. And so for those people handling the aid it’s not a normal situation. There’s a lot of safety considerations that we also couldn’t begin to imagine in the usual countries where we might support projects that have to be taken into consideration here.
You know, in one case there was a donation that was given and the report wasn’t coming. I was trying to talk to the team leader to receive the report. And I know he’d been in danger, his father had been in prison, they had to pass through military checkpoints, so I knew things were taking a while. When I asked where this particular report was report was coming. He told me that one of his students who was helping him deliver the rice, and that particular project was another project, not for our organization but for somebody else, and was pulled over on the side of the road by the military for no reason apparently and shot in the head. He apologized that he would have to follow up with one of his team members in his words that was still alive to be able to get that information. These are the conditions that the Burmese are in, and this is what makes the work so valuable.
You know, from our side had any danger, knock on wood, from the projects that we’ve supported, but the danger is all around, and it affects those that are doing it and things outside of these projects impact them, which are unusual for most contexts. So, I just want to thank you all so much for your individual, as well as your collective support.
When this nightmare started, I made a real effort to try to reach out to Buddhist groups and media in the West. I was naive, I guess. I thought that examples of engaged Buddhism of meditation like progressive monks criticizing the anti-Islam hateful monks, and having their voice heard, that these would be things that would concern Western Saṅghas and Western Buddhist publishers, but for the most part they wouldn’t. I don’t know why, but you all are the exception, along with several others. And I just really thank you for showing up and for supporting, not just materially but with your with your hearts with your minds as well. And so with that, I’ll end my talk here and take questions.
Question: Can you please tell us about the projects supported by Better Burma at this time?
Just off the top of my head, to talk about some of the projects that we’re doing now, t here are flash floods that have displaced tens of thousands of people in the Bago region and we’re urgently sending aid for that. We have some ongoing projects that we’ve been working on for months. Looking at the recent updates
– we funded a group of former military wives that are engaged in livelihood training and trying to talk to more spouses to get their partners to defect and join the democracy movement,
– covert medical training in the Sagaing region to bring medical training to civilian populations that are impacted,
– food for monastics has been an ongoing thing,
– bringing food in for monastic schools has been another,
– political prisoners that are imprisoned,
– care packages of food and medicine that we’re able to get in through certain networks,
– we’ve built eight schools for 900 students in Mizoram in India for Chin refugees
these are just some examples the ongoing things that we have right now.
To clarify, these were Better Burma’a wider humanitarian activities. They weren’t the activities that we’re doing as part of the generous grant given by your organization. So, so we’re very aware of the restrictions of this having to be towards food aid having to be towards within the country and not border regions and having to not be religious designation but for people and all of the support that we provided through that aid has followed these qualifications, we’ve been very careful with that. So the answer I gave was our wider many humanitarian missions were doing as a part of different donations coming in different places. And with the funds that you’ve given we’ve probably supported about seven or eight groups by now with it just different allotments of funds that have gone mainly towards ethnic minorities, lay people not to monks, and those that have been impacted with food scarcity. So we’ve definitely been following the guidelines of that particular grant but you know, aside from the particular fund that you’ve given these are the wider things that we’ve been doing as part of organization.
Question: Have there been any cracks in the grip of the military regime over the country, any signs that there may be a positive regime change in the future?
There’s there’s a background answer and then there’s a more immediate answer of what’s happened this week, which is quite significant, so I’ll break it up. I’ll give the background answer first.
A year or so into the coup from many informed people who I was asking I was getting the same answer which was quite alarming to me. And their answer was the pathway for the military to win is very limited, this was a year into the coup. People, very intelligent, not optimistic, felt that it was unlikely to see a military victory. What they had was that because there was so little outside support. The question wasn’t, if the people would win, but what they win, what would be left of the country and how bloody would their victory be, if there continued to be no outside support. So that was kind of the background I’ve been working with for the past number of years, that assumption and that analysis.
And this week, there was probably the most significant development, since the coup happened, it was called operation 1027. It’s called operation 1027 because it happened on October 27 so 1027. It was planned for eight months by a number of ethnic militias that attacked military posts up and down the country in a coordinated attack, and took over military bases and also many of what is called the online scam centers, where basically slaves work who are forced to engage in internet scams in the Shan State. These centers made literally billions of dollars and a lot of that was funding the military. And so this was a very significant operation.
Things are probably more uncertain now than they’ve ever been since the coup happened maybe after the first month of the coup. And we’re going to have some emergency podcasts with some very informed guests who will help us to give their view of what they think will happen next, but the short analysis is that things could change very quickly.
And there could be what’s called a black swan event where something unpredictable happens and the military crumbles within days, or weeks, or months. And then we have a post military Myanmar that suddenly is at our feet and that could happen very soon. So also, we could see a greater alignment with Russia or China, we can see greater atrocities and bloodshed and acts that the military commits out of fear. And if we continue to see lack of engagement in the West, then the military could be losing, but it could be a very long and very bloody loss. Of course, even if we do have a post military world tomorrow, through the damage the military has done everything from education to electricity to infrastructure has been put back a generation. It’ll take a decade to even get back to the point where we were in January 2021. And then that’s not to mention the many groups that are armed, the drug trade that’s worth billions of dollars the natural resources of teak and oil and jade that are also multi-billion dollar industries.
Even if we get a best case scenario, we’re still left looking at a very dicey situation. And that only underscores the continued need for humanitarian support, as well as media and advocacy, because even the best case scenario is going to is going to require attention.
Question: Are meditation centers open for Burmese people and foreigners?
I would answer this question by saying there’s there’s a huge difference right now between what’s going on in the city and what’s going on in the countryside. The cities have a veneer of normalcy that is punctuated by bombs and arrests and terror, but within that veneer it has a weird kind of tense normalcy. The countryside is under assault, the statistics are insane. In the dry zone, the Sagaing region, the military has burned tens of thousands of villages, literally, they’ve just swept and burned villages. It is those rural countryside regions that are under assault. Nothing is normal. As far as I understand many monasteries and meditation centers have become refugee centers, by necessity. I had a podcast in which a Burmese meditation teacher shares how he’s leading an intensive meditation retreat, and the military assaults the center, they drop off artillery and their bullets flying through, they overrun the center as they’re meditating, and the meditation center becomes a refugee center because in the aftermath of this assault. There is a reality that has become normalized of having to live your life as best as you can, while you accept the terror that’s going on around you. And so, to some extent, there continues to be in places that aren’t as impacted, there continue to be meditation courses, monks performing their normal duties, just as there are bars and restaurants and cafes and schools that remain open to some extent in some places. There’s this weird overlay of normalcy underneath this tension. It’s not like the entire country is ruptured by the war. It can be hard for me to understand as well where the terror and the conflict intersects with the normalcy in the daily life, but to some degree in some places this is still happening.
Touching upon the foreign meditators, my feeling is that it’s really not appropriate for foreign meditators to visit Burma right now. For one thing, it legitimizes the regime to have foreigners there for any reason, that’s exactly what they want, to show that this is a normal country and people could come and visit. So it does contribute to normalizing and legitimizing the regime. And then foreign meditators are going to monasteries or meditation centers where people can barely feed themselves they can barely take care of themselves. And many of these places are overrun by having to be refugee centers. So I think that going as a foreign meditator right now to a country that is faced with this ongoing trauma and an aspiration for some to overcome this and create something better, I think it’s a bit selfish right now to look at going in the midst of that when there’s these greater struggles happening. Sometimes foreign meditators approach me and they say, I’m not political, I’m only going there for meditation so it should be okay. I think that this is kind of a symptom of what I talked about at the beginning of my talk that “meditation” and “politics” are different things and they don’t interact, but that’s not true in Myanmar. Your decisions are political, and you can see the political implications of the decisions you make, or you can ignorantly claim that they’re not political and then not engage with that but the decisions do have political implications and I think that this is a very traumatic time in the nation and even if you are not following politics, that’s fine. But to say that you’re simply going to a meditation center, and to not recognize the pain of the people that will be caring for you and hosting you is, I think, that’s, closing one’s eyes to the impact that one’s presence will have at this time.
Foreign meditators sometimes ask me, “is it safe for me to go, or even I’m planning to go how can I be safe”. The answer I give is that, you probably will be safe. It’s not 100% sure, you could find yourself in a violent situation that you can’t guard against or you might be you know there’s always the chance you can get arrested. It’s not very likely, but it is also not impossible. The real question is, how will your presence affect the safety of the Burmese. And that’s something that is much more serious because at this time, where there’s such xenophobia of the military, those Burmese that interact with you are going to be under suspicion, and they can’t just say oh it’s for Dhamma it’s for meditation, there’s nothing else here. The truth is they’re going to be put at risk. Any association that you have with Burmese who are not necessarily going to tell you this because they’re going to be such a generous and beautiful hosts. Their desire to support you and associate with you and host you is going to put them at risk, maybe a little risk, maybe a lot of risk, but I think that’s another component is that, it’s not just a question of our own safety it’s a question of how our presence will impact the safety of others.
I know this is not the answer we want to hear. I know that this is very disappointing and disheartening. I apologize for that. I hope that we all have a better day soon. It’s simply my honest answer for how I understand things there and how I understand Burmese society in general. I think that Burmese wouldn’t necessarily be the ones to say this because they’re so generous and wanting to share and support the Dhamma. But I do think that now is a difficult time to visit for any kind of meditation activity. I just think it’s a tense and unstable time in their society and at this time they’re the ones who are in need of support. They’re usually supporting all of us for our endeavors when we come but at this moment they’re in need of what support we can give.
Question: Are you working for Better Burma fuĺl time?
Yes, this is what I do full time. I usually from morning till night, seven days a week. I usually don’t take days off or breaks since it started. I think once you see what people are going through there, it just kind of awakens in you a desire to not feel like there’s anything you could have done that you didn’t do. I think that’s probably something in your country with the difficult history you passed through in World War II that you can probably identify with is just feeling that if you’re in a position to stand up and do the right thing if fate has placed you in that position that you don’t leave anything behind. So I think that kind of thing animated me since the coup hit. When I started Better Burma, we had no idea that it would last this long, not Better Burma so much as the military regime and the coup and the resistance. And so when it was started, it was really just an emergency band aid that we thought could help for some weeks, maybe months. And as the conflict has gone on, and Better Burma has transformed from an emergency organization to a proper organization, my role went from being a volunteer that was just trying to engage in this emergency kind of band aid to something much more permanent in it. So to answer your question, yes, it’s a full time job. It is something that I’m compensated for that’s a livelihood in doing this and in trying to make this organization stable both in its humanitarian and its media arm.
Sometimes we don’t know how many months we have left in terms of, not just the support for the humanitarian but also the media side and the overall administration administrative costs, which aren’t much, but are still something that has to be looked at. We’re still hoping to have some kind of sustainability and be able to have some more confidence that we’re able to keep our heads above the water for a longer period of time.
Question: do you think we ever can return to Myanmar to meditate in this lifetime?
Yes, I’m hopeful. I mean, it could be next year, it could be the next five years. You know, Myanmar went through these periods before the 60s, 70s and 80s where the heights of the mindfulness movement which really started to take root in the West and these were, really difficult times for foreigners to come to Myanmar. It was very difficult for people to come and then things opened up and then came the transition, there was a blossoming of pilgrimages and courses and meditators and groups and teachings like we’ve never seen before. That only indicated what could have been you know, especially when you look at Thailand and what people have been able to do there. I’m definitely hopeful, I’m very optimistic, I am very optimistic it will happen. The question is, when will it happen and how much blood will be spilled. That’s the ugly tragic question.
There are foreigners that are interested in the meditation and have really kind of turned their back to this moment and closed their heart. And seeing this as a political problem, there is a part of me that hurts a little bit to think of. I guess I’m a bit cynical and thinking that there’s a mindset of as soon as the blood stops flowing then we’ll come to sit courses and lead pilgrimages. And that’s where appreciate people on this meeting and so call on an opening of the heart to whatever that means whether it’s a donation whether it’s a listening to a podcast whether it’s writing to a friend, reading or to just show up to this moment.
So that when the country does open that, we’re not just engaging with one side of the society that we’re welcoming and being present with all the different facets, even when that’s painful and even when it breaks our, perhaps our imagination or our mythology or romanticism of what we’d like it to be but that we’re able to be present through all through all parts of it.
One of the things that’s made it especially challenging is that the regime, the military regime has insisted that any local group that engages with aid needs to formally register with them. Of course, this is an example of an illegal authority, trying to make a legal ruling that becomes a contradiction. But this sets a very troublesome dynamic of any international NGO or local community based organization has to decide: Do they want to align with the regime and an organization that is full of terror and murder to introduce themselves and their work to this untrustworthy authority, where it could have life and death repercussions, or do they want to not register and then they are “illegal”, by the military regime, and anything they do to organize or implement work is also illegal. This becomes the divide that all the groups are facing right now in Myanmar.
For example, the United Nations insists on recognizing who holds territory, even though the military doesn’t hold territory of the country, they’re losing territory every day, they hold the weapons and the capital and other mechanisms of power so the United Nations have their aid programs, they’ve done photo ops with the generals, which has further enhanced their legitimacy and when the military commits atrocities, they never identify the aggressor. If the military bombs a school, they don’t condemn the military for bombing it, they express regret over the loss of life so they actually don’t even identify the aggressor. And their money, the humanitarian funds they send goes through the military, which means it siphons, it might go to weapons, it doesn’t go to ethnic regions. And it gets locked in those military networks, because it is following what it regards as kind of the standard operating procedures of, how they deliver aid to, within what they would describe as legitimate networks.
I think, for the next part of my answer I want to reference what the venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi said in a podcast conversation we had in referencing following the law versus ethical action he described.
You’re living in Nazi Germany, and you’re, you’re sheltering Jewish lives, and you’re asked by authorities do you have Jews that are hiding here. You, you might transgress right speech by saying no, in order to follow a higher ethics of saving these lives that are there. And so because you have this illegal and corrupt and murderous regime that’s making the laws, the only way to properly get aid to the right places and the right networks is to is to bypass them and so you have a divide in Myanmar where the big money, the millions of dollars are going through the “official” channels, which is not reaching those places in need and which has been decried by and criticized and condemned by many others, that these policies happen, and those smaller organizations like ours, of which there are many, are working within those local trusted informal networks to get a to the places where it needs to go.
I was in Washington DC earlier this year, and I had a meeting with two former US ambassadors to Burma, at different periods of time. One of them asked about our aid projects and I said that we have projects in the countryside around Sagaing, which is under a lot of attack. There’s a lot of problems there and one ambassador was amazed, he said, “how do you possibly get money in there. We can’t, we want to help but we don’t know how to”. And I explained the whole procedure. And his eyes rolled back in his head and he looked at the other ambassador and said there’s no way that we could do that. And that’s just the difference between a small organization with local trusted networks and a large official diplomatic mission that has to has all the boxes you need to check off. Myanmar is in such a weird unusual situation now that when you are trying to apply standardized formal procedures that work in other countries, they don’t work here.
But when you’re able to think out of the box and find solutions that work, that are unconventional, they do. And so that’s the decision that most groups making have to work as to what extent are they going to understand the local reality and how to work within that, or to what extent are they going to be stuck in conventional and formal ways of thinking that don’t really work right now.
Thank all of you so much. I mean, thank you, obviously, for the material support, but thank you also for opening your hearts. Sometimes that’s even harder to be there with open hearts, sometimes that’s the hardest thing. Thank you for allowing me to speak.