Keeping the Flame of Hope Alive

Fr Kurt with students in the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina. - Photo:Kurt Zion Pala SSCFr Kurt with students in the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina. - Photo:Kurt Zion Pala SSC

I have lived in Myanmar for the last three years. Myanmar is known as the Golden Land - because once you arrive in the city of Yangon or Mandalay or for most of its many cities and towns - they will all be covered and dotted with golden Buddhist temples.

All of these temples are painted in golden colors. People can also paste or gild thinly-made gold leaves on the image of Buddha. One such popular image is the Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay. Shwebo, a Buddhist monk and a great friend brought me there one day. We bought ourselves some gold leaves and went our way to the image. I realized and saw women were not allowed to enter the main hall where people are gilding gold leaves on the image. After that I saw a sign that said women and girls are not allowed. I saw the same sign in Indawgyi where a famous “floating” temple and image is found. Women and girls are not also allowed to step on the platform. I asked Shwebo if this is one of Buddha’s teachings and he told me definitely not Buddha’s teachings.

Pasting gold leaf onto statues at pagodas is one way to honour the Buddha's teachings. Gilding such figures is, according practitioners of Buddhism, “an act of loving kindness” and a path to “transfer good merits.” Gold in Buddhism signifies the sun: a flame of purity, knowledge, enlightenment. Myanmar may no longer be a true Golden Land but the flame of hope continues to burn in the young people. Help us keep this flame alive!

But sadly this Golden Land is turning into red - stained by the blood of innocent people including children. Besides human causalities - the land of Myanmar is also bleeding from the many destructive mining activities in many parts of the country - gold, jade, precious gems and now rare earth metals are extracted without control.

Yangon or Mandalay are covered with golden Buddhist temples. - Photo: Kurt Zion Pala SSCYangon or Mandalay are covered with golden Buddhist temples. - Photo: Kurt Zion Pala SSC

In the month of April this year a village in an anti-military junta controlled area was attacked and bombed by the military junta killing at least 165 people, including 27 women and 19 children, in the central Sagaing region reported by the shadow government in Myanmar.

This is not the first but one of the many atrocities committed by this military junta. Two years ago, the military declared a coup claiming that the democratically-held elections was not valid and there was cheating. No proof has been presented but all of the political leaders who won were all arrested. A protest movement grew made up of young and enlightened students. Some of them even joined what they formed as the armed resistance called the Peoples’ Defense Force or PDF.

Some of them are students I worked with in the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina. Many of them were arrested, reportedly raped and tortured in prisons. One of them I had to anoint after being shot during one of the many protests in the city. In God’s mercy he survived but had to move around a lot for fear of being arrested by the police. He is now trying to complete his studies in one of the many community learning centers that have grown out of the crisis in Myanmar. In Kachin, we remain safe from military attacks because of the presence of the Kachin Independent Army (KIA). Yet we always remain vigilant and ready.

The casualty of this ongoing crisis are the dreams of many young people. Their dreams of finishing their studies and finding work and life after. But the simple dream of wearing their graduation vestments and throwing their graduation caps in the air remains strong! Help us prepare this young people for life and work through the Positive Youth Development Program. Help us keep their dreams alive through the Student Learning Resources Center. Through your generous donation and support we can help them make their dreams come true.

Myanmar or Burmese Buddhists celebrated Thinggyan in April each year which is similar to Thailand’s Sonkran festival. People come out and pour water on each other to cleanse them of last year’s sins and dirt. Today no amount of water can clean the innocent blood spilled by the military junta. But we continue to pray for God’s mercy on the people of Myanmar but as Christians we also pray for conversion of the military leaders to follow the teachings of Buddha - “… Having abandoned the taking of life, refraining from killing, we dwell without violence, with the knife laid down, scrupulous, full of mercy, trembling with compassion for all sentient beings.”

May God continue to bless you and protect you!

Columban Fr Kurt Zion Pala lives and works in Myanmar. 

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