On the day of my arrest in Burma I was unknowingly encouraged by a palm reader to go ahead and do what I had come to do. This man was serious about his work. It was obvious. He reminded me of my late grandmother, a mystic, an astrologer. As he read my palm and calculated numerology his words were encouraging to me. “You have a strong will. If you say you do something you will do it…. You will have a long life. You are not in danger.”
As I left with my motorcycle taxi driver and guide I was emboldened. I had come to Burma alone, something many young women wouldn’t do already, and my plan was to distribute peace literature, stickers and music. The people I was working with in Chiang Mai, Thailand, exiles from Burma and activists, had encouraged my decision to do so, saying it would give some small but significant hope to those working on the inside. I knew I could be detained and deported, but that it was very unlikely, due to the color of my skin and the emblem on my passport, that I would suffer any greater punishment. This unjust privilege, which rests on other, more global systems of domination, repulses me. I also believe I can face this ugly truth, and decide to use that privilege in solidarity with others.
To avoid connecting my driver with the crime I was about to commit, I waited until he was not with me to distribute the pro-peace materials. We spent the day in Buddhist temples, tea shops, markets, and rice fields. Warm air blew fresh on the sticky skin of my face and chest. The colors of the country were sharp and bold. The smell of incense burning in the temples where we went to meditate calmed me, juxtaposing an ever-present undertone of fear and distrust, the marker of a military state. My guide warned me frequently about what not to say (including Aung San Suu Kyi’s name, who was referred to as “Lady 48” or “the Lady”) because spies were ubiquitous and penalties incredibly harsh for locals. “This,” I thought dryly, “is what Burma is touting as a new democracy. And people are buying it.”
Before sunset, after I said goodbye to my guide, I went out to place the materials. I distributed them randomly so that individuals could easily and honestly deny culpability for their immediate possession. I was quickly detained and spent many hours with the police and military. They were incredibly polite and kind to me. They offered me tea and dinner, and reminded me that I was a “guest” in their country. Many of them were clearly curious about who I was and were somewhat shy interacting with a young American woman. Painstakingly, we reviewed the names of my family members and the places I had gone to school. While I elected to provide mostly false information, I knew that even if I didn’t there was very little they could do to anyone I loved. It was always in my mind, however, what this would be like for a citizen of Burma. To them, questioning about family was likely one of the most terrifying aspects of the detention process, because they could, and likely would, emotionally or physically harm the activist’s family as part of their punishment.
There were some moments when I became afraid for my own welfare, moments when I realized that they could keep me there for as long as they wanted, or that they could physically or sexually assault me. But for the most part I felt relatively secure and was treated with absolute respect. I was even able to engage with the police in conversations about “my crime”. They asked why I would bring such materials to an already peaceful country, and I was able to question why an already peaceful country would ban such innocuous materials. I do not doubt that many of the police and military members actually agreed with me, as they flipped through the magazines and listened to the music I brought to “screen it.” As images of Aung San Suu Kyi showed on the television screen, one said to me, “You know this is very, very dangerous.” But all of them watched with rapt attention. I couldn’t help but wonder who in the room secretly sympathized, and hoped for her leadership to be allowed to flourish. When I left, one of the superiors even asked to keep my book, “Being Peace” by Thich Nhat Hanh, so that he could read it.
A week after my release I met with some former political prisoner exiles in Mae Sot, Thailand at the (exemplary but little known) Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPP-B). The tall and graceful Daw Khin Cho Myint came out to meet me and we talked for an hour or so. She began organizing with the uprising on 8/8/88 and after several years of courageous activist work was eventually caught “carrying brochures,” and was arrested for ten years. She was arrested for ten years, moved from place to place to keep her from seeing her family. She recited the loving-kindness meditation, metta, to keep fear and anger at bay, and learned how to cook with smuggled in lighters to avoid eating the atrocious food they were provided. Once released she and her family were watched and harassed and eventually she had to flee to Thailand to continue her work. Now, with AAPP-B she monitors arrests and releases, and supports political prisoners and their families.
I was detained for three days and get to go back to the comfort of my home. She is an exile who may never return home and doesn’t know whether she will see her family again. Talking with Khin Cho Myint, who sacrificed so much to do a similar act, reminded and encouraged me to use the privileges I have in any way I can to support people working for peace inside Burma even if these actions may seem small, almost inconsequential. No singular act will stop violence in Burma but thousands of tiny and connected acts of courage and intention, committed by thousands of individuals in highly varied, and often mundane circumstances, eventually will.