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A Brief Interlude in The Tragedy of Burma

By Carol, 09/12/2009

Theme: Adventure

Location: Non-UK





















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In 2003 I was a 50 year old grandmother who after visiting family in Australia decided to continue travelling. I found myself teaching Burmese exiles on Thai/Burma border. Since then I have been committed to helping the people of Burma. This led me to Bangladesh/Burma border where I met an extraordinary young monk, Uthawara, aka Ashin Thavara, who had just escaped Burma after The Saffron Revolution. He helped organize the demonstrations in Rangoon. Our meeting affected me deeply. I left Bangladesh soon afterwards but continued to support him and we developed a close relationship. He called me Mother and I soon came to love him as my son. Uthawara remained politically active which caused him major problems including threats to his life. The situation became intolerable and he went into hiding in the jungle. This was very difficult for him and I was fearful at what he might do. I realized I had to return to Bangladesh to try to help him. When he knew I was coming he calmed down and agreed to abide by my decision for his future. The monastery where he stayed was attached to an orphanage. I gave a donation and the reception I received on arrival was overwhelming. Children greeted me with flowers and a band played as Uthawara escorted me up the hill where The Abbot was waiting for me in his temple. Children lined the route; hands clasped Buddhist style. The holy monk lit 10 candles and prophesied my future. I attended several meetings in Dhaka with UNHCR trying to resolve his situation. I allowed Uthawara to leave the jungle and he eventually crossed the border to India. Uthawara features in the award winning film Burma VJ and has become well known. We remain close and I have embraced Buddhism.

As the train pulled out from Kuala Lumpur station I couldn’t help smiling. I had no idea what I was doing except I knew I wanted to travel! At 50 years of age, a mother of four and a grandmother I had to grasp this opportunity. I had gone to Australia in December 2002 for two weeks to see my family but ended up staying for two months. My flight back to UK stopped off at Malaysia and I stayed for a week to look for a teaching job. This didn’t happen so I decided to go to Thailand and was now about to start the two day train journey to Bangkok alone.

Bangkok was exactly as I had expected and I couldn’t wait to get out of the place! I answered an ad on a web site which read – “Are you interested in social injustice? Are you interested in issues on Thai/ Burma border?” My answer was YES on both counts and I was soon on my way to Mae Sot a small border town in Western Thailand.

Mae Sot was like nowhere else I had ever visited and I was very keen to learn more about the Burmese people who lived there. Within a short time I started teaching English at one of the many Burmese/ethnic organizations. I lived with my students in the compound who were all young and enthusiastic. It was everything I could have wished for as I was living a simple life

and teaching English and history and discussing politics every day! I came to love these people very much and even though there were many other teachers in Mae Sot I spent most of my time

in the compound. I was very content in the company of my students who were always happy

despite the problems of being exiled from their country. I learnt so much from them. The original contract was for 3 months but I stayed for another 6! I eventually returned home in December 2003 much to the relief of my family!

I continued to have close contact with my students and supported them as much as possible. Some moved to the India/ Burma border and worked as medics in a clinic for Burmese refugees. I’d wanted to visit this clinic for a long time and eventually it was possible in February 2008. I made arrangements and stopped off in Bangladesh for a short time to stay with friends. This is where my story takes on a completely different dimension.

At approximately the same time as my arrival in Bangladesh some Buddhist Monks from The Saffron Revolution in Burma had also arrived. They were escaping the Burmese Military Govt. after many monks had been killed during the uprising in September 2007. A meeting with one of the leading monks was soon arranged. His name was Uthawara (also known as Ashin Thavara) and was General Secretary of All Burma Monks Representative Committee, formed to organize the demonstrations in Rangoon. That meeting in the Buddhist temple in Cox’s Bazar Bangladesh completely changed my life. To this day I have no idea why Uthawara had such an effect upon

me. This young monk was like no other I had ever met and was not at all perturbed at speaking

to a woman. He looked me straight in the eye and after a while I felt uncomfortable but also

mesmerized. He spoke no English and my friend acted as interpreter. We discussed how I could best help him and other refugees in Bangladesh. This had been a moment of clarity and after the meeting I found it hard to focus on anything else. Maybe because of this, I don’t know, but within an hour my passport had been stolen and my trip to India had to be cancelled. I left Bangladesh two days later very upset as medics from the clinic had travelled a long way from the border to meet me in Northern India.

I returned to my job in a Women’s Refuge which supported women escaping Domestic Violence and Abuse. I loved my job but increasingly my thoughts were turning to the situation in Bangladesh. Uthawara contacted me regularly and we became close meeting frequently on MSN.

A very good person who I will call Oatka helped him adjust to life outside the monastery. He

now lived in Chittagong and experienced many problems including threats to his life. All the other monks had gone to live in monasteries but Uthawara remained politically active which was very dangerous for him. I wrote to UNHCR in Bangladesh several times informing them of the threats and expressing my fears for his safety. Eventually the situation became intolerable and he

had no choice but to retreat to a monastery deep in the jungle. I felt terrible as there was little I could do living in my comfortable home enjoying family life with a reasonable income. Uthawara had come to trust me implicitly. He called me Mother and I indeed loved him as my son.

He was continually asking me to come to and visit and it was all I could do to keep him in hiding. He said he didn’t care if he was arrested and sent back to Burma – he just could not stay in the jungle any more. How was this helping his people? I was very fearful of what he might do and realized I had to go to Bangladesh to help him. When Uthawara knew I was coming he calmed down and agreed to abide by my decision for his future.

The monastery where Uthawara was staying was attached to an Orphanage and I gave a donation to thank them for their kindness. It was a long drive to the depths of the jungle but as soon as I set foot out of the car the village band started playing and the children greeted me with flowers. Uthawara gently took my arm and escorted me up the hill with children lining each side of the track, hands together, Buddhist style. The band and all the villagers, including armed police who escorted me, followed behind! When the police asked who I was my friend slipped them 300 taka to stop them from asking further questions! Uthawara took me to the Abbot of the monastery who was waiting in his temple.

The temple was a small hut with no windows and lit by candles. At the centre and set back in the wall was a beautiful shrine to Buddha. The Abbot sat cross legged on the floor and beckoned me to sit near. My host family also came into the temple and everyone listened as this holy monk lit 10 candles and prophesied my future. Uthawara sat opposite and I was reassured by his presence. I was presented with a plaque commemorating my visit and after the formalities was shown around the Orphanage. A magnificent feast was held in my honour. I did not want to leave without Uthawara and it was agreed he could come and stay with my host family while we considered his future. The band played as we drove away from the compound and my happiness was complete. It was short lived, however, as it was deemed there were too many women in the house and Uthawara had to return to the monastery. I was devastated as we had spent so little time together. Before he left at 6am the following morning, and with no one else around, I gave him a ring that had been on my finger for more than 15 years. I wanted him to know that a part of me would always be with him.

During my time in Bangladesh I spent 6 nights out of 13 on buses travelling to Dhaka attending meetings with UNHCR trying to resolve the situation: Oatka always at my side. My feet were swollen and I was very tired but happy knowing it was for a very worthwhile cause. No conclusion was reached but UNHCR seemed to have a better understanding of the problems so I allowed Uthawara to leave the jungle and resume his work.

The situation, unfortunately, did not improve and Uthawara eventually crossed the border into India on 28th June 2009. My family, friends and work colleagues had been very patient with me over these difficult months. I worked long hours and problems in Bangladesh took up much of my time and energy. They were secretly hoping my involvement would now be at an end. Uthawara was safe and happy and indeed had become well known due to his prominence in the award winning film Burma VJ. He now lives in a monastery again and two more monks also call

me mother. I have embraced Buddhism and I’m learning more each day from these amazing Burmese monks. Uthawara is very special but this story is not finished as Love has no beginning or end.

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