Burma: An Earthquake, Monks, Friends, and Rambo

Burma: An Earthquake, Monks, Friends, and Rambo March 26, 2011
I broke down and watched Rambo (4) the other day. Not because I had any illusions that it would be a good movie (it wasn’t), but because I thought it might give me some insight into Burma (it didn’t). The movie takes place mostly in Burma, where Rambo is running around blowing things up and shooting people’s heads off with a big machine gun in order to save some naïve Christian missionaries who have been kidnapped by the oppressive military regime.
As you’d expect, the plot is thin and only seems to exist as a premise for the action scenes, which bring gore to a whole new level (I don’t really watch movies like this, so maybe it’s more commonplace than I would think).  But in some sense the movie may be good for opening people’s awareness about the country, which is indeed, as mentioned in the beginning of the movie, embroiled in a 60+ year long civil war, the longest in the world (link) (link) (link) (link + video). 
Sadly though, I kind of doubt that many of the same people watching Rambo movies are the same people eager to learn more about or help a country like Burma (unless they are great, well-rounded folks like Kyle over at Reformed Buddhist). A somewhat better movie, with a refreshingly honest and realistic depiction of Buddhism (setting aside an opening scene with a Western tour guide spouting off on the ideals of perfect detachment), is Beyond Rangoon with Patricia Arquette. While it’s by no means a blockbuster, it is based on the actual events surrounding the 8.8.88 uprising there, and it gives a very honest depiction of the Burmese people and their situation, to some extent, even today.
In truth, I wouldn’t recommend Rambo, much less show it to students in a Buddhism or S.E. Asian cultures course. But Beyond Rangoon, maybe. And best of all, if you’re looking to learn about contemporary Burma is Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, which chronicles the 2007 monk-led protests (New York Times).
This week several earthquakes have hit Burma (Myanmar), the largest registering 6.8 (Huffington Post).  Reports are that over 70 are dead, and it is likely that the count will rise, as the quake hit in the very rural and mountainous region of Shan State near the Thai border. USGS reports that other quakes have hit more toward the center of the country, this one at 6.6 near the ancient capital of Pagan (Bagan). Currently relief efforts are underway (Mizzima). See the news story for aid orgs to support, if you can.
And here are a few more of my photos from my January visit to Burma. These are all from Inle Lake, which is in the western part of Shan State (SOAS map). The Shan people are historically overwhelmingly Buddhist and are in fact ethnically related to their Thai neighbors (as opposed to the Bamar ethnicity which dominates Burma). Those I met also happened to be overwhelmingly kind and generous. Several were quite direct as well about their disdain for the current government, love for Aung San Suu Kyi, and desire for political freedom. And yet, in what I found to be typical Burmese fashion, they were also quick to speak of the joys of their lives and inquire about mine whenever the conversation became too dour.
Fishermen maneuver their boats on Inle Lake. Behind them are the beginnings of the vast mountainous region of SE Burma (Shan State) that stretches into neighboring China, Laos, and Thailand.
A young man (with wife and child I presume) paddles across the lake in the distinctive ‘leg rowing’ technique of the Intha people. He is wearing a longyi, the traditional and still most common garment for both men and women.

Kids outside one of the temples along the lake. They loved posing for pictures and seeing themselves on the viewfinder. I had saved a couple videos from Bodh Gaya on my camera and showed them to the kids as well. One was of Burmese dance on New Year’s Night, to which the kids obligingly danced around, and the other was of a Burmese monk chanting at the Maha Bodhi Stupa, to which the kids immediately plopped down in meditation posture and (pretend-) meditated.

The author, along with Cicilia, enjoying a cup of tea (photo by Vito, her husband). I spent the day with this wonderful Italian couple and hope to write more about them soon.

Young monks playing a Burmese version of hacky-sack at a monastery near the lake. Rest assured, the young monks of the country get plenty of time for play and just being kids along with their education. The monks in the top photo are from the same monastery and were studying their Pali chants.

And finally, sunset over Inle Lake.
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