The Hilltop Buddha
(A story written in 1996. See footnote for historical context and relevance today)
Just before his ninth birthday Aun Thang’s father took him to visit the Hilltop Buddha. They left one afternoon, heading towards the mountains to the west of their village. By nightfall they reached the foothills and made camp beside a river. Aun Thang was excited. He thought he would never sleep. He listened to the crooning river, gazed at the crescent moon, tried to count the stars. He was soon asleep.
Early next morning, while it was still dark, his father shook him awake. They followed an ancient path that winds its way upwards through impenetrable bamboo jungle. As they climbed towards the peak of one of the lower hills the sky became lighter and the mist shrouded valley below began to glow with golden light. Sitting on an outcrop of rock, the Hilltop Buddha greeted the rising sun, a quiet smile on his face.
“Aun, do you know why the Buddha smiles?”
“I don’t know, father.”
“One day you will, and when you do you will understand.”
“Understand what, father?”
For a while Aun Thang’s father was silent. “Never mind. One day you will know. Come, sit down. It’s time for meditation.”
It had rained once, earlier in the afternoon, but already the road side puddles had dried away. Ignoring the stifling heat Aun Thang walked quickly past the stores and small shops fronting the normally busy street. All the shops were closed and the few stalls that were still open hurriedly concluded their business. The exchanges were quick and hushed, not in the usual gay and excited banter, as buyer and vendor haggle for the best price. Ahead of him, the tall golden spiral of the Pagoda gleamed red in the setting sun.
He found Syi Mui by the corner of the park next to the Pagoda where they had agreed to meet. Apologising softly, he made his way through the crowd. People parted, some smiled, others nodded silently in greeting. The mood was grim but a sense of hope and expectancy filled the air. They listened intently to a figure speaking from a raised platform.
“I am sorry I am late,” he whispered. “We had some trouble with the printing.”
“Are the …?”
“Yes, we managed to finish the printing. All the leaflets are done.”
“That is good.”
“I am worried.”
“It will be alright.” Syi Mui squeezed his hands reassuringly.
Even in the dusky light Aun Thang could see that Syi Mui’s face was flushed and excited. Her eyes shone brightly. Her fine black hair, swept back from her forehead was held in place by a plain black pin. A tear shaped, blood red, ruby pendant hung from her neck. Aun Thang felt a wave of pleasure. The pendant had cost more than he could really afford and he was pleased to see her wearing it.
The speaker concluded her speech to thunderous applause and cheering. A monk stood up, chanting a prayer. The crowd bowed their heads. In the stillness that followed, as darkness deepened, people lit their candles. As one they surged out of the park, filling the road, a river of flickering hope. Silently, they marched towards the town square. In the smaller side-streets shadows moved.
Stabbing pain in his shoulder forced him to lie down again. He felt cold, light-headed. He tried to remember what happened during the night. Fear gripped his heart. The soldiers were firing. People fell, screaming, dying. Running, people running in all directions. Figments of a nightmare. He took a deep breath and, gritting himself against the pain, compelled his body into a sitting position. The world spun. Acrid bile stung his throat. When he opened his eyes again they were filled with horror.
Beside him a young man stirred and groaned. He could see the blood soaked clothes, the gaping wound in his chest. Further on, by the entrance into the alleyway, a heap of bodies lay where they had fallen. He could not see Syi Mui. Maybe, she got away. Voices. Soldiers talking, moving amongst the crumpled bodies, kicking them over. A scream, a gurgling sound, silence. Smirking laughter. “Look, this one still has her body intact.” Tearing, rippling, more laughter.
He grabbed the young man’s arm, tried to lift him. The young man grimaced in pain, shook his head. There was nothing he could do. He wrenched his head away, forced himself up and half crouching began to move deeper into the alley. A soldier stepped through the entrance.
“You! Stop running.”
Aun Thang froze, his heart beating wildly. The soldier walked towards him and smashed the end of his gun against Aun Thang’s temple.
“Where is the safe house?”
“I don’t know any safe house.”
“Very well, maybe this will loosen your tongue.” The jailer pressed a switch.
Aun Thang’s body jumped violently. He screamed.
“We know who your girlfriend is. We know what she looks like. We will find her. She is hiding in the safe house, isn’t she? Where is the safe house? Tell me and I promise she will not suffer.”
Aun Thang shook his head weakly. The jailer touched the switch again.
It was the dry season and it was very hot. He wanted to go to the library where it was cool and quiet. Inside, he could get some respite from the fervour gripping the campus. Brightly coloured banners denouncing the military government fluttered from the balconies of all the University buildings. Groups of students moved around excitedly. Others sat in small gatherings under trees or beside a shaded wall, to discuss their dreams of democracy and freedom. He noticed one such group by the library steps and he lowered his head to ignore them.
His eyes rested on the bare feet of a young woman on the steps above him. The feet stepped down and he was looking at a mauve coloured longyi, wrapped tightly round a tiny waist.
“We are having a rally tonight. Please come.”
She smiled, thrust a pamphlet into his hands and carried on down the stairs towards the group of students who welcomed her into their midst. On impulse Aun Thang decided to follow her.
The strident voice seems faraway. The voice prods him again. Aun Thang opens his eyes to the looming shape of his jailer. He shivers uncontrollably, his body suddenly remembering the pain it had been subjected to. How long has he been here? How many times has he been subjected to the electric shocks? He cannot remember. How many days? He does not know. He tries to sit up.
“It would have saved you a lot of pain if you had told us. Still, we found the safe house.” The jailer grins. “I have a present for you.”
He drops a red ruby pendant into Aun Thang’s trembling hand.
“Get up. You are not needed anymore.”
Aun Thang pulls himself up, his legs shaking.
Aun Thang obeys numbly. Cold fear clutches his heart. Red ruby pendants are common. Maybe, this belongs to someone else. He looks at it again. Tears blur his vision.
“Keep moving.” The jailer shoves him forward.
Aun Thang steps out into the cold night and into one of several waiting trucks. Several harrowed faces look at him.
“Syi Mui,” he whispers, “Any of you know her, seen her?”
“Quiet”, a soldier barks threateningly. He points his gun at Aun Thang.
“We can’t fight them. They have guns, tanks.”
“Yes. That is true. But, we are the people. They can’t kill all of us.”
“Syi Mui, be reasonable. It is one thing to protest against the government from inside the campus, but to demonstrate in the streets, that is asking for real trouble.”
“Aun, how else are we going to force this government out?”
“How long have we been together?”
“Nearly a year. Next week will be our first anniversary. I haven’t forgotten!”
“Syi Mui, I love you. I want us to be together always. I want us to have a future but I am afraid. I have seen strange men in the campus. They are not students. They are Tatmadaw.”
“Aun, you know I love you very much and I want a future for us too. But, it has to be our future. No Tatmadaw, no military dictator, no more oppression.”
Aun Thang hops painfully out of the truck. A soldier yells at him to start walking. Shuffling slowly, the prisoners walk away from the road towards the edge of a steep slope. A line of silver appears over the distant hills. The sky brightens. The grey mist in the valley below opens up to reveal dense bamboo forest. The ragged bunch of men and women stop uncertainly, some holding and comforting each other. A few shout defiantly at the soldiers. A young woman catches Aun Thang’s attention. She looks down at her feet, her face dirty and tormented, her eyes vacant. Someone puts an arm around her. It isn’t Syi Mui.
Aun Thang walks right up to the edge. He sits in the lotus position. The mist below changes to a silvery gold. The first rays of the sun touch his face.
Behind him the soldiers steady their guns.
This story was written in 1996 as a reflection of the major unrest and widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, when thousands were killed, martial law declared in 1989 and Burma was renamed Myanmar. I was thinking of how I would act in a similar situations. Would I run, hide, stand or fight? Like Aun Thang, events would likely sweep me along.
Soon after the uprising in 1988, free elections were held in May 1990. The NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi won about 80% of the seats. However, the military junta refused to cede power and continued to rule the country. In 1997, Myanmar was accepted into ASEAN.
My first trip to Myanmar was in 2007 to run a training course on how to write proposals for development aid. My class of 20 or so civil servants had impeccable English. Three security agents sat stiffly at the back. They soon loosen up, even joined in participative exercises and became decent human beings. Out in the street of Yangon though there is a palpable air of wariness as I walked amongst the locals. There were no vehicles or motor bikes on the street. One time, I heard a voice behind me ‘Please don’t turn round. Just listen to me’. He had good English too.
A general election in 2010 was won by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, claiming 80% of the vote. Further reforms were introduced, including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, amnesties for political prisoners and relaxation of censorship. In 2015 the NLD won the general election and the first non-military president since 1962 was elected.
My subsequent trips to Myanmar were in 2015 for an ASEAN Secretariat project to build a network of social service agencies across the region, and again in 2017 to assist UNDP with developing a civil service reform project and another project to strengthen administrative justice in Myanmar. Yangon was booming with construction cranes, horrendous traffic jams and businesses. I sense optimism in the air, although people appeared mostly unaware of what was happening in Rakhine province.
Unfortunately, history appears to be repeating itself in Myanmar. The NLD won an even larger majority and the military responded with a coup. Will thousands be killed again, as massive numbers of people nationwide protest in the streets and engaged in civil disobedience?
Do you know why the Buddha smiles? I leave that to you to wonder for yourself.