Courage, like fear, can become a habit

Faith and Reason: Brendan Walsh, head of communications for Cafod, reflects on what the release from house arrest of the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi means for her countrymen.
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The Independent Online
Throughout Burma's history its capital has been trailed across the country like a travelling circus. Every second king or so, out of fickleness or a desire for fame, would up sticks and move to a new site judged propitious by his court astrologers, and order a new and more magnificent complex of palaces and pagodas to be erected.

Mandalay was the last capital to be built on a royal whim, in the 1850s. It was no older than Milton Keynes is now when Kipling wrote "On the Road to Mandalay". When founding a new city it was de rigueur to protect it from evil spirits by burying alive a few dozen of the locals. But the new king, a decent stick, interred jars of oil at each corner instead. The spirits were not to be short-changed. Less than 30 years after its completion, Mandalay fell to the British, and the capital moved to Rangoon.

A Sixties man, I like picking at the tapas bar of great world religions, and I spent much time in Burma in bare feet, exploring the great temple complexes. With their gaudily coloured tiles and clutter of pious bric- a-brac they are a delicious mix of Harrods' food hall and end-of-pier fortune-teller's consulting room.

The most revered Buddha image in Mandalay is in the Arakan pagoda, growing a little fatter every day as pious pilgrims apply gold leaf to his already well- upholstered paunch. The covered approaches to the temple are lined with stalls selling miniature Buddhas, incense sticks, gongs and other devotional paraphernalia. Amongst the cheap prints of scenes from the life of the Buddha there are photographs of a young man in a trench-coat, General Aung San, the nationalist hero assassinated a few months before Burma regained its independence from Britain in 1947. You have to gesture under the counter if you want to buy a picture of his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, only two years old when he died, released this month after nearly six years under house arrest.

The military regime which has ruled Burma with a brutal disregard for human rights since 1962 had seemed to be trying to combine a loosening of their hamfisted grip on the economy with a tightening of the screw on political dissent. The release of Suu Kyi, the leader of the country's democratic movement, was a surprise. The generals are no doubt hoping that it will help get them some decent press. There's an IMF mission due in Rangoon next month; 1996 is "Visit Myanmar [the regime's new name for Burma] Year", and posh hotels are opening up in readiness for an influx of Western tourists. High-profile political prisoners are bad for business.

One of the most common images you come across in Burma is of a figure reclining full-length on his side, head nestling comfortably on the palm of his hand. This is the moment of the Buddha's death, of his passing into nirvana. It is difficult not to contrast this picture of a man loafing contentedly on the grass after a large picnic with the central image of Christianity, a human figure pinned to a plank of wood, his face straining in agony and abandonment and something close to despair.

The secrets of Buddhism or of Christianity are too elusive to be revealed by one or two images. But the meaning of suffering is at the heart of both faiths. For the Burmese suffering has become so much part of the furniture that they may be in danger of accepting too much, of forgetting that change is possible.

In John Boorman's movie Beyond Rangoon someone remarks sadly that the trouble with the Burmese is that they are too polite to make mischief. Outsiders' descriptions of the Burmese often make them appear a nation of natural monks, waiters and courtiers; too respectful of authority to make good revolutionaries.

Burma's military rulers are judging that people are tired of politics, despairing of real change, and more interested in the cheap imported electrical goods and pirated designer T-shirts now on sale in the Zegyo market in Mandalay than in Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.

Suu Kyi tells the story of how a Western photographer who had been taking pictures of her was harassed by armed soldiers. He spoke back angrily at them. The Burmese crowd that had gathered was astonished. As she observes of this small incident in her book Freedom from Fear, "Fear, like so many things, is a habit. If you live with fear for a long time, you become fearful." What Suu Kyi has shown her people is that courage, too, can be a habit.