Peter Popham: King Zero plots new Saffron Revolution


Monday 22 November 2010 01:00 GMT

When you have been locked away from the world for more than seven years, unable to talk to anybody but your doctor and lawyer, the unanswered questions must really build up.

In the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, starting her second week of freedom, these might include: what on earth was the Saffron Revolution all about? Where did it come from? Where did it go?

The mass protests by Burma’s monks that filled our television screens in September 2007 culminated in the arrival of a single file of monks at Suu Kyi’s home. She appeared at the gate to greet them, palms pressed together and tears in her eyes. But within days the event was all over, with dozens of monks dead and thousands more in jail.

Last week in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burmese border I caught up with one of the men behind that movement. This small, feline figure in saffron robes who calls himself King Zero – because, he explains, Burma has no rulers worthy of the name – was a 23-year-old novice in 2000 when he first got into trouble for setting up a library in the Buddhist university where he was studying. For centuries the monks were Burma’s teachers, and the monasteries the only schools, but in these days of state-imposed idiocy a library is per se a subversive institution, especially when some of its books are political. King Zero was told to close the library or the authorities would close the university.

Thus began the peripatetic years of this improbable subversive as he criss-crossed Burma, setting up libraries in 14 different towns and villages, including the village where he was born, launching a samizdat journal in Mandalay, running classes in English, French, Japanese and computer skills to anyone who felt like turning up. In the mad context of modern Burma he was a dangerous revolutionary.

The Saffron Revolution began in early 2007 when a friend of Zero’s proposed a “peace walk”, a form of practice pioneered by the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, from Rangoon to Mae Sot “for the poor”. Later that year, astronomical rises in the price of fuel prompted the monks to take to the streets en masse. The most dramatic non-violent manifestation of our era was under way.

Today this Lenin of the cloth is still plotting: after a year in hiding he fled his country and has now set up a new school and library in Mae Sot, adorned with posters of Suu Kyi, where refugees learn English, Thai and computers. The sign on the wall says, “Let’s go back home.” Their work – and an appeal for donations – is at

The Pope finally catches up with my speculative scoop

It’s taken four and a half years for the second of his famous red Gucci loafers to drop, but at last Pope Benedict has justified one of the more speculative scoops of my career.

On 3 May 2006 The Independent ran a story under my byline with the headline “Is Pope poised to sanction condoms?” The Vatican had announced “a very profound technical and moral study” on the use of condoms. The Church, I reported, “is expected to give a guarded, provisional blessing to the use of condoms by married couples when one of them suffers from Aids.” The word “expected” was a bit of a flyer, as my Rome colleagues pointed out. Who was doing the “expecting”, they asked, besides me?

Nobody else in Rome, where I was this paper’s correspondent, would touch the story. Vatican insiders gave me pitying looks.

So it is nice to see the Pope finally giving his extremely guarded and provisional blessing to condom use – 18 months after he appalled many people by saying condoms could make Africa’s Aids crisis worse. It would be tactless to enquire how many people have died while he was making up his mind.

The critics were right: this play’s a blasted disgrace

The packed houses for the late Sarah Kane’s play Blasted at London’s Lyric theatre are proof that critics are herd animals, and the theatre-going public masochistic sheep.

When first produced in 1995, the critics were in little doubt. “A sordid little travesty,” said The Spectator. “A gratuitous welter of carnage”: Telegraph. “A disgusting feast of filth”: the Mail. Even The Guardian, ever alert to the shifting tides of political correctness, called it “naïve tosh.”

An ageing, alcoholic Yorkshire journalist with a dreadful cough takes a nondescript young woman to a hotel room and in between emptying the minibar and nearly dying of alcoholic poisoning makes a succession of ugly but laughable attempts to bed her. It is never clear why she has agreed to come with him, or why she does not just leave.

Later the hotel room is bombed, the journalist is raped by a passing soldier, the girl adopts an abandoned baby which subsequently dies, the journalist tries eating the dead baby, etcetera. “Disgusting feast of filth” about covers it, with a little absent-minded Christianity chucked in towards the end.

But Sarah Kane was a depressive who subsequently committed suicide while still in her twenties. The fact that this play, her first, makes no sense on any level, is clumsy and boring when it is not merely nauseating and that the characters are revolting non-entities – all this has become irrelevant: it was posthumously decided that Blasted is a ferocious feminist denunciation of our culture of phallic violence. A satisfactory evening, it appears, was had by one and all, except this one.

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