In early 2011 a good friend and I rattled around the crowded streets of Yangon in an old minivan. 1940s-era buses honked their way between saffron-robed monks. Street vendors slept behind makeshift cigarette stands. Children selling DVDs accosted us at traffic lights.
I also saw many smiles, heard much laughter, and shook hands with countless complete strangers. I asked one lady why the people of her country are so happy. “Because life is short,” she told me.
Life in Myanmar seems to carry on as it always has. But behind the daily bustle things are changing fast. Only a year and a half ago, “democracy” and “freedom” were dangerous topics, not to be discussed in public. Who would have dreamt then that Aung Sang Suu Kyi (known in Myanmar as “The Lady”) would be elected to parliament, that thousands of political prisoners would be released, or that President Obama would visit Yangon?
All these goals have been achieved without bloodshed – through the power and perseverance of nonviolent resistance. Like the movement led by Gandhi in colonial India or by Martin Luther King Jr. in segregated America, Aung Sang Suu Kyi and her “League for Democracy” have achieved much for the cause of peace, using peace itself as their weapon.
Still, as the iron grip of the military junta slowly loosens, one has to wonder what will take its place? Will it be the stranglehold of a more subtle tyrant – the almighty dollar? What will the streets of Yangon look like in another year or two? Will young men discard the saffron robe and copper alms-pot for a business suit and briefcase? Will the stranger’s friendly smile and “Mingalabar” (hello) be replaced by the dull stare of the iPod-intoxicated? Will the colorful longyi disappear for the latest designer jeans? Will McDonalds and Subway push out the smoky teashops?
President Obama recently told students at Yangon University, “Now, as more wealth flows into your borders, we hope and expect that it will lift up more people. It can’t just help the folks at the top; it has to help everybody.” Of course, who doesn’t share this hope? But as multinationals like Coca-Cola and Rio Tinto move into Myanmar, what are the chances that they really will “help everybody”? Have they done so in Africa, China, India and so many other places? In the West, too, small businesses continue to be squeezed to death by big corporations.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no nostalgia for an era of enslavement, torture and oppression. People are born to be free. But look at the West and the fruits of our so-called “freedom.” We have lost our roots, our moorings, and our sense of community. Rates of pollution and depression have risen along with our economic growth. We are oppressed by loneliness so great that the elderly can die unnoticed in dirty apartments. Countless lives are destroyed by prostitution and drug addiction in the “pursuit of happiness.” Millions of the unborn are never allowed to see this world, often for economic reasons. Marriages and families fall apart.
Malcolm Muggeridge’s description of a divided Germany in the 1960s could just as well apply to North and South Korea today, or to the Global North and South:
Eastwards, I could see the familiar scene of desolation and oppression, the bedraggled houses, the empty shops, the somehow muted traffic and people in the streets; westward, the other sort of desolation and oppression, equally familiar, the gleaming neon and glass, the exhortations to spend and consume, the banks for churches and erotica for dreams (A Third Testament, p. xix).
Tyranny or consumerism. Are these really our only options? Even as the people of Myanmar reach out to embrace the glittering ideal of free-market capitalism, it is rapidly losing its luster in its own birthplace, the United States. Especially in the last few years, there has been rising anger against this system, which has created such wealth and at the same time such poverty. Many, such as those in the Occupy movement, are imagining and exploring other ways of ordering society.
Tolstoy gives a hint in his short story “Ivan the Fool” (Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales, p. 175). In this tale, a Kingdom of Fools is established when “all the wise men of the kingdom left.” The devil tries to destroy this kingdom by tempting the people with great wealth, but the fools are unimpressed. “No, we do not want money,” said they. “We have no payments to make, and no taxes, so what should we do with it?”
Of course, that’s just a story. But there are many real-life examples of individuals and groups that have lived a life of true freedom. Not the selfish, lonely, false freedom of the consumer, nor the reluctant obedience of the oppressed. An amazing historical example is the community of the early Christians in the first century A.D. It is reported that there was not a needy person among them, because they pooled their wealth and possessions and distributed them according to need. Die Zeit, a prominent German weekly, recently described them as “the most influential alternative to capitalism in history.”
There have been many others, also in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, who have undermined both brands of “desolation and oppression,” not with complex systems of leadership and decision-making, but with simple love.
And so, as the people of Myanmar’s freedoms increase and their government and society experience great changes, I hope they don’t look to the West as their model and trade in one form of oppression for another, but show the world a society that really can help everybody.