“The Pen is Sharper than the Sword” Interview with Ashin Issariya (aka King Zero) and Ashin Kovida, 14th March, 2011 The Best Friend Library, Mae SotAshin Issariya, also known by the pen-name King Zero, was one of the central architects and organizers of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and continues his educational, political and social-welfare work in exile in Mae Sot, Thailand, via The Best Friend Library with branches which he founded inside and outside Burma. His colleague Ashin Kovida also coordinates the Library and educates the local and global audience about the ongoing Buddhist non-violent resistance movement inside and outside Burma. Martin Kovan is a writer and scholar of Buddhism currently living and working as an educator in Mae Sot.
by Martin Kovan
by Martin Kovan
Martin Kovan: Today I’d like to discuss if possible the work of the Best Friend Library, and yourself Ashin Issariya, also known as King Zero, and Ashin Kovida. So thank you both very much for taking the time to speak with me today.
I was reading one of your articles from October 1st 2009, where you said King Zero, that “we have to push together, we have to put pressure on this regime because it also endangers world peace.” I’m very interested in what you mean by putting ‘pressure’ in 2011, as opposed to ‘pressure’ in the past. I’m wondering whether you think about that differently now, than you did four years ago. Also, would you consider such pressure as the only or best means of achieving reconciliation with the regime?
Ashin KOVIDA: For us, ‘pressure’ is, for example, to put sanctions on the military junta, or an arms embargo, because they still do not respect human rights. Of course, economic sanctions, an arms embargo alone, is not enough to bring a change in Burma. Reconciliation is important, an engagement policy as well. And we have to practice an engagement policy from two sides: not only engage with the military junta, but also engage with the opposition groups, like Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic groups. We have to listen to different points of view, then decide. Sanctions alone is not enough.
MK: As representatives specifically of the Buddhist sangha, you support sanctions and embargoes, but what can you do as the leaders of the sangha movement to exert your own kind of pressure?
AK: What we can do ourselves is boycott the junta as well, like cutting communications. But this does not mean we do not speak with them totally, rather to show ‘we do not like your actions.’ But when they are ready to listen to us, then the monks are ready to give advice according to the Buddha’s teaching.
MK: Does ‘pressure’ then also imply another major popular demonstration? In 2007 initially it was fuel prices, people couldn’t for example catch the bus anymore, couldn’t afford it, so the monks came out and said ‘please consider changing this policy.’ Do you mean a similar pragmatic kind of action now, or something else perhaps?
AK: It’s very difficult to predict for the future, because even last time in 2007, I think King Zero knows, this was not the monk’s will, this was the will of the people. According to the will of the people, the monks had to come on the street.
MK: Would it be true to say, King Zero, that the people really depend on the monks, and then they follow them?
King ZERO (Ashin Issariya): The people, even though they’re poor, they support the monks. At the time our monks also thought how to bring change to the people, we could not find a way to change our country’s system, the poor were getting poorer and poorer day by day. So we thought: which way is best for our sangha, our monks. The Buddhist way is to send loving-kindness to all the people, so we chose that way, then we chose to walk on the street. We were using only the non-violent way, to send loving-kindness, but the military beat and tortured us, a lot…and they never apologized. Then a lot of people followed our way, because the people are very respectful of the monks.
MK: Yes. Do many lay-people, particularly less-educated people in Burma, need the sangha, still now, to provide the moral leadership?
AK: Of course, they rely on anybody who can lead, to bring change for the better in Burma. We have a saying in Burma that “three sons are the most important”: they are the Kyaung Thar, the students, the Sit Thar, or soldiers, and the Phaya Thar, the monks. And at the moment I think the monk’s community is stronger than any other opposition group in Burma. The student communities are not strong enough anymore, the universities are isolated in the jungle, separately, so they cannot be united because even their teachers ensure the students are not involved in politics. Fortunately the monks are living unified in monasteries, so in that case the monks together are stronger than the other groups.
MK: Including the recently-formed political opposition parties, let alone for example the NLD, but also the NDF, and a number of democratic student parties who tried to contest the election in November? You’re saying that also these parties don’t carry the popular authority or leadership that the people need?
AK: I think the NLD maintains a strong leadership for the people, even though they are not a registered party anymore. However, the other smaller opposition parties don’t have so many followers I think. But when the monks encourage and advise the people, I believe the people would be ready to follow, because they trust in them.
MK: o in fact the people need the monks, they are indispensable?
AK: Yes, they can’t do without the monks. But I want to add: monks cannot act alone as well.
MK: King Zero, you’ve also indicated that “a bigger revolution, a bigger movement” lies still in the future. Do you feel that such a demonstration of popular opposition against the regime is finally the most effective or powerful form of opposition or reconciliation with them?
KZ: After the Saffron Revolution a lot of monks, and lay-people, are now ready to participate in a bigger movement. Even before the Saffron Revolution, when we discussed politics with the monks, they were very afraid to join us. But after 2007 everyone was ready to join us. They said to me ‘Ok, please tell me how to participate in your way, please share your knowledge, I will share it also.’ Because there were also arrests and torture of the monks, the people also saw this directly, and this was important because it made the reality very clear. So we thought if we can start the movement again, it will be a bigger revolution, because we and the people are more ready than before.
AK: The 2008 constitution was made in response to 2007, the election of 2011 was also a result of the Saffron Revolution. Of course we couldn’t replace the dictatorship with democracy, but we believe the people are now ready to successfully do this. It would take different form, we are not sure what kind of form it would be.
MK: So do you mean in a bigger version of the same action of 2007, or a different kind of action? You said that many monks were tortured and put in jail, many disappeared, so wouldn’t many sangha but also lay-people today be more afraid of another, bigger revolution?
KZ: We don’t know whether it would be the same as the Saffron Revolution, or not. At this time however the NLD party is stronger than before. In 2007 Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin U and U Win Tin also were all under arrest, so they could not lead the movement. Now our leaders are ready. So now all our country’s people can participate in the movement under their leadership.
MK: So speaking concretely, a popular movement in the same sort of form as we see recently in Egypt or Tunisia, for example. I ask the question because, increasingly for example, the Internet is being used not just as a tool for communication, but actually as a method for cutting power, as we see with Wikileaks, or online activists hacking into major corporations or banks to disable power-bases in a globalised economy or governmental power-structure. You have ‘hacktivists’ who prevent certain organizations from receiving monies for example. So I’m wondering if you think also in these terms, in terms of an internet revolution, anonymous, a less centralized, or maybe less ‘obvious’ revolution.
AK: That’s why I think Aung San Suu Kyi also asked the people to build more networks, in the 21st century, this IT network is very effective to oppose dictatorship. So strategy can be different from 2007 as well, because we cannot have one method, it depends on the situation, we have to play it by ear. The most important thing is that we really must have a will to build a network, not only inside the country but outside of the country as well. When we have a strong network, sharing information between our friends and organisations, the stronger we are the closer is our goal.
MK: You would agree King Zero?
KZ: Yes, I agree. We try now to connect the inside and outside, because a lot of monks are attaining university education and receiving ideas, in Bangkok and other countries. But the connection before has been no good, so I am trying to connect them inside and outside, as well as with the people.
MK: What other forms of non-violent opposition apart from mass-demonstration, and the Buddhist alm’s-boycott (pattanikujjana) do you think could be considered especially in the current post-election period of early 2011?
AK: All kinds of actions are effective. I think if we can take more actions, especially non-violent action, in the media, or whatever, so for example, for everyone to spend just one hour per week, or even ten minutes per week, for everyone to stay inside to show our solidarity against the junta, this would be a strong and very effective action to bring them to the table. If we can organize the whole country in that way, there’s no choice for the military junta but to negotiate.
MK: When you say ‘the whole country’, say for example you had hypothetically 10,000 people, ready, what would you have those people do, as a non-violent action?
AK: If there was 10,000 people, personally, we are going to march. But I don’t want to decide, because we have to ask all those 10,000 people if they agree, then I’ll march on the street and ask the military junta in a non-violent way to negotiate with the representatives of ethnic nationality, and the NDL, elected in 1990. And of course we are not going to kick the military out, they can also take a part.
MK: That’s still quite political, in a sense, based on negotiation. I’m taking the devil’s advocate role now, being very hard and realistic, to suggest that maybe, given previous experience, the government simply will never negotiate, about anything. So are there things, perhaps more cultural actions, school and educational actions, that normal people could do under your leadership, that could, as we say, exert a kind of ‘pressure’? Or could be just, in themselves, already actions that say: ‘we are free.’ I’m thinking for example of how in Burma many children and young people love music, they’re always playing music, and some music is very political. But maybe you could have TV shows for example, that are not directly political, which the government accepts, but they’re introducing more and more social forms of resistance. For example, anti-military campaigns, ‘don’t join the army, there are other things you can do instead of the army.’
When I was in Burma I saw that many young people joined the army because their educational options were limited, they couldn’t study many things, or very easily. The universities are closed a lot of the time, there’s a lot of restrictions on available degree programs. So young men join the army. I could imagine younger people going to an anti-military weekend camp, or a peace-training group. Actions that are not about dialogue with the government, but just for the people, and their own lives, and non-violent. So when you talk about non-violent opposition, is it purely political, purely a mass-movement? Maybe there are other avenues?
AK: Purely political, I’ll say.
MK: But the government doesn’t listen.
AK: The 10,000 people, all these 10,000 people shouldn’t be from Yangon alone. They should be Karen, 1,000, Shan, 1,000, Kachin, 1,000, come, all from ethnic nationalities.
MK: But in 2007 how many did you have?
AK: A few millions, I’ll say. It was a different situation, a different environment as well. In Burma, we speak different languages, we don’t have strong media to give information to the ethnic areas. And the neighbor countries in ASEAN, China, India, even while the monks were walking in the street, expressing their loving-kindness, the foreign minister of India said that he works with the military junta. So they do not support a democratic movement. That’s why the military had a chance to keep in power.
MK: What interested me in the days after Aung San Suu Kyi was released, she often said we need to do more grass-roots work on the ground with the local people. See how we can help HIV/AIDS patients in voluntary treatment centres, education work and so on. And when I heard that the NLD is focusing on more social welfare work, just like you do here with refugee relocation and assistance programs for poor families, I had this idea that, because as you said everyone speaks their own languages, imagine if in every main township in Burma, of every area, in their own language, with their own songs, their own poems, they had like a Peace Corps, so to speak. A group of people committed to non-violent beneficial social action. A group of perhaps a hundred young people who were trying effectively to spread peace, metta or loving-kindness, to the local people. They’re not even really worrying about the government, but they’re trying to build long-term a culture of strong, peaceful, non-violent resistance. And then you have the whole country doing non-violent things, a generation growing up, in their minds, with non-violent resistance where the military is maybe not even in the picture.
AK: Non-violent for what? We must have a clear vision of what kind of activities we are doing. For example, non-violence is important because it’s the best way to bring a change without bloodshed, especially in a Buddhist country. Even when we are here, giving, sharing something, we must have clear reasons for why we are doing that. So for example when we do dhamma talk in prison, or anywhere, we must have a clear vision for why we are talking.
KZ: When we opened the Library in Myanmar, we talked to the people. We wanted to open all over the country, but we couldn’t because of the military junta. So we always taught the people, and explained to them that they could participate in our movement. So we walked two ways: the ‘overgound’ way was to open the Library and language school; the ‘underground’ way was to share political books, political CDs, meetings also. A lot of people participated more and more. Before they were very afraid to join, because when they were found with one political book, they could be arrested and receive thirty years or forty years prison. And then they could join the Library and participate more and more in our movement.
When I was giving a dhamma talk, I explained to them ‘now you are enslaved here. If we cannot change the system, our life will never change.’ Because as you know in our country most of the people think ‘because our former life was no good, now the present time is also no good’, but this is the wrong message. But the military always write this in their newspapers or play it on their TV stations. So I explained to them ‘forty years ago our country was richer than Thailand or Singapore – why? Because our country used the parliamentary democracy. Now, since 1962, they used military rule, and it is a bad system. And all the money was taken from you and put in their pocket,’ I explained to them. ‘Now, General Than Shwe has over 2 billion dollars, why? It is our money. We have to try to change our country’s system. This is our money, we need to take our money.’ Now, all the people are listening, they know more and more, so they understand. Understanding is very important. We have to explain always. But many media, and also some leaders, never explained to them, they were very afraid to. The leaders care a lot, but they can never meet with them. How to organize them? It is a major problem. Now I arrived here two years ago, I meet all the people. When they invite me, I always go there, talk to them.
MK: King Zero, you’ve said that the Buddhist alms-boycott (or pattanikujjana) of the corrupt elite of the regime and its business associates, since the violence of 2007, is ongoing. What kind of persecution occurs for monks who continue to do the alms-boycott in 2011?
KZ: Now 250 monks are in jail, or sent to the labour camp. They are tortured, beaten a lot. Also a lot of monks have “changed colour,” or become lay-people, a lot of monks are in hiding, a lot are in exile. Also our junior monks are not all in monasteries. Many senior monks are very afraid of the military regime, because they have been asked to identify which monks are working politically. Many old monks say to junior monks, ‘Ok, you shouldn’t work politically, you shouldn’t boycott. If you want to, you should go, you shouldn’t live in the monastery.’
MK: So in 2011, there is no pattanikujjana?
AK: It is still going on.
AK: Inside the country.
KZ: When the military regime make offerings to the monks, some monks don’t want to accept that offering. But the regime spoke to them and says ‘Ok, if you don’t want to accept our offering, we close your monastery and send you to jail.’ Then some monks accept that offering, but later they throw it away, they never accept it.
MK: So that’s a half-pattanikijjana, a semi-pattanikujjana? They take the food and then throw it away – it’s not the full pattanikujjana!
Both: (laughing) Yes, true.
KZ: A lot of monks are still now very brave, so they never give up. And they also preach the Buddhist teaching, so very briefly they talk about politics also. But some monks are forbidden to talk dhamma.
MK: Before you said ‘we are ready for a bigger revolution, a bigger movement,’ but now you’re also saying that there’s also more fear. There’s more oppression and so more fear. So even though maybe there’s many people who still want to protest, will they?
AK: Sometimes I think revolutions come from fear, too, you know. When the people are oppressed more and more, like a spray, finally, when you press more, finally it comes up. Nobody wants to be in fear all the time. So they are really fed up, they are not happy under the military junta. That’s why it could be any time. This time, if the revolution comes, it will be bigger.
KZ: There are two ways. Junior monks are much stronger than the old monks. Now the junior monks are ready to participate, also they’re working in a politically, in the underground. Sometimes they come here, and we teach them, we share our experience. Also we are in contact with them on the phone, the internet. What they need we support them.
MK: That’s a good point, because my next question is about the underground, or “ugyi” movement inside Burma. Can you describe this movement in some more detail? You’ve spoken about education through e-mail, people coming here, going back to Burma. What else happens in the ugyi movement? Are there meetings, training seminars, how do people transfer information inside Burma?
KZ: With the underground, monks and students are working politically, they share political papers everywhere –
MK: That’s a big risk isn’t it if they get caught with materials on them?
AK: Yes, but nobody knows who wrote that paper.
MK: But say in a raid of a monastery, the MI comes in, or even a spy in the monastery, in robes, sees this, he knows it’s you, because he sees you reading it. This is dangerous, no?
AK: Yes, it’s dangerous, of course, but they can say, ‘Oh I don’t know what kind of letter is this, I just found it on this street. You can take it if you want, I’m not interested in it.’ Even if they are interested, if they are caught by spies or police they can say, ‘I just found it on the street, take it, it’s not for me. I don’t know who put it there – maybe you’. They can accuse them!
MK: They can – they can try. Do many monks have access to laptop computers, can they use them easily? Do they have much online access?
KZ: Very little. Sometimes the military regime, when they find out who is working politically, they take all the computers. I gave computers to monks, and the regime took them. Because inside it is very difficult to use them, to get the money to buy them. And online access is also very difficult.
MK: Yes, sometimes nothing at all.
KZ: Yes, right. And they always check which shop is OK, because sometimes the regime has opened that internet shop, so they check who works in there. In Myanmar we always asked which shop is OK.
MK: Are there any other aspects of the ugyi movement you would like to comment on? For example, if I was a monk in Myitkyina or somewhere remote, and I’m political, would I know through ugyi who is my leader, or my senior? I know for example in the Saffron Revolution many people said ‘Who’s King Zero?’ No-one knew who you were. It was only afterwards they found out. So would I know through ugyi who I can rely on as my leader?
AK: No, you cannot. In the ugyi, I think you cannot rely on someone in particular, you have to work with everybody. In a dictatorship, nobody believes anybody. So when we are in tea-shops or internet cafés or whatever, when we complain about the internet access for example, then you can start talking with someone, or just smile, or laugh. Then, you understand, and keep talking, or complaining, step by step. ‘What about in other countries, really, I don’t think it’s so bad’ and so on, like that. In that way you can open a communication.
KZ: In Myanmar I wrote a lot of poems and articles, but I used a lot of pen-names, and sometimes one of my friends would read that paper or article, and I’d used another name, and I’d say show me, and they wouldn’t know it was me who wrote it.
MK: And you kept quiet.
KZ: Yes, I kept quiet. At the time the military regime could also find me easily. Sometimes I’d stick things on the wall, and my friend would show me, and I’d say ‘Who wrote that? What is it? Where does it come from?’ I’d ask them, but I never told them.
MK: A great story. Kovida, what you described though about the two people in the Internet shop talking, it sounds like it takes time, and if I was there I could listen and think what are they are talking about, especially if I’m a spy I could take notes. So couldn’t you use a code language, or have code-words, it would save time. Is this used in ugyi?
AK: Yes. From their phrases, the way they speak as well. It’s much easier I think, we understand eachother, but for the Westerner raised in free democratic countries, it’s difficult for them to understand. For example, when you talk about politics in a tea-shop, as soon as somebody who we don’t know comes, we definitely change the subject.
MK: King Zero, in an article from September 26, 2009, you’ve written that “there are two distinctly visible and different forces working for peace and stability in Burma.” Could you elaborate on these two forces and the relationship between them?
KZ: I connected with political people, with the NLD leaders and got a lot of political information, ideas and so on and could share with people at my Library. But they were also very afraid to join openly with me. So I opened the Library, and a language school, and this was a way of them having contact with me. And then later I could share with the NLD party and leaders, and I worked in that way, indirectly, in an underground way.
MK: So you’re saying basically that the two main visible forces are either political affiliation, like joining the NLD, and everyone openly knows. And secondly by an information network shared through the Library for example, which is not political, but it is cultural, socio-cultural, educational, and so on, in its effect. And then obviously you’ve got protest demonstrations. I was interested in the difference between the overground and underground. Because there’s political opposition, and then there’s more social or cultural opposition. And what seems to me to be the case in 2011, after the ‘election,’ is that maybe socio-cultural forms of opposition will be more effective, and have more access for the people, than purely political ones. So looking at the post-election environment, it has altered in some superficial ways since 2007. The regime has not improved, but its trade relations with ASEAN and other countries continue. The government is more consolidated, its doing more business than before. So what do you think is required for the resistance movement to now adapt to these political, economic and other changes?
AK: I think the military junta doesn’t change anything, but unfortunately some ASEAN countries and some countries in the West want to change their policy, they want to give credit to the junta’s elections. They think the election alone will bring a change in Burma. Or they’ll just look at their own interest. But in Burma genuinely, truly, it doesn’t change, no difference before and after the elections. I will say the situation in Burma is even worse.
MK: That is a change.
AK: Yes, that is a change, for the worse, not for the better.
MK: So how do you approach these changes, in terms of your policy or action?
AK: Our action is now we collect signatures, we try to speak with the representatives of the government, internationally, as much as we can, with more diplomatic contact. We want to explain why the sanctions are still needed in Burma, because the military, even nowadays, recently, they declared they use the national budget for the military junta. This is a really big amount, when you compare what they use for education or healthcare. They do not really open to everybody in Burma, only the crony friends of the junta are allowed to work internationally. That’s why when the international community invest in Burma, all the monies go into the pockets of the generals directly. So that’s why I don’t want the international community to support the junta to oppress their own people.
MK: So your response is to continue with reminding and persuading the international community to keep the sanctions in place, because in some cases they almost decided to remove the sanctions.
AK: Yes, and then keep going, asking the junta to respect human rights and release all political prisoners.
MK: Having spoken about international solidarity, will you be seeking greater solidarity and support from other S-E Asian Buddhist sangha, in particular, especially in Thailand, to support a trans-Buddhist resistance movement? Maybe this is a question to you more as Buddhists, as religious leaders or representatives of the buddhadhamma?
AK: I believe personally the Buddha taught dhamma which is a universal, literal truth and justice. So in the name of justice of course we always seek solidarity with everybody who loves justice, peace and freedom. So in Thailand as well of course, and Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and other Buddhist countries, and non-Buddhist countries. Anybody in all countries who love and want to support justice and freedom and peace we are seeking solidarity.
MK: How are you doing that, concretely?
AK: All we can do is, we want to inform them, give them information, then we want to listen to their opinion as well, we want to hear from them as well, their suggestions, advice, whatever.
MK: Do you ever hear from any of the Buddhist leaders from other countries?
KZ: In Thailand one of the monk-professors, he teaches our monks about justice, human rights also, in a non-violent way. A Thai monk. He is also a professor.
MK: What is his name?
KZ: We cannot say because the Thai government doesn’t want their monks to be political. So they are afraid to reveal their names.
MK: Some monks are willing to help you, but covertly, they can’t do it publically?
MK: So that’s difficult for you, because you don’t have a popular or public expression of support from the Thai sangha?
KZ: In Bangkok one major monk, an abbot, supported us during the Saffron Revolution, also a lot of monks could come to his monastery, and he supported Burmese monks to protest here in Thailand.
MK: You have both expressed a few times that Western sympathizers for Burmese democracy need to add action to their verbal support. What would this look like in concrete terms for you in 2011?
AK: Verbal action is good, but lip-service alone is not enough. In Buddhism we have three kinds of action: mental, verbal and physical. So verbal actions can encourage or ask their governments to put pressure on the junta as well. But this is not easy. If they want their government to put pressure, they have to know about Burma. Taking action means cooperating with the democratic and human rights workers for Burma.
KZ: If they want to support the people, they need to support them directly. Sometimes they associate with the regime, who have gained a lot of money from them, but the people never, so it is not good. If they want to, they need to go directly to the people, that way is good.
MK: So in fact responding to their own situation, their own relations with complicit companies and governments. Many European people do not realize that the French company TOTAL, the largest oil company in Europe, has put billions of Euros into the regime’s survival. So firstly, concerned people could educate consumers and then secondly, could boycott TOTAL products, or thirdly, put pressure on TOTAL to give a message to the regime to improve its human rights record, for example. It’s not merely pressuring the Burmese regime, its putting pressure on their own consumers, companies and governments to act responsibly and honourably.
Both: Yes, yes.
MK: It is clear that the ethnic nationality armies are committed to an ongoing armed resistance to the regime. After up to 61 years of such conflict, do you feel there is a more beneficial policy that could pursued by the armed resistance?
AK: Our way is through non-violence. After 61 years this conflict is still going on, so I don’t believe you can solve the problem through violence. It’s not a good way for Burma where there are many ethnic nationalities. I think it is better to talk at the table and bring discussion and exchange, to bring a peaceful and developed, stable country.
MK: But they have tried for decades to have dialogue with the junta using the civilized means you suggest. But this has never worked. Is there no place for ‘speaking’ to the army on their own terms, ie. militaristically?
AK: I think everybody in Burma should support non-violence, in one voice. For example even in prison the junta cannot rape a woman easily because some prisoners are educated to protect themselves. If a woman in prison has a gun, she might be killed, so it’s always wiser to avoid violence at any cost, because the consequences will be worse. Don’t forget there’s a saying that ‘the pen is sharper than the sword.’ Even the junta don’t attack the opposition with guns alone, they rely on the media to attack them, the intelligence force and so on.
MK: Do you feel you can effectively dialogue with the ethnic armed groups about this issue?
AK: I believe, yes, we can effectively talk.
MK Do you?
AK: No, I did not talk with them, but we can talk. If there’s a will there’s a way. We must have a will, to want to talk.
MK: And they have to want to listen.
AK: Yes. They must want to listen, and to talk, too.
KZ: Yes, we believe in the non-violent way, because the Buddhist way is a non-violent way. So we use loving-kindness.
MK: Does that mean that the armed resistance, given they are obviously armed, is there anything they could do as armies that would still be more beneficial? Can you offer them any moral guidance? For example, Aung San Suu Kyi politically believes in non-violence, but she also respects the army very much.
AK: For me I want to suggest to all the armed ethnic groups, to work for the country, in the name of democracy and human rights. Not just for their own organizations, their own ethnic groups. They must have a will to work for human rights rather than only independence.
MK: So changing their focus from a nationalistic to a more collective one.
AK: Yes. Nobody should be chauvinist. Chauvinism cannot reach their goals, I believe.
MK:Do you think they could unify?
AK: I believe, after 61 years, everybody can find a different way, even though they keep the gun.
KZ: We always try to associate with the military. When we were in Myanmar we associated with them. We are not fighting the army, we are fighting the system only, so we explained this and they knew more about our cause. We discussed with soldiers how they can participate in the movement. Because it is very difficult for them if they want to participate, they can be arrested.
MK: So in the current time, what general idea do you have of how much of the army, what proportion of soldiers, is able or willing to hear this message? Say for example there was another uprising and the army come out how many of these young soldiers can hear you and change?
AK: I think many soldiers are not happy under the SPDC regime. Of course they want to escape but they have no choice. When they decide to join the opposition groups, they cannot go back into the army, so they must be very careful to decide. So we must understand them, we must show that we really protect them, love them. We cannot expect from them alone. So we extend our loving-kindness to them. In 2007, for about 10 days many soldiers were reluctant to shoot the monks. Even, this morning King Zero told me, the soldier who shot the Japanese journalist, when you look carefully it is very suspicious whether he’s really one of the army, or if he was forced only to put on a uniform. Because he doesn’t wear army regulation shoes, he wears flip-flops. We have heard in 2003 many people refused to attack Aung San Suu Kyi, so they may have been criminals with a death sentence, who were made to attack her and her group. So maybe it worked like that in 2007 as well, nobody knows but it is possible.
MK: In Mae Sot you are very central here, the Best Friend Library performs a very important service for all of the people, in terms of education, cultural events, Buddhist teaching and so on. What is your relationship with the local exile media, what kind of hopes do you have for working collaboratively with them in the future?
AK: I really hope to work with everybody closely, to bring a change for the better in Burma. I think the media in Burma for the military is very strong, they work very systematically. But I think the exile media do not work as systematically. The military media has a very clear vision: they work for themselves, for the dictatorship, to attack the opposition movement. The SPDC media every day has four political, or four economic or four social objectives, and so on. Everything, newspapers and books, for it to be published, you must have these clear aims. And then nowadays, say twenty times a day, they mention it on the radio, in the newspapers, the television. So ‘the BBC and VOA, their stories are full of lies’ or ‘Beware of destructive BBC and VOA’ and so on. But in the opposition media they do not have as clear a vision. I want them to say something like a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi, like ‘Every citizen in Burma has the right and obligation to defy any unjust law.’ Every day, again and again. If they say it repeatedly, maybe even the military might begin to think ‘Why do they say like that?’
MK: That’s a very good point, but on the other hand, even though the government media is very organized, it’s also simply propaganda. So, it’s not true, and they’re lying. So surely the people in Burma don’t believe all this media.
KZ: Yes, the regime can organize from their TV, newspapers, etc, every day. But here we try to suggest things which are good, which things are not good, to the Burmese media, but they never accept it. Sometimes I talk to the media, and they censor it, and this is no good.
KZ: Here! And also the DVB also censor what we say.
MK: What kind of content would you say they are trying to keep hidden from the public?
KZ: It’s hard to know why they censored what we say, they gave no reasons. I was talking about unity. I saw a video on You Tube of water-buffalos protecting the young from lions, and I thought this was a good symbol for unity between all those working for rights and freedoms in Burma, including the media, should work together, like the water-buffalos, to protect the people who are vulnerable, like political prisoners, students and so on.
AK: Frankly, I don’t think the exile media work to bring change to Burma, they work for their own self-interest. Because the exile media do not contact eachother, they are competing with eachother, they don’t have a good relationship. When we give an interview with someone, the other media group aren’t happy, because we didn’t given it to them first. They always want to be the first. Not all of the, some are better than others, but this is a problem. The most important thing is to give good information for the people, by the people, outside and inside of the country. Their goal should be to serve the people in a unified way, and work together, in the defense of human rights.
MK: So for you it’s the media’s job, as well as your educational programs here, to inform the people. But the media are not taking that responsibility.
AK: Yes. I think their vision is only as much audience as possible. It is for commercial purposes. A lot of people to speak to, for a very short time, it’s superficial. Not saying anything, just talking.
MK: There are many similarities politically, and in terms of Buddhist issues, between the oppression of Tibetan sovereignty in Tibet, and human rights in Burma. Would you care to comment on these respective issues or differences, as you perceive them, and on the role Buddhism plays in them both. Can you see your own efforts here as equivalent to the aims of HH Dalai Lama regarding Tibetan freedom?
AK: Of course in Burma we practice Theravada Buddhism, whereas in Tibet they practice Mahayana. In Mahayana Buddhism the Dalai Lama is holy, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism. But in Burma we do not have such a leader. We are all leaders of ourself. But still both countries follow the Buddha’s teaching. Also, Tibet is under Chinese occupation, whereas Burma is under a military junta which comes from our own country. The similarity is that Tibetans are also fighting for peace, freedom, democracy and human rights in Tibet, we also the same in Burma. And non-violently as well. Like the Dalai Lama, we also believe only in non-violence in order to bring any change for the better.
MK: Have you had any contact with the Tibetan sangha who support non-violence?
AK: Many Tibetan exiles live in India, so actually we do not have much contact with them living here in Thailand. And then Tibetans are well known in Western countries, whereas the Burmese situation is not so well known.
MK: Perhaps I could propose you host a regional Buddhist Peace Conference to bring more global attention to Burma and the struggle for its freedom. I certainly hope so. Thank you.
Both: Yes. Thank you very much.