By Andrew Loh
I met my Burmese contact at Toa Payoh MRT at 7 pm. A tip off had told TOC that members of the Burmese community were organizing a special prayer service to be held at the Burmese Buddhist Temple off Balestier Road.
I was expecting a couple of dozen worshippers, fifty at most. Something like a community gathering for mutual support and encouragement. As we approached the temple, I could tell I was going to be very wrong.
The temple was filled to overflowing and dozens had filled the courtyard, prepared to participate in the service standing outside the main hall and the outer grounds of the temple.
Like a good citizen journalist, determined to get a good gauge of the strength of the event, I slowly wound my way to the upper gallery of the temple.
From the balcony where I was perched, all I could see was a sea of red, interspersed only by patches of white: these were Burmese wearing specially printed white t-shirts with the words “STOP bloodshed in Myanmar” in red.
I was struck by one thing: the deathly silence of the night’s proceedings. I felt like I was in a funeral. And in a sense, I was.
Prayer for the dead
The special service was a tribute to those who died in the Burmese protests over the last few days.
A Burmese postgraduate student helped translate a line from the prayer for me: “We pray for those who have given their lives in Yangon, in recent demonstration”.
The mood at the service was solemn, and the monk leading the service called on the community to pray for peace and to offer up their prayers and merits for those who perished in the protests.
Sea of Red, hope for action
A Burmese student studying in Singapore said that many attended the service to pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in the events in Rangoon.
“We want to do something meaningful. That’s why we’re here”, he said. “We’re wearing red as a mark of honour for those who gave their lives in the struggle. It symbolizes the blood that has been spilled the last few days. And it’s not only we Myanmese in Singapore who are wearing red but also Myanmese in other countries as well. It’s a red campaign.”
He said that the fuel hike in July was only the catalyst for something else which has been simmering below the surface among the Burmese people. “The hike was just the trigger because underneath there are a lot of root causes such as the living conditions in Myanmar. Another is the ruthlessness of the regime.”
He hopes ASEAN will do more – through applying pressure on the Burmese government. He suggested that a road-map for the democratization of Burma be put in place by ASEAN.
“That is the only solution, I think, for the long term.”
The solemn calm of the temple service was a stark contrast to the anger several of the worshippers expressed when I asked them about their feelings on the events of the last few days.
Much of the anger seemed to be directed at the Burmese junta’s treatment of Buddhist monks. The international media has carried images of ransacked monasteries with bloodied floors, a shocking image for a country that holds its clergy in the highest regard.
“They should never, never do these things to monks”, a Burmese worker who prefers to remain unnamed told me vehemently.
Another member of the community, who also prefers to remain anonymous, expressed the sense of sorrow and shock the community felt at the news of Buddhist monks being beaten:
“Monks are highly respected and are peaceful people. They are also a very high symbol in our religion. Myanmar people are willing to die in order to protect them. It’s horrible seeing and hearing about our religious leaders being beaten and killed before our very eyes. For us, behavior like this is completely taboo.”
The service concluded and the red crowd dispersed. As the crowd melted into the silence of the night, images I’d seen on the BBC of desecrated temples were burnt into my head.
Taking a last look at the towering Buddha statue in the Burmese temple, I thought I saw a mona lisa ambivalence in its smile. Perhaps there is hope for Burma yet.
*Special thanks to Zheng Xi.
Below is a video of the scenes at the temple – by WatchTower Productions in partnership with TOC: