The junta is obviously, and for myriad reasons, desperate for funds, which has created havoc within the financial system. And there’s been an unforeseen cultural consequence of this.
The military regime is determined to smash all resistance. We see it in the daily upsurge in arrests, beatings, torture and murder. While much of this is an ideological battle, what has become patently clear is that it is also a struggle between those who want to provide humanitarian aid to their brothers and sisters, and those trying to put a stop to it at all costs. As I have previously noted, the simple act of handing someone a cup of rice can result in arrest, and the person receiving the gift might also be detained. Discretion, therefore, has become of utmost importance.
While it is struggling to obtain money for itself, the junta is also conducting an equally dedicated campaign to keep it out of people’s hands by, for instance, rationing withdrawals from banks and ATMs. The regime is well aware that money is changing hands between ordinary citizens and those involved in the civil disobedience movement (CDM). Sums, both large and small—some even less than US$1.00—are being donated to the CDM every day. These small amounts carry great meaning and are a joy to behold. Of course there are those who have no money to spare, but they find other ways to help.
I recently chatted with someone about raising funds to help the Burmese cause, which is, of course, essential and very much appreciated. However, because of the inherent danger, it is not only critical that every link along the chain of support remains absolutely anonymous, but any help provided must now remain unmentioned and unacknowledged—no recognition and rarely a thank-you.
Owing to the generosity of our supporters, we can direct most of our financial assistance to others, often to people whom we don’t know except by aliases and reputations; and we in turn are frequently helped by strangers who selflessly put themselves at great risk. This requisite anonymity in giving has now become the norm, although it is somewhat at odds with how the traditional culture of dāna has manifested in the past.
Giving, or dāna, has for centuries been an integral element of Burmese society. Dāna is a Pali word that connotes, especially, the virtue of giving, of unattached and unconditional generosity or charity, in which right volition plays a key role. When the volition is most pure, one gives expecting nothing in return, not even a thank-you. Dāna can be offered both materially and immaterially, as with a donation of time or participation, and is widely practised not only in support of monastic institutions, but of countless nonprofits and other good causes as well.
The public display of donors’ names is a common phenomenon in Myanmar. Years ago when I first toured the country and made donations to an organization or a monastery, someone would always insist that I have my photo taken handing over the money. To my astonishment and chagrin, when next I visited I would find that photo or my name on a plaque hanging on a wall. This left me feeling exceedingly uncomfortable, and at times I withheld donations because of it. Fortunately, over the years I have learned ways to work around such awkward situations.
In the present circumstances all of this is changing. Instead of public recognition, strict anonymity has now become the established donation practice. Still, sometimes we witness smiles or tears of gratitude. At other times we might see a cellphone video of young people at a demonstration wearing donated protective headgear and running shoes instead of flip-flops, or of doctors applying complimentary bandages to a wounded body. Or maybe thanks comes by way of a glass of sugarcane juice. Occasionally, I get a phone call in the middle of the night merely to say thank you for finding this safe place to sleep. People helping people—that is the noblest dāna of all.