Justice: One or Many? Writing from New Symposium 2007

Paros 2007: Justice: One or Many: II. Justice in the World: Ma Thida

Justice on the Waiting List for the Burmese

Ma Thida

The value, and the essence, of justice is not different for the Burmese than for others all over the world.  We don't, of course, have very much justice.  Yet most Burmese believe that it can be achieved not only through the courts but also through the natural Cause-and-Effect process.  According to natural justice, no one will be able to avoid the Effect of their own action, its Cause.  But how about legal justice?

Twenty-four-hour neon lights wreath Nay Pyi Daw, which means ‘the royal kingdom,’ a city of less than a million people. It is here all military giants and ministerial offices have just recently moved, away from the 5 million living in Yangon, established in 1755 and a capital ever since, through colonial days and the post- Independence period. Since Nay Pyi Daw was established, electricity in Yangon functions irregularly and sometimes only 6 hours per day.  For nearly two decades, Mandalay, the second capital in Upper Burma where most civilians live, has had totally unpredictable home electricity and nearly absent street light.  The rest of Burma, especially for provincial towns and villages where most civilians live, has always had even far less.

Soon after the 1988 coup, the Ministry of Defense built its own vocational universities and other educational, health and social infrastructures.  Most new resettlement areas beyond the old town's suburbs were occupied by poor and displaced civilians, while the most convenient places of those resettlements were reserved for military officers who never live in that town, or around it.  An average military officer can own several rental properties in different towns, while most local civilians lose their land and are displaced out of town.  Most business opportunities are reserved for military families, with civilians becoming their modest employees

Most Burmese living rural areas usually don't have any idea about how much better they could be treated by the government. The various regional, racial, and religious groups feel that they are unjustly treated but don't notice carefully enough that there is no equality and equity in their social, economical, educational, health and political opportunities.

Some Burmese were quite surprised to learn that privacy advocates protested when President Bush claimed the right to open personal mail without a warrant, or when Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger offered a plan to provide health insurance to all Californians. Why? Not only are print and electronic media scrutinized by Information Ministry; all mail is opened, read and resealed, without notice, by a special bureau within the Home Affairs Ministry.  Web-based free email is banned, internet access is limited, and restricted.  In contrast, young military officers can get uncensored internet access at special places.  Most high-ranking military officers are unbelievably rich, and usually get their health care in Singapore or Bangkok, even while the majority of civilians cannot afford to use even the cost-sharing national health care which charges every patient for surgical blades and gauze bandages. Though the regime newspapers printed once that no one was above the law, the rule of law is established differently for the military and the civilian populations.  In that way, current Burma practices 'one land, two countries,' much like China promotes 'one country, two systems'.  Burma's military country has custom-tailored law and order while its civilian country has corrupted judges and repressed media. Justice is different for Burma's military population and the civilian population.

I myself experienced, and practiced, this different justice in the Insein prison in 1990s.  As my own experience as a political prisoner shows, I was able to demonstrate to the military and prison authorities how one can practice justice even under custody. My own good and justified acts, based on Buddha's Vipasana meditation, were always a threat to them.  What follows is the account of my prison experience.


In 1993 I was accused of endangering public serenity, of being connected with illegal political organizations, and of printing and distribution of illegal pamphlets. My only crime was reading a weekly journal published by an illegal political organization abroad.  I was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in the notorious Insein prison in Yangon.  This was a very small compound, with only six cells; in it were six people altogether, (all of whom?)  had been given a death sentence because they killed someone during the 1988 uprising; the other two were communists.  My environment was thus not very good for meditation. Our compound was inside a big ward, one intended for detention rather than for those already sentenced. Every two weeks we could meet our family members for 15 minutes. Every time we were to meet our family we had to pass through the whole compound to the interview room. Because of our isolation in the small compound, it was not every day we could see people  living in the ward.  Off and on, passing through the entire block, I could notice how badly the criminal prisoners were being treated.  Every time I walked through there, I noticed how afraid I was of becoming one of them.  For, according to Buddha's teachings, every effect has its cause: the bad treatment those criminals were receiving might have been pay-back for misdeeds in their previous lives.  According to Buddha's teachings we can't be free from the eternal universe without practicing meditation, without enlightenment.

Mostly we tend to neglect the practice of meditation in our daily life.  That is why monks set an example.  When you see a child, a patient, or a prisoner, you notice how they are unable do anything by themselves; depending on others to attend to them, they can't change their future by any action in the outer world--except for meditation. That was the beginning. Having just finished my tuberculosis treatment and being in recovery from it, I decided to meditate nearly the whole day. Even when everything is taken from us, we still have this one last action available.  That is why I started to meditate. I might be released after my twenty years’ imprisonment but without meditation I cannot be released from the eternal life-cycle.  In twenty years’ time I might be released by those who have the keys to the door of the ward, and they are thus the owners of my freedom; but if I meditate, it is me who has the keys. I need to meditate upon all my past misdeeds and to conquer their effects in my future life.  My real fear is of an endless life-cycle, of being born again, of dying again.  Once we meditate upon that first fear, we get the right perspective on what our task is inside the prison walls as well.

I wanted to show the other political prisoners, and also to the guards, how one can be just even while remaining within the ruling law.  Moreover, it seemed to me that resistance within the prison wouldn't be of any use because as long as I was jailed, the military government could not be at ease.  I never felt myself to be a victim; even though I was a prisoner I never felt under any authority. My premise was that nobody could hurt me; the only one who can hurt me is myself.  That is why I tried to not betray myself. I was the one responsible for my thoughts and deeds-- that was why I had always tried to do the right things, and think the right thoughts; I also tried not to hurt anyone else-- including the guards and the officers—except when I needed to protect myself from being hurt.

In 1995 I contracted severe lung tuberculosis, and began suffering from a gynecological problem.  I had  6 consecutive months of fever, and my body weight was down to 80 lbs.  The medical officer in charge of the women’s ward was very uncooperative when it came to treatment.  When my health condition deteriorated, I was sent out, to the General Hospital, but was discharged from there after 12 hours without any treatment because the prison's medical and administrative authorities requested that.  As soon as I knew I was going back from the hospital to my cell without any treatment, I warned the staff that the consequences would be the responsibility of the prison authority, not mine. Then, soon after I was returned to my cell, the medical doctor on duty asked me to give up all of my own medicine.

I went on a hunger strike. I posed two demands: to give me back my medication, and to release me from the care of the ward’s woman doctor, who had been both unjust and unprofessional as far as my condition was concerned.  By this action I was not hurting anyone else.  I was not hurting myself; rather, this was the only remaining way of protecting myself.  The authorities were afraid that I would commit suicide, a crime against the system, while in reality they were about to commit murder.  I found the only solution where the dialogue was still possible.  I showed them that if their intention was to keep me alive, they had to trust me - not the assigned doctor.  Thus I showed myself in command of my own situation, and theirs - for unlike them, I really understood my true physical condition.  My general thought was that it did not matter whose the intention was: if the intention was good, to protect life for example-- in Buddhism we do not approve of suicide since it does not solve the task of freeing oneself--I must go along with it.  The only thing to watch for was where the intention went wrong, where the misdeed or a crime could be committed. And as long as we recognize some good and some truth behind the actions of the others, even if they are our executioners, we were able to do real justice and not commit injustice.

I didn't hate those who kept me in prison; I felt sorry for them.  For I could always follow the route of justice while they could not: the key to their freedom was always in the hands of their superiors. In my case, after 45 minutes of discussing my hunger strike and my treatment, they gave up everything. I had all of my medicines returned; I in turn gave up the hunger strike since all my demands were met.  What I had done was simply pointing out what my demand was, why I made it,  and how they could negotiate with me to solve this problem. At the end of that debate, one of my wardens said: "Thida, you are free, but we are not." At that moment I was standing right in front of my locked cell.  I knocked on the door, showing that it was closed. "How do you mean, I'm free?"  I asked.  I knew what he meant, but wanted him to confess it.  "You are free in your thoughts and words, but I'm the government's employee, I do not have that kind of freedom.”  This was equal to saying that it was I who obeyed the law and it was they who could not obey it; that it was I who was outside the cell and they who were inside, and even that it was I who was the jury and they the criminals.

I think that the problem of my country lies not only in the fact that we have an unjust government, but also in the fact that the religion of the people,  their daily practice is not at all based on what they claim it is - on Buddhist meditation and its attempt to liberate us.  We do not have to be in prison cells to practice justice, that is, to be not-committing crimes: passive acceptance is not enough.  We need to practice goodness, and to understand where evil comes from.  Then what was happening to me in my cell would be happening to everybody in a country that has become a prison for a large proportion of its people. The government resembles wardens and a prison more than a citizen representative.  On my way out of jail, after I have been saved by many international organizations, and by the desire of the government to look just in the eyes of the whole world, I left a note of thanks to the military intelligence staff: "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to meditate twenty hours a day."  I also thanked myself for taking advantage of the opportunity they gave me.

The Burmese value justice in their unjust nation.  The majority, whether they are Buddhists or not, accepts the fact that every action has a reaction reflecting it.  As the Burmese society is very small, and Buddhism and Buddha's teaching have spread among young people, most Burmese have generally heard of, and accept, the cause-effect theory.  Therefore, as non-violent Theravada Buddhists, most of us are reluctant to take up any type of violent action, even against those who have treated us callously and cruelly.   Since we accept that any cause will have an effect accordingly, we rarely want to react or act violently against anyone in order to prevent similar effect upon us.  The cause-and-effect natural law will make a doer suffer as he or she did to others, whether in near or far future, the present or a future life.  That is our Buddhist understanding of fairness or justice.  So, even if nobody would be punished by an  other, a wrongdoer could still suffer from his or her own past action.  That is why, for Buddhists, justice can be achieved not only through the courts but also through this natural cause-and-effect process.

According to this theory, every action can produce a symmetrical reflection.  The military believe for instance that they can obtain merit in exchange for their donations, so as to overcome the negative reflection of their wrongdoing, and donate a lot to Buddhist monks throughout their time in power. In fact, however, no reflection can be avoided, nor can anything be deducted from any reflection.  Right and meritorious deeds will cause good reflection, while wrong and de-meriting deeds will cause negative reflection. Someone who has committed both meritorious and de-meriting deeds will not receive “a sum of all reflection,” the total of the good subtracted from the bad, but rather will definitely bear both the good and the bad reflection.

So, could someone be saved by the strictly legal model of justice?  Could something be faded out, undone by legal justice?  According to the principle of natural justice, no-one is able to avoid the effect of their own action, their Cause.  But what of legal justice?!  Nature is nature, and a human being is a human being.  Nature makes natural law.  So too human beings make legal justice.  The Burmese do indeed worry about legal justice in Burma for now and for the future.  Will military officials be put in front of a legal court one day, and made responsible for their wrongdoings and crimes?  And even if they were accused in front of a court of law, would justice prevail for the civilians?  I am also worried whether ordinary people would be able to practice justice under unjust conditions, to protect themselves.  At the present moment, justice is still on the waiting list for the civilian population of Burma.

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