Not long ago, Myanmar was set free from the fear of dictatorship which had politically and economically been ‘plaguing’ the country for decades. Under the rule of the juntas, the people of Myanmar were suffocated with starvation, war and cruel injustice which did not allow them to breathe. Recently, they were somehow politically and economically set free to breathe the air. With hope for bright future, the people have been joyfully marching toward a ‘better Myanmar’. Now, the joyful and hopeful march is halted. ‘The right to breathe the air’ is limited. Once again, the country is suffocated. This time, the victimizer is neither a military regime nor a monster. It is the invisible virus, CORONA.
At the beginning this pandemic, an unknown Burmese voicemail went viral on Myanmar Facebook world. “We have to eat neem leaves… we have to eat neem leaves for prevention…”. Some days after this viral voicemail, all the neem trees in most parts of the country were shaved bald. Indeed, people have been panic, and they would do whatever they can to fight against this unseen virus. Seeing the catastrophic pandemic situation of Spain and Italy on TV and media, they sighed deeply with a whisper, “If such calamitous disease plagues our country, not many of us will survive.” Praise and thanksgiving had to be rendered to ‘the Noah-like government’ which was wise enough ‘to build the ark’ even before a single COVID-19 case was affirmed. The lockdown was prematurely forced in order to prevent ‘the flood of CORONA’.
Apparently, for the majority, lockdown means starving to death. Everybody agrees that prevention is better than cure. But this painful prevention is going to take away their earnings, their jobs and their families. The old fear of desperate poverty and starvation has come back too soon. For some people, it is impossible to comply fully with all the lockdown directives. A mother street marketer irresistibly turned the stay-at-home rules down by exclaiming, “My family has nothing to eat if I don’t sell in the streets; So let the mortician come and carry my dead body…”. We may say that there is no greater fear except the fear of death. But death of a whole family is undeniably more devastating than death of a single person.The sting of Death seems to be roaming around everywhere in the forms of human touch. Abruptly, the signs of love, such as hugging, kissing, touching and shaking hands turned out to be as dangerous and poisonous as the biting of a cobra. The ‘WELCOME’ signboards at the thresholds of the houses and villages were replaced with the ‘PROHIBITED TO ENTER’ signboards. Home visiting is a valuable culture of the Burmese people. Now, one is not welcome in another house. Pagodas and churches used to be crowded with worshippers and churchgoers. Now they are barricaded with the sign, ‘IT IS CLOSED’. The Buddhist monks have to suddenly stop the usual practice of their morning begging for alms and food. What an ‘head over heels’ of life we are experiencing!
In this calamitous situation, people are tempted to ask, “Where is God? Or is He abandoning us? Or is it the ‘end time’? Or are we so wicked that God is punishing us?” Such ‘theological questions’ make a vibrating echo among the people shaking their faith and exposing them to greater fear. The tribal animistic minded Catholics are doubting whether it is easier to please and beseech God or to please and plead the spirits (Nats in Burmese). At last, most of them have decided to offer pleasing sacrifices both to God and Nats. They have good reasons in doing that doubling sacrifice. I was surprised to hear from a devout Catholic saying, “Well! It is easier to please and plead the Nats than to please and beseech God.”
At first sight, you may tend to condemn his wavering faith. But one must know that the people of Myanmar have so many things to fear; and it is this evil fear that has been traumatizing them for centuries. God, gods, Nats, military soldiers, police, foreigners, authorities etc. are the subjects to fear. It is this ‘culture of fear’ that forces them to hide their faces from the world. And, indeed, it is this very culture that hinders them to have strong faith and confidence in any human and spiritual entities.
Even months after the outbreak of pandemic, Myanmar has been fortunately preserved from severe plaguing. Some say thanks to God, others to the Nats. Going against the laws, a catechist from a Catholic village exclaimed, “I have never closed the village chapel. I have never ceased to urge my faithful to go to church every Sunday. The pandemic invites us to pray more.” He may be wrong. But he has a point. A pilgrim place (Our Lady of Mount Soduyar) of the Dominican parish in Loikaw has been more frequented than ever, as it is not safe and allowed to pray together in the churches. Praying and begging are the two main jobs of the Buddhist monks. Now, the function of begging is taken away by COVID-19, which, instead, creates more time and space for praying.
Until the middle of August, Myanmar had been celebrating ‘the Passover’ with thanksgiving and praises. They had good reason to celebrate. The first wave of COVID-19 19 passed over the country’s doorpost which had long been smeared by the blood of bloody wars, the sweat of miserable poverty and the tears of cruel injustice.
The heavy rain suddenly fell on the country in late August bringing along with it the second merciless wave of the disease. With this wave, Myanmar is no more the predilected as the Israelites in Egypt. As the rain wets the soil, the monsoon mushrooms keep sprouting up here and there. And as the COVID-19 flood comes, it affects the people picking them up one after another. These months, the doctors have been exclaiming online begging, “Help! Help!”; the priests saying masses on livestreaming preaching, “Repent! Pray!”; the country leaders keep announcing on TV, “Stay at Home!”. They all give the same message, “We are in danger!”.
The threatening expression, “We are in danger”, does not really sound strange to the ears of Myanmar people. They have been putting up with it for decades. What danger can be more dangerous than the deadly starvation, the impoverished poverty and the lifelong civil war? The truth is that living in Myanmar means ‘to hope against hope’, and ‘to believe in the impossible’.