Thursday, 4 October 2007

Dear Friends

Following the news of the uprising in Burma last week, I along with many Burmese civilians, felt optimistic that the involvement of the monks presented a real possibility for a bloodless transition to democracy.

Photographs of thousands of monks in their saffron robes peacefully marching through the streets filled me with a sense of hope despite the threats that were being issued by the military junta. Something about their shaven heads and calm, resolute expressions made them appear to me the very embodiment of life and bravery. I found the images very beautiful.

It was therefore extremely difficult to learn on Thursday that they had been fired upon and beaten. I simply could not imagine how anyone could fire a gun into a crowd of monks. My heart was filled with grief at the thought that such brutality exists in the world. I also felt deeply frustrated that there was nothing more I could do than to sign a petition appealing to the Chinese to exercise their influence on the country’s leaders.

My radio alarm awoke me on Friday with yet more terrible news. An unknown number of monks and civilians had been murdered. The next news item was about a tailback on the M5, followed by the weather, followed by another cheerful (but not very good) pop song. It struck me that not only do we live in a world with brutality and horror, but it has become so common that we do not even pause to contemplate it. We are so used to hearing of human life needlessly wasted that it can be reported in the same breath as the traffic report without this seeming abnormal. We are numbed to tragedy so that it rarely penetrates deeper than our peripheral awareness.

On Friday I allowed the news and the pain that accompanied it to sink in and go to work on me. I spent most of the morning in tears, unable to talk about it with my flatmates without breaking down again. I realised that the thing I felt most acutely was the injustice that this was all going on and life here wouldn’t even miss a beat. I needed to do something to make sure that for me at least, this would not be the case.

So it was that on Friday afternoon I shaved my head in solidarity with the Burmese people, ending very nearly ten years as a dread head and a period of at least eleven years without a hair cut. I knew that this action would catch the attention of many of the students at Drummond Community High School where I teach. I also hoped that the reasons behind my actions would be widely discussed. It is important to me that the issue is remembered after the initial shock has faded. I therefore decided that I will also walk bare foot wherever possible since this is unlikely ever to loose the capacity to draw attention.

I have been touched by the resoundingly positive response that I have had so far. From a bouncer in a club on Friday night who decided not to ask me to leave, and instead offered fist aid in the event that I should cut my feet, to random people stopping me in the street, to a group of young people who inquired what I was up to in George Square on Saturday evening. I have not yet had a single negative comment.

On Monday the news spread through the school like wildfire and it was quickly followed by my reasons for taking action. I had the most intense, inspiring and emotional days teaching. I have been reminded that there is no issue too complex or difficult to address with young people. The thing that makes the difference is the quality of attention that students bring to a subject. I managed to capture their attention with a bold statement, and then hold it by talking about an issue of great importance. Together we explored this space using our hearts as well as our heads and we pushed back the boundaries to reach places I would not have imagined possible.

I am greatly indebted to my students for the quality of their input to the many amazing conversations that I have had over the past two days. I am also touched by those, staff and students who have come to express their support or who have e-mailed me with encouragement. You give me hope for the future.

I intend to remain shaven headed and bare footed until such time as there is a democratically elected leader in Burma. Given the way that the situation has developed I fear that this may be some time.

By shutting down the Internet connection and blocking mobile phone masts the junta has succeeded in preventing the world from seeing what is happening in Burma. With the lights turned off they have proceeded with the messy and terrible business of crushing the will of the people. As we all know, even with dramatic images to accompany it, a story rarely stays on the front pages for more than a few days. Today’s headlines were about the beginning of the Princess Diana Inquest, Britney Spears losing custody of her children and speculation about whether or not Brown will call an election. It is essential that we do not allow ourselves to be distracted by this trivia. The International community must not turn its attention away from Burma.

In an attempt to dissuade the small number of British companies who trade with Burma to immediately halt, Anne Clywd, chair of the UK parliament’s all-party group on human rights, said “Nobody with any kind of morality should trade with Burma. Continuing trade is unacceptable.” Surely this applies equally to China, Burma’s most important trading partner, and the host to next years Olympic Games. I, for one, cannot see how such an event can take place in a country without “any kind of morality”. China is the only country with sufficient influence over the Burmese generals to bring about the change that is so desperately needed.

If you have not already signed the petition that I mentioned above please follow the link below.

Thank you for reading,

Yours, in love and hope,



Anonymous said...

You sound like an amazing person! I think it's great that you are taking action to bring awareness to the issues that are going on in Burma. I'd like to ask your permission to join you in walking barefoot until these issues are solved. Thanks for posting this and for all that you're doing to help those in need!

Ewen said...

Dear anonymous,
Sorry it has taken so long for me to publish and respond to your comment / question.

It was strange to be asked for permission. I don't feel that it is mine to give. Of course I have no objections to your joining me as a bare-footer. There are a couple of things that you should consider before doing so.

Firstly you should think about how much energy your action would generate for you and those around you. When I started the issue was fresh in everybody's mind and the feelings were fresh for me. This meant that when I was challenged (by a club doorman for example) my explanation meant something to them and I was invariably let in. Recently I've been experiencing the occasional uncomprehending expression as people have scanned their memories for what they know about Burma. I knew that I was entering a long-term relationship with this but it is still hard when the momentum starts to drop. You will see from my post explaining the thinking behind my pilgrimage that there are other elements that are diminished during the summer months that bring the validity of the action into question.

On the other hand I can commend bare-footedness to you as a way of being. I found it an incredibly liberating thing to do not least because of the relatively small number of people who actually notice. It puts into perspective the anxiety I’m sure we all felt as teenagers about whether or not we were wearing the right trainers. In addition you become far more present to the process of walking around, turning getting from A to B into a meditation. You’ll take different routes across the park – favouring the grass to the paths and you’ll appreciate the walk all the more for it.

Essentially you need to think about your motivation for going barefoot. Providing you are clear about what you’re doing you’ll be confident about answering the inevitable questions. I was lucky that almost everyone around me responded really well to what I was doing. Nine months on you may find it harder to justify to others but provided you know what it is all about for you, this is not hugely important.

If you would like to join me in solidarity you might want to consider walking some of the way to London with me. Let me know how you get on.

Hope this is of use,


Heather said...

well done Ewen we will be following your progress with great interest next time you are this way we will look forward to hearing all about your trip well done you again I will willing make a donation.
p s like the bald head