Life in a Burmese Welfare Village
People complain about the welfare system, but it’s difficult to imagine what life would be like without it. Without intervention from the government, what would happen to the sick, the mentally ill, the disabled and the elderly? Where would they go?
In a country like Myanmar, where the formerly dictatorial government has done precisely nothing for its country’s most vulnerable for the past 50 years, they go to the Buddhist monasteries.
ThaBarWa Meditation Centre is one of these: a sprawling, confusing welfare community sitting 40 minutes outside of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. It is home to approximately 3000 people, and occupies – or rather, has taken over – a small village on the city’s periphery. It counts among its population hundreds of monks and nuns; civilians who choose to live at the centre for mostly religious regions; and a small segment of Myanmar’s people in need. Were it not for the food and shelter provided by ThaBarWa free of charge, many of these people, who are unable to provide for themselves and whose families can not or will not provide for them, would starve.
The monk who started the centre, Sayadaw U Ottamasara, is held in a cult-like reverence by the residents of ThaBarWa. He is a former business owner who had a religious epiphany after facing a setback with his company and instead turned his skill-set towards performing good deeds. Along with ThaBarWa, he has spearheaded the construction of several other “mercy villages” throughout Myanmar that provide free housing and services for the needy.
Nyein Aung is a Burmese man in his fifties. He has neither feet nor hands. His legs end at stumps at his ankles, which have calloused over enabling him to walk short distances, and two half-sized fingers extend from each wrist. He is completely blind. He is also devoutly religious, and finds solace, as many do in this country, in the Dhamma (the word of Buddha) and in meditation. Before he made his way to ThaBarWa, he spent five years working in a rice paddy – struggling, in his condition, to survive.
Nyein Aung adores the Sayadaw (a Burmese honorific meaning senior monk). When asked if there was anything material he desired, he replied he had wanted a radio loaded with the Sayadaw’s teachings for years, but had no way of coming up with the eight American dollars it cost to purchase.
Sah Du Lay, a fortune teller from Yangon who woke up one morning three years ago after sleeping on the street to find himself permanently paralysed from the waist down, tells me of the Sayadaw’s “superpowers”. We discuss the matter sitting on his allocated bed in the open-air disabled shelter. Streams of water trickle under the bed as the torrential May rain turns everything around us to mud and rats take cover amongst the feet and possessions of the residents. Sah Du Lay spends 100 per cent of his time sitting on this makeshift platform, smaller than a single bed and made entirely of wood, where he draws and sings and tells fortunes and has become somewhat of a hit with the foreign volunteers. “The Sayadaw has a superpower,” he says, “of food and shelter. He gave me another life. He has a superpower; without him I would surely die.”
ThaBarWa runs entirely on donations, both financial and of service. Every morning, pick-up trucks bounce out of the gates filled with red and pink-robed monks and nuns headed for downtown Yangon, where they collect alms – food and money donations from the general populace. The Sayadaw travels the world giving talks and persuading Buddhists of every nationality to open their wallets to his project. The centre is staffed mostly by volunteers, where devotees from as far afield as America, Italy, Malaysia, and Singapore have travelled to Myanmar, shaved their heads, and devoted their lives to the accumulation of good karma.
In saying that, though, ThaBarWa is far from utopia. In fact, as one nun put it, it feels more like a refugee camp than a monastery.
It calls itself a “meditation centre”, though this is a little misleading. Not because it isn’t one, but because it is the exact opposite of all the images these two words conjure up. It is not calming. It is not tranquil. It is not quiet. In fact, several of the hundreds of monks and nuns who live there told me that they chose it because, “if you can meditate here, you can meditate anywhere”. It is literally the most distracting place they could think of – and this is apparent from the second you arrive. It is absolutely crawling with people. The stench, especially in the disabled shelter where the infirm are bathed once a week and are often left to sit in their own discharges, is overpowering.
The place is overrun with stray dogs: miserable creatures covered in scabs with oddly-shaped inbred heads and patches of hair rubbed away, who form packs and fight in the streets at all hours. It is choked with dust, covered in rubbish and discarded food, and is buzzing with flies.
The quirks of Myanmar’s culture itself presents a bewildering set of unpredictable problems. For example, volunteers take the disabled patients for a walk every day in wheelchairs to a distant pagoda, but they can’t go to the closer and more accessible one because an angry monk with a slingshot lives there. It’s fine to visit the disabled patients during the day, but not between 2pm and 3pm, unless it’s raining. Religious and social beliefs, like that you should never point your feet at a monk or that you should never bathe after 11am, take precedence over more practical considerations. Then there’s the Buddhist belief that it’s good intentions that get you good karma, not successful executions, so it really makes no difference whether or not a certain project works.
Nevertheless, every day all of the people are fed, and every night all of the people have shelter. Loudspeakers blare constantly with Dhamma talks, and the gold-tipped pagodas – ubiquitous symbols of worship that cover every available inch of land in Myanmar – provide symbols of hope to people who have experienced little cause for hope. And that, in a country with virtually no functioning government services to speak of, is a superpower.
Photos by the author