While the purpose of the census is to gauge the size of populations such as the Burmese-American community through a number, even more can be learned in the stories of those people behind the statistics.
One of those refugees from Burma is Ashin Kovida. Here, he is just a young man with a warm smile and a heavy accent, but in Burma, he is a symbol of survival and freedom.
Reporter Laura Klivans spoke with Ashin.
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LAURA KLIVANS: Class is just about to start at the College of Alameda. Twenty-seven-year-old Ashin Kovida points out who’s who in this large class of immigrants.
KOVIDA: It’s Mongolian, it’s a Mexico and Japan.
Kovida’s classmates make up an alert and captive audience in this English as a Second Language course.
As class begins, Kovida adjusts his saffron-colored robes and crosses his sandal-clad feet. His clothes give away that he is a Buddhist monk, and if you ask him, he’ll tell you he is from Burma, also known as Myanmar.
Like others in this class, Kovida’s story is one of risk-taking, sacrifice and hardship. But many of his classmates came to this country out of choice, and Kovida is here out of necessity.
KOVIDA: If I got arrested I would die. Yeah, they would kill me.
Kovida’s story begins in a small village thousands of miles from here and over two decades ago in western Burma. Back then, like now, Kovida wanted an education. But there were no opportunities in his village to study.
KOVIDA: Some of my neighbors told me that I could study at a monastery. I thought that would be a great opportunity, so I went there when I was 12.
At first, Kovida didn’t know what a monk was, but he quickly adapted to a life wearing saffron and maroon robes, shaving his head and waking before sunrise to collect alms each morning. To further his education he joined an even larger monastery in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma.
Exposure to the city inspired questions.
KOVIDA: People were very poor there and the government and their family were very rich. I wanted to know why this was.
Kovida explains that those people were members of the military government. It gained control in 1962, and to this day maintains censorship over all information going into and out of the country.
KOVIDA:So the government censored us and everything. When we studied, we could not study all that we hoped to.
Kovida shares that the regime used forced labor, enlisted child soldiers and jailed political activists--all practices, Kovida says, the government continues.
He decided he had to do something. In Rangoon, he discovered a secret network of monks studying subjects beyond Buddhist teachings.
KOVIDA: We read about politicians, human rights and many other things. In Burma the government allowed only their policy.
Kovida began taking covert trips across the border to Thailand so he could study more. It didn’t take long for him to realize:
KOVIDA: We had to fight for our freedom.
Kovida sold his extra robes to make copies of books about human rights and democracy. He visited other monasteries to distribute information and to talk about his new ideas for freedom.
KOVIDA: In the monasteries, they knew what I was doing. One of my friends said, “don’t do that, you will get in trouble.” But I never listened. I wanted them to know what was happening. Some monks only knew about their own monasteries.
Then in August 2007, a small number of monks staged a protest against a government hike in fuel prices. By the end of the day, members of the military junta beat and injured dozens of these monks.
Kovida saw this as a chance to step up the pressure on the regime by collectively demanding an apology.
KOVIDA: I wrote some letters that said if they didn’t apologize by September 18 we would protest in the streets. I wrote a letter and I copied it.
No apology came. So the monks took action.
KOVIDA: We realized that the monk’s society was very big. If we protested, maybe something would change in Burma.
According to Kovida, 300 monks in his monastery were the first to gather, with numbers later swelling to:
KOVIDA: Around 17,000. Yeah 17,000. It was so many. I was very happy. I usually went in front of the monks. I led. I held the flag. We weren’t scared when we protested. We were happy. I couldn’t express my happiness when I saw so many monks in the street. I couldn’t even see the front or the back of the group. The monk’s protest wasn’t like anything in our history. We had never seen this. The people were all very excited. They felt the government would change.
The colors of monks’ robes flooded the streets of Rangoon, inspiring the movement to be called “The Saffron Revolution.” Some estimate the crowd reached over 50,000 in number.
In a matter of days, the regime cracked down on the protestors. Arrests, deaths, and raids on monasteries followed.
KOVIDA: When they raided the monastery at night, they were looking for the leading monks using pictures. When they didn’t find the leaders in one monastery, they raided others. Maybe they were looking for me.
They didn’t find Kovida that night. But he had heard reports of friends getting arrested and monks being killed. So he boarded an airplane for the first time and flew to a country 8,000 miles away.
KOVIDA: I didn’t even know what the United States was. If I had known I would come to Oakland, I wouldn’t have come.
Kovida describes his time here in the U.S. as a struggle.
He’s too political of a figure to be housed at any local monasteries within the Burmese community, and he’s been turned down by around ten of them. So he lives alone, in a white-walled, sparsely decorated room above a lingerie and adult film store. He supports himself with a day job catering.
KOVIDA: I talked to my mom one time after I came to the U.S. When she called me she was crying a lot. But I said don’t cry. Don’t cry mom. I am alive.
TEACHER: Kovida, have you done your homework?
KOVIDA: Yes, sir.
Kovida tells me he’s focused on studying now, so one day he can contribute to lasting change in Burma. As we walk out of the classroom, he shows me his political science textbook. He opens it and points to a picture of hundreds of monks marching. The deep red of their robes meshes into one continuous stream whose beginning and end fall off the pages.
I ask him if he sees himself on this page. “No,” Kovida tells me, “I was in the front. Always in the front.”
For Crosscurrents, I’m Laura Klivans.