Engaged Buddhism in Action:
the Yadana Project

Parvel Gmuzdek

Early in the morning of June 3rd about forty activists and media observers gathered in front of the National Museum in Bangkok and boarded a brightly coloured 'seventies model Mercedes bus. The group was bound for the Thong Pha Phum region, the site of a section of the Burma-Thailand Yadana gas pipeline under construction.

The protest was a brainchild of the Kalayanamitra Council, a group of Thai as well as North American and European activists, formed in 1996 under the guidance of Mr Sulak Sivaraksa. Although the Council intends to be involved broadly in the area of human rights and environmental protection in Thai-Burmese development projects, its formation was prompted in particular by the controversy over the Yadana pipeline.

The members of our group included a number of Thai Buddhist monks, a group of young people from a local school, and a few Western observers. We eventually stopped in front of a small forest monastery, from whence we were to continue on foot. One of the monks briefly spoke about contemplative walking in nature, emphasising awareness of our immediate surroundings. As up to this point I had not been deeply involved in the pipeline issue, I came with the perspective of someone who wants to bear witness above making all judgements. Being wholly present and aware of were I was and how I was feeling was exactly what I needed to do.

Although I had experienced the Thai rain forest before, I soon began to realise how much I had forgotten. The tall trees and oppressive humidity, the refreshingly cool rivers, respectably large red ants and spiders the size of a child's fist, steep cliffs with black dots marking the bat caves, and, of course, the bloodthirsty mosquitoes -- in this reason a particularly risky factor due to the Indra's Network No, heavy incidence of malaria. Jungle is not the most comfortable place for the average urban dweller -- nor should it be or need be. The longer I walked, the deeper I immersed myself in the forest, the more I saw how incredibly perfect the place was. The plants that grow there and the animals that inhabit the forest have adjusted to the difficult conditions and managed to strike an admirable degree of balance in the environment. So admirable yet so sensitive to disturbance of the kind humans are capable of!

We reached our campsite just before dusk. Most of us elected to jump immediately into the nearby river to cool off. I walked upstream a bit and found a small pool. I watched a spider making an intricate web and listened to the unfamiliar voices of the forest. The feeling was that of peace. Then I made my way back to the camp, carefully avoiding the newly built spider webs. It was just in time for a delicious vegetarian meal, followed by evening prayer and meditation. The monks told us that because we had people of several different faiths, we should pray to nature, since that is what connects us all, regardless of our beliefs. The speaker of the evening, Phra Kosin, went on to talk about death and fear. We are all afraid to die, and this includes animals and trees. Many trees will die here so that we can have natural gas. Have we thought about this?\

Next morning we joined the monks for meditation at 4 a.m., and at the crack of dawn packed up and began the walk to the pipeline site. The construction had not started here yet, so this was an opportunity to see the site in its original state. Nothing suggested that this was the place except for stakes in the ground and bright red markings on the trees that were to be felled. We divided into smaller groups and each person shared their feelings. One of the Burmese friends looked across towards the next ridge and pointed out that we were looking at Burma

In Burma the construction of the pipeline has other implications, as important as the ecological ones, and certainly more pressing The Tennasserim region (on the Burmese side) is a home for ethnic minorities, notably the Mon and Karen. In order to build the pipeline, the ruling military junta, SLORC, has stationed more troops in the region to control local movements opposed to the project and the government of SLORC itself. Associated with these actions are numerous human rights abuses, such as relocation of villagers, rape, forced labour and even killing of those suspected of association with the Karen National Army or the Mon National Liberation Army. All these facts have been systematically documented in a book called Total Denial, published in July 1996.

(The writer goes on to describe a further act of witness in a section where construction had already commenced Here they were joined by a much larger group, from the conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), and the ven. Maha Ghosananda spoke. A public demonstration followed in the nearest town.)

So what causes so much suffering? The people in Burma suffer, nature suffers, and what for? To answer this question we have to come back to ourselves. I recall how on the way here the bus stopped to refuel at a PTT station. PTT (Petroleum Authority of Thailand) is one of the four main shareholders in the Yadana project. How interesting, I thought. We so strongly oppose some of the activities of this company and yet are dependent on it for many of our privileges. Something here does not make sense. We take for granted the convenience of using fossil fuels, are quite happy to use them, but do not take responsibility for the consequences. What choices, then, are we going to have to make in our personal lives? This is a question worth considering while sitting in the friendly shade of a two hundred year old tree soon to be dead in the name of supplying power for our computers and stereos. What are the implications of our daily actions? Of course, the other past of the equation is the possibility of generating electricity from renewable sources. Undoubtedly there are ways such as these to have a good degree of comfort without destroying the Thong Pha Phum forest and other people's livelihoods.

Excerpts, with grateful acknowledgement, from Seeds of Peace, Sept.;'Dec. 1997. This international magazine is publ ished thrice yearly by INEB and a si.ster organisation. To receive it you can send a minimum donation of US$ 20 (or, better, join INEB and send $35,') to: INEB, P O Box 19 Mahadthai Post Office, Bangkok 10206. You can post the dollar bills or else send a sterling cheque with an adequate allowance for currency conversion and bank charges.

Copy from Indra's Network, Journal of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhist.

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