I traveled to Myanmar (Burma) in 2013, during the brief, hopeful time following Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and installation as leader of the country. Much of the country was still under military control, in the form of army bases, but politically, it appeared that the generals were resigned to the shift of power and were spending their efforts converting the money they had looted from the country into tourist hotels, resorts, and other legitimate money-making infrastructure. The horrific genocide of the Rohingya in northeastern Myanmar had yet to begin, but I was told to avoid the region because it “wasn’t safe.” I was going to go anyway, to visit a significant historic site, but time constraints didn’t allow for the long boat trip up the river and back, so I didn’t. I did visit Bagan, a broad plain dotted with hundreds of temples, and from there took the road to Mandalay, otherwise known as the Ayerawaddy river. The photo above was taken in Mandalay. The four young men are wielding heavy homemade sledgehammers to pound gold into gold leaf. There is a “musical” video of them here:
I’m not sure exactly how much they were being paid, but the minimum wage at the time was about $2.50 a day. That is what they were paid to pound gold into paper thin sheets which devout Buddhists would buy and apply to statues of the Buddha at their favorite temple. Some of the most popular Buddhas were so thickly encrusted with these offerings as to be unrecognizable. In the next room, women and girls packaged the gold leaf for sale to locals and tourists. I bought two small packets for my grandkids. It is likely the women were paid even less than the men.
My ignorant western misconceptions about Buddhism were tested on that trip. They have since been shattered by the massacre of Muslim Rohingya villagers with the tacit acceptance of Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize winning leader.
The foundations of most religions are about humans living together in peace, love, and harmony. Some people are drawn to them with those goals. In my experience, however, most people are drawn to religion by a need to belong to a community. The problem with this, as Peter Gabriel noted in his 1980 song “Not One Of Us”, is “how can we be in if there is no outside?” Hence the rationale used by Burmese monks to kill Muslims without conscience, by Muslims to justify beheading Christians, or by American “Christians” to support the bombing of Muslim civilians and the taking of migrant children from their asylum-seeking parents. If one “belongs” to a community, then by definition anyone outside that community doesn’t belong. The dogma of your group can then be twisted to provide the justification for excluding, abusing, or even killing those who are not part of it.
I don’t think I need to draw the parallels to the political landscape of 2020.