A Letter from Bangkok: 'A Man Who Needs Very Little Introduction'

March 28, 1993|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

BANGKOK — Bangkok.--There I was with eight Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

What a crowd of high-rollers!

It was like being in the parlor of a Highlandtown rowhouse with all four Beatles, Elvis, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers.

Like trudging to the top of the mountain to ask an aged guru the meaning of life.

Except that the pilgrimage was made by elevator to the top floor of the five-star Dusit Thani hotel, up a narrow staircase and into the tight quarters of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand where wisdom was offered to some 50 reporters from around the world.

The marquee names were Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who won the peace prize in 1984, and His Holiness, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, honored in 1989.

Also present were Oscar Arias Sanchez, the former president of Costa Rica, who won in 1987; Northern Ireland's Betty Williams ++ and Mairead Corrigan, who shared the prize in 1976; Adolfo Perez Esquivel, of Argentina (1980); Ross Daniels, representing Amnesty International (1977); and Donna Kyle Anderton, who appeared on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee (1947).

They gathered to appeal for the release of 1991 Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader under house arrest since 1989. Her captors, Burma's brutal military junta known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, have killed and tortured thousands since seizing power from a fledgling democracy in 1988.

After opening remarks calling for a global arms embargo against Burma, all but one of the laureates strolled away, leaving behind a serious but easy-going man of 60 in a saffron robe, burgundy scarf and designer spectacles.

A man, the moderator said, "who needs very little introduction."

Hello, Dalai.

Despite the relative importance of his Nobel breathren, the Dalai Lama was the big cheese in Bangkok, the one whose mere

presence caused formal protest from the People's Republic of China, which rules Tibet and forced his exile to India in 1959; whose arrival agitated the Thai military, which has ties to the junta in Rangoon and saw nothing to gain and much to lose by hosting the peace mission; who, as a Buddhist celebrity in a nation of Buddhists, was mobbed everywhere he went.

For 27 hours in February, the banished spiritual leader of the Tibetan people was just about the only thing people were talking about here, his every move front-page news.

Said one local monk, upset that crushing crowds prevented him from making eye contact with His Holiness: "It's too much, very inhumane. . . . He's not a rock star."

Indeed, the press conference was so jammed with reporters, cameramen and media groupies that my best view of the Dalai's kindly face was through the upside-down V made by the legs of a photographer standing on a chair in front of me.

Holy as he may be, he knows well the carnal world in which the media whirls.

Gone, he said, are the days when a monk can seclude himself and his secrets inside a temple.

While he argued for spiritual solutions to material dilemmas -- saying that human compassion should not be seen as a philosophy only for the religious -- reporters persisted with questions of juntas and guns and gummed-up balls of geo-political yarn.

He implored: "Media -- when I talk of these things, it may seem boring. You want me to talk of the Tibetan issue, of the discomfort my visit has caused . . . of my own tragedy."

But, he said, there must be talk of greater truths.

And then he shared opinions on fantastic subjects seldom aired at press conferences. I could not imagine such a dialogue taking place back home, even at a conference of Catholic bishops or a congress of rabbis.

In capable English, this Holy Knight of Mirth said: "What is human rights? The purpose of human rights is happiness. Everyone survives because of hope for the better . . . whether we are religious or businessman. Essentially we belong to one world, one family. If we do something in the wrong direction, we all suffer."

Rangoon's military leaders should realize, from a practical view, he said, that they cannot hurt the Burmese people without hurting themselves and all of Burma.

"And so," said the Dalai Lama, "motivation is the key factor of every human action. Motivation is the key factor for our future. Human compassion, human love, human feeling . . . in order to have a better world we must cultivate these good things within ourselves."

The next morning the headlines in the English-speaking dailies barked: "Impose arms embargo -- Dalai Lama."

Fine.

Do it.

But while Burma is just a few hundred miles from where I am now, it is a million miles away in my mind.

As the Dalai Lama spoke of the suffering there -- the thousands slain at pro-democracy demonstrations, the drunken soldiers who beat and kick people unconscious during downtown torture sessions, the families who cringe as government thugs shoot their chickens for fun -- I wondered how Buddhism might address the daily death and torture in Baltimore.

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