Martin Kovan is a poet, journalist, novelist and essayist. He has travelled through and lived in France, India, South East Asia and the US, where his fiction, journalism and academic non-fiction have been published. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, researching Buddhist meta-ethics and state-sanctioned killing. Martin speaks with us today about his interest in Buddhism, and his essay ‘The year of great burning’, which is published in Overland 210.
Please tell us about your field of study – how did you find yourself researching the Tibetan resistance?
I’ve been around Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan diaspora, in Australia, India, the US and Europe, for more than a decade now, so it’s been in my experience a while. My gravitation back to the academy has been partly about wanting to formalise the raw, contested, difficult, uncertain nature of a lot of the territory of social resistance, especially where it intersects with more spiritual or metaphysical concerns, as it centrally does in Buddhist non-violence. This got me into the Burmese context post-2007 and the Saffron Revolution, and only since the last year or so when the surge of Tibetan immolations really consolidated the latest phase of resistance, focussed on the larger Tibetan circumstance itself. It was a terrible fortuity that a Western monk, Ven Tunden, and someone I actually knew, a few months ago magnified and crystallised a lot of the issues that interest me, in his own sacrifice. A terrible, great gift – to a world that barely knows it.
You mentioned traveling in Burma and some of its bordering countries as part of your research on political prisoners. Would you care to speak a little more of this experience and how it might have contributed to writing this essay?
I’d been writing about Burma for some years but it wasn’t until actually going there for the 2010 election and being with the people themselves that the full nature of their experience began to come clear. And that was breathtaking, shocking, inspiring and deeply unsettling in terms especially, again, of how it reconfigured for me the frequently squandered privilege of so-called first world democracy. My own involvement was minimal yet crucially tied to Western privilege. It was only in my last 24 hours inside Burma that I faced the surveillance of regime security and those hours viscerally communicated a very distant echo of what I witnessed in my Burmese friends. Even then I was always, categorically, immune from abuse in a way they never could be.
There are few things that permanently change your entire worldview but being in Burma has for me been one of them. It was hard to fathom the depth of selflessness and commitment with which political prisoners not merely (when lucky) survived literally unthinkable ordeals of dehumanisation, but were able to return from that limbo to speak with unimpeachable authority of what it means to resist pathological power in non-theoretical, even transcendental terms. (The same absolute value is manifest in the Tibetan acts as well, except that their witness is precisely their mortal death.) They blew all the boundaries of Northern bourgeois entitlement and the ethos of myopic self-interest it normalises. (Ven Tunden’s immolation similarly confronts that whole superstructure.) I haven’t been more inspired anywhere than by those activists who give us all reason to be grateful for their demonstration of what it means to give unconditionally (rather than take, conditionally) in ethical-political, and ultimately human-spiritual, terms. At the same time, that victory is bittersweet, vulnerable to the reciprocal recognition it needs to really take cultural root – as I point to in the essay. My essay tries to pick up on how that recognition might contribute to a wider culture of honouring the extreme but generally marginalised gestures that, it seems to me, keep the global witness to (authentic, rather than economically-mediated) freedom alive. In that affirmative sense, there are no ultimate political or economic boundaries, and they remind us of that by joining hands with others who are doing the same – or trying to – across the world. Of course, the majority of them are anonymous. So that a Tibetan monastic, a jailed Burmese journalist, and Ven Tunden, are the same, powerfully bonded, universal archetype, even in their obscurity.
Are self-immolations openly discussed in the Tibetan Buddhist community or is the topic shied away from?
It’s not a question with an easy answer because variable contexts result in different sorts of exposures of trust. It probably really depends on the nature of the discussants and who and what they represent. Some are naturally cautious and others are firebrands. Most generally keep to the counsel of the Dalai Lama who only qualifiedly praises the immolations and hopes they’ll soon end. Many are concerned for their tenuous security in places like India, but even countries like Australia, where complicit Chinese surveillance and faux-PR propaganda compromise effective activism. (China is good friends with everyone, after all, especially loyal Tibetan subjects. Not to mention its willing Australian bedfellows.) Psychologically, there is clearly a mixed blessing of pride and shame that makes sharing opinion extremely charged, especially with such a proud but generous people as the Tibetans are. They give everything they have, but not their honour, and the self-immolations could be seen as both admissions of despair, and, again, a transcendental freedom – by virtue of the whole superstructure of karma, awakening, nirvanic supersedence of ‘this suffering realm of samsara’. So failing some cultural initiation into that mythic-religious mindset, they are careful in how they project a certain self-representation: martyrs only on their own terms, and not that of geopolitical expediency. They want their rightful autonomy, not indifferent charity. Respect, not pity. Political commitment, not rhetorical self-exoneration.
Are you planning on turning this essay into a larger work?
It definitely grows beyond my expectations. Last year I finished writing a novella on the Burmese experience, which proved to be a deep-sea dive in getting much more deeply under the psychic skin of the same events. I’m hoping to return to Burma to check out how Western promises are turning out for the people on the ground and the NGOs and other grass-roots organisations trying to serve real needs. So far I can see a few KFCs are sprouting up in Rangoon which, the dictatorship notwithstanding, only three years ago was one of the most enchantingly decrepit, atmospheric and captivating cities in the world. The free world is already changing all that. But, of course, everyone wants KFC, whether they do or not, and democracy (especially US-style paternalist democracy) always comes with the most pernicious price.