Tens of thousands of Rangoon townsfolk had gathered in the vicinity of Minigon Pagoda in Rangoon; among them were thousands of monks. Suddenly the crowd grew very quiet. A man had begun to speak. He was now a familiar figure to many protesters, distinguished by a beige turban, yellow Aung San Suu Kyi shirt, and long black beard. The Sikh, who goes by the name U Pan Cher, called out to the crowd:
Join together with us! The monks have been beaten brutally in the area of the Eastern moats of Shwedagon Pagoda. If you think yourself as Burmese and Buddhist, think of what we are doing now. Think of the people of Burma and Buddhism. Do we just bow down and accept this oppression?Sitting on the floor of a safe house in Thailand with U Pan Cher and an interpreter, I saw tears form in U Pan Cher's eyes. During my interview with U Pan Cher, I had asked him to recount the exact words he spoke to the crowd -- reproduced above.
Now monks have been killed. And tortured. They have murdered our monks! I ask you this question: Are you going to fight and die? Or sit back and die? If you want to fight with me, leave your fear behind. And bring your courage!
I will stand in front to fight. If we all join in this fight, the military regime will be gone within a few hours. Join together with us and fight!
U Pan Cher was to give many such speeches, but what happened after he spoke to this particular crowd at 2:45 pm on Wednesday September 26, 2007 was a humbling experience. Here is how U Pan Cher described the remarkable scene that followed:
The surprising thing was that at the traffic junction, the rich people in their cars, they left their car and joined the protest. And the other people on the bus, they left the bus to join. Even the rickshaw men, they left their rickshaws to join with us. All the people were getting angry about what was happening. And everyone was crying. It was as if the tears were flowing into streams, and these streams were passing into rivers, and the rivers were flowing into the ocean. We were united in a sea of resolve. Not only were Burmese Buddhists participating, but also Muslims, Christians, and others -- all joined together as one.Who was this eloquent leader of Rangoon's protesting townsfolk? What else had he said and done? Our talk lasted three hours, and when I walked away I felt had heard an incredibly inspiring story. In a fortnight, one ordinary man had become somebody extraordinary.
U Pan Cher had discovered something powerful within himself during those fateful days, and neither he nor the thousands whose lives he touched will ever be the same.
What untapped hidden potentials lie dormant within each of us?
Although U Pan Cher and the circumstances may seem exotic, I see in his story a message for people everywhere. Because from the streets of Rangoon, U Pan Cher spoke not only of an oppressed country called Burma, but to a society where racial, religious, and ethnic divisions take a back seat to the common fight for human dignity and freedom.