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His subtle glances towards me while I attempted to make a phone call suggested he was open to conversation.

“Yes, but now I live California, since March 2008,” he said with an accent. A warm smile crept across his youthful face as his tamarind colored eyes gleamed below a cleanly shaved head. At only about 5’3”, his presence was unexpectedly commanding and serene.

I had just left a big benefit for the International Burmese Monks Organization and victims of Cyclone Nargis. The event was to provide humanitarian assistance to survivors of a community who suffered an estimated 146,000 deaths from this natural disaster as well as commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Saffron Revolution. The Saffron Revolution originated from civilian protests that were sparked by the government’s decision to increase fuel costs. This was not the first time civilians hit the streets out of dissent. However, when a monk in Pakokku was publicly beaten to death by the military, thousands of monks nationwide organized anti-government protests in solidarity with the people. In a piously Buddhist country where monks have remained largely apolitical, this was unprecedented. The Burmese Government’s brutal killings and countless arrests of unarmed monks in the streets shocked its own citizens and placed the country under intense scrutiny and pressure from the International community.

Nevertheless, the repressive military government, which has been running the country (which it renamed Mynamar) since 1988, still refuses to release the 2,100 political prisoners and concede its power to the National League for Democracy, which won the 1990 elections by a landslide. The NLD’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was subsequently sentenced to house arrest where she remains today championing her cause for Democracy. One can only hope that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s recent visit and Senator Jim Webb’s meeting with Suu Kyi are signs that political pressure is moving the military towards reconciling. However, Burma’s alliance with North Korea – the rogue state that assists the Junta in building a nuclear reactor – is anything but settling.

The majority of the dissident monks present that night was from a Buddhist Monastery in Elmhurst, Queens, so I was surprised to hear that this one resided in California. “Did you come all the way from California just for this event?”

“No,” he corrected me, “I came to meet with the President.”

The President? Which one? I wondered. It was, after all, the week of the U.N. General Assembly.

“President Bush and Laura Bush,” he said.

The President. He was right, at least in a national and grammatical sense. Still a bit skeptical, I asked him, “Really? You met them?


“Yes, for lunch on Governor’s Island.”



“What was the lunch for?” My curiosity was insatiable.

“We meet to talk about human rights, to talk about Burma,” he explained.

“I see, and how did that go?”

“Very well,” he said, grinning widely. “I think President Bush want to do good things before he dies.”

Before he dies. Why was this monk smiling? Did he have some strange psychic powers or was it just his Buddhist philosophy: the importance of doing good deeds in one’s lifetime? I repeated those three ominous words, adding an overly large and perplexed question mark at the end.

“Yes, before he dies in November.”

Oh, the election! He meant leaving office…“So, how did you learn English?” I asked.

“I teach myself and go to class since six months. I don’t know why I don’t know better, I have so much energy,” he lamented.

The monk then switched topics and asked if he could take a picture with me. I apologized for not having a camera. Little did I expect that he would produce one from beneath his robe. Had Mary Poppins only known about the incredible storage powers of Buddhist robes, she might not have needed to carry a purse at all! Before saying goodbye, the monk wrote down his contact information and name, Ashin (or U) Kovida, so that we could stay in touch. In Burmese, U is a title of respect and Ashin is a title reserved especially for monks.

During our email exchanges that evening, I discovered that Ashin Kovida wasn’t just any monk: he was the so-called “poster monk” of the Saffron Revolution, a key organizer of the protests and the fifth most wanted individual by the Burmese Government. He is even described by some to be the “James Bond” of Burma, escaping the military Junta by hiding for one month in a village outside of Rangoon, the former capital (which the Junta calls Yangon) then surviving a harrowing escape into Thailand to eventually seek asylum in America. In order to do so, he relinquished his sacred robe for an inconspicuous tshirt and crucifix, and bleached his hair that grew out while in hiding.

In one message he sent me, I clicked on links to articles written about him in the New York Times, BBC World, CNN – all recounting his incredible tale – and viewed attached photographs of his meeting with President Bush and the First Lady earlier that day. Amongst the group of officials dressed conservatively in suits, Ashin Kovida’s attire popped. He was the only one in saffron – the only monk to meet with the President. I owed serendipity a thank you note for introducing us.

His public reputation was well deserved. By age 20, Ashin Kovida, who had entered monastic life at 12 years old, became bored of the government- implemented curriculum that forced the monks to study Pali – a literary language which none of them could read or write after years of practice. Instead, his mind became politically focused as he noticed the disparity between the rich government and impoverished people. After learning about the killing of the monk in Pakokku (which is a Buddhist center in Central Burma), Ashin Kovida, at 24 years old, took the initiative to contact the other monasteries in Rangoon and became the chairperson of a committee of 15 who organized the massive protests. Ashin Kovida’s brave defiance of the military junta – fueled by a love for humankind, belief in non-violent change and strong sense of responsibility to be the voice of his powerless compatriots – makes him a hero and moral leader. Yet, when asked if he would ever want to govern his country, he answered, “I do not care about me to be president. I only care about the people. I want to do good for the people.” Selfless, as any politician should be. He added in jest, “But when you become President and live in White House, Erin, please make me advisor, ok?”

And so the unlikely friendship developed between a dissident monk from Burma and a former Westonite living in New York. Thanks to technology, we were able to stay connected and even bond despite the long distance and the initial linguistic challenges. Thanks to his high level of intelligence and extreme diligence at school (always scoring at the top of his class as he did back in Burma), Kovida’s grasp of the English language improved dramatically in little time. Kovida would send me everything from news updates on his former country to music videos of his favorite songs, a poem he had written about a compassionate encounter with a homeless person, as well as photos of his biking trips and bedroom in Oakland. His room seemed clean, simple, peaceful and intellectual, with the biographies and autobiographies of President Obama, the Dalai Lama, Che Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi, and President Lincoln filling his bookshelves adorned with Buddhas and plants. I imagined that Kovida might feel especially aligned with the Dalai Lama, the head of state and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, who has been living in exile in India since 1959, peacefully fighting for Tibet’s independence from China.

During one of our first phone conversations, I remember Kovida explaining why he felt so lucky to be from Burma and to have experienced what most do not even wish to imagine: “I was lucky because I was born in Burma. I have chance with human rights, to help Burma. If I born in
Europe, experience with books but no experience with self.” Kovida’s main impetus is to bring about positive change in Burma in a peaceful way, and he urges the UN Security Council and the world to take action against the Junta. As a refugee, his messages are now spread via news agencies, public speaking, social media and meetings with politicians.

Over time, we continued to talk about his sleepless nights, his worries about the future of his people back home, and his sadness from the possibility of never seeing his family again, who live without computers and electricity in Arakan, the strategic strip of coastal and mountainous land bordering the Bay of Bengal and Bangladesh. Kovida was granted political asylum because his life was at risk; if he ever returned to Burma, he and his family would most likely be jailed, tortured or killed. He would always end our conversations graciously, thanking me for “being with [him]” – because the fact that there was someone there for him brought him the encouragement he needed to keep going in this strange and foreign land.

Finally the opportunity arose for us to meet again in person. As he would be on the East Coast following a meeting with his Congresswoman, Rep. Barbara Lee, in Washington, DC, I invited him to Weston, where I was headed for the weekend. Since the first time my mom heard about Kovida – tears streaming down her face out of awe and compassion – she had a strong desire to meet him.

Kovida and I met in New York City and took the train together to Westport. Upon arriving, I greeted my mother in a typical fashion: with kisses and embraces. Kovida looked on longingly and said, “Erin, you make me jealous. I have no mother here to hold.” Overflowing with love, my mom instantly invited him into our family. “I’ll be your mom, Kovida, and you can be my son.” I never expected to gain a sibling at the age of 26, but I was pleased it was someone as compassionate and impressive as Kovida.

Over dinner, Kovida spoke about his life and the history of his country. His detailed recollection of historical facts was impressive, considering his knowledge was acquired orally. As a young child, Kovida had no access to books. In order to learn about the past, he would bring tea to all the elders in his village and listen to their stories in exchange.

By morning, I could see that Kovida really was my long lost brother. Shuffling into the living room half asleep, I thought maybe I was still dreaming when I caught the image of my father supine like a beetle with Kovida stretching him in unexpected ways. My father had just come in
from a long bike ride. Kovida said he enjoyed cycling, too, before his road bike was stolen. Kovida had also been mugged twice. It shocked me that he would be given asylum in Oakland, considering the high crime rate. To me, that’s gratuitous hardship. But to Kovida, these are just non-issue obstacles that would never get in the way of him achieving his goals. His resilience was impressive. He once wrote: “Oh! My dearest Erin, life is not easy, but don't be sorry please. I can do how difficult for me in my life. I don't care. I have a dream that I would like to spend doing somethings good for the people happily rest of time of my life [sic].”

Kovida would crack jokes and often break out in song, moving my mother to tears; despite personal tragedy, he was able to embrace the beauty of life. As he entered my family, I began to witness how easily someone from a diverse background could embrace the differences of
a new society and bring laughter and joy to the lives that he encountered. We were saddened when his short visit came to an end, and begged him to come back for longer, which he did.

Kovida’s second visit was even more memorable, marked by a few endearing moments: food-shopping with “Mom” at Trader Joe’s, he asked for one of the yellow balloons and innocently carried it around all day; confused at a coffee shop, he sucked the honey from the top of the squirt bottle instead of squeezing it; and finding himself locked out on our second-
story porch, he managed to get back in the house by climbing over the fence, jumping down from the garage and knocking on the front door.

Kovida seemed to have an abundance of playful energy and loved physical activity, which complimented his contemplative, studious side quite well. He managed to keep up with my road-racing father on a heavy, old hybrid bike, and even shimmied his way up a tree while I was giving him a tour of our backyard (apparently he preferred an aerial view).

Given this, I felt compelled to bring Kovida to Devil’s Den, as it had always proved to be a place of excitement and challenge when I was little. When we arrived, he looked around and said that it reminded him of the town where he was born. He recalled that there was a forest with a creek near his house where he had proudly once caught a fish. Unlike the areas around the Den, his town had no paved roads. The infrastructure in Burma is very minimal – the fault of the government which enriches itself instead of its people with the country’s natural resources, such as teak, rubies, gas, oil, as well as the opium trade.

He removed his shoes, and with precision and incredible balance, nimbly moved from one moss-covered rock to the next, crossing a stream and then scaling a large boulder on the other side. He shouted, “Erin, take off your shoes. Shoes no good. Come join me.” He made his way back in even quicker time. Watching him, I could easily imagine his escape from the Junta. Kovida had the unique ability to size up situations and people very quickly, and manoeuvre himself around obstacles.

On our drive back along Valley Forge Road, my father pointed out the Saugatuck Reservoir. Kovida said, “We have many reservoirs in my county. Military government make many reservoir. But sometimes they break and town and people under water die. It happened in Mandalay. When military make reservoir, they write in newspaper, ‘We build reservoir, it is good for the people.’ When dam breaks, they don’t write in newspaper [sic].” This was just another example of how the military, concerned only with itself, skirted responsibility to care for its people: what a contrast to my fortunate upbringing in Weston. It was no wonder that there had been so much dissent in Burma over the years.

Together on a walk along Lord’s Highway, Kovida asked me, “Erin, why am I here in Weston with you? How am I, from Rangoon, with you, from Weston?” It was a philosophical question. Had fate brought us together for a reason? Or was this just another example of the unpredictability of life? I felt that Kovida leaned towards the former as evidenced by an email he once wrote: “I know that life is full of surprises, we were born in very far away places but the fate give us a chance to meet, to be friends with each other that was very value for me. However, divided by higher mountains, big oceans, rivers and creek, I will always be with you as a best friend [sic].” Whether it was fate or chance, each moment with Kovida was a blessing to me. I felt honoured to know someone as driven as he to change the world and fight for human rights. Somehow, Burma’s future started to look less bleak.

Erin Levi grew up in Weston, CT and currently lives and works in New
York City. She welcomes readers to get in touch with Ashin Kovida by
following him on twitter (@kovidau), friending him on Facebook (Ashin
Kovida, East Bay, CA), or writing to him at
Sources: Kovida


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