The Refugee Who Fled to Burma
covering burma and southeast asia
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Magazine

CULTURE

The Refugee Who Fled to Burma


By Thiri /Rangoon JUNE, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.5


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As a poet, monk and political exile, Friedrich Lustig—known in Burma as Ashin Ananda—acquired a unique understanding of his adoptive homeland. "If you go to the Shwedagon and ask anybody about Friedrich Lustig, they will know him"—such is the popularity of this extraordinary foreign monk who spent forty years in Burma, and was allowed to live at the Shwedagon Pagoda by Ne Win. Still thousands of kilometers away from the Shwedagon, when I asked a Catholic priest about Friedrich Lustig, he told me: "Yeah, Lustig… I often met him in Rangoon! His Burmese name is Ashin Ananda." Ashin Ananda, a devout Buddhist, was especially effective in publicizing Burmese poetry and traditional music among English-speaking audiences. He died eleven years ago, and his ashes were kept at Mohnyin Kyaungdaik monastery at the Shwedagon until they were transferred to a cemetery. However, he was not originally, as you might think, an enthusiastic Westerner in search of Enlightenment far away from home. Instead, he was a man to whom Burma—as ironic as it might sound—had granted political asylum. He entered Burma from Thailand on September 8, 1949, and was granted asylum by U Nu. Before that, he had stayed in Thailand for over a decade, during which his native country, Estonia, was annexed by the Soviet Union and his passport became invalid. A strong anti-communist, he preferred to be a man without a country than carry a Russian passport. When Ne Win’s military dictatorship came to power, and foreigners were forced to leave, Ashin Ananda got permission to stay because of this peculiar situation. Ne Win appreciated his anti-communist stance and asked him to write articles denouncing communists in The Working People’s Daily and The Guardian—which Ananda happily did for ten years. This even earned him a military pass allowing travel anywhere in the country, including such off-limits areas as the Naga Hills. "I am not sorry for what I did. I wrote everything with a clear conscience," Ananda said later to a foreign journalist. Considering the fate of his tiny Nordic country, Estonia, which was engulfed by the communists in 1940, resulting in 25 percent of the one million Estonians being persecuted—either killed, sent to Russia’s prison camps or forced to escape abroad—Lustig probably wrote those anti-communist pieces with satisfaction, if not with pleasure. It seems that he did indeed find a sanctuary in Burma, not only because he was allowed to stay, but also because he became sincerely attached to the land and its beauty. Although he followed the teachings of Lord Buddha devoutly, his real passion was Burmese poetry, and he himself expressed his love for Burma best in poetry. He received the title of US Lilac Laureate poet in 1968. "I came to like his poems because he was always expressing great love for Burma and Burmese culture… His poems are written in the classical style, his rhythmic and metric scheme is faultless. His writings were always meant for the betterment of people, to make them more compassionate, gentle and thoughtful," wrote Khin Soe, a former civil servant, in his foreword to Fifty Selected Poems, a collection of Ananda’s poems published over years in The Working People’s Daily, The Guardian Daily and in the Guardian Magazine. Writes Ananda: I love this land, and clouds that drift, And flags that flutter in the wind, And men who gladly give a lift To strangers and are not thin-skinned. (From The Land We Love) Though the many landmarks of Burma, such as the Shwedagon, Pagan and the Irrawaddy River, received special attention, most of Ananda’s poems were daring, personal reflections of his depression and joy, his likes, dislikes and temptations. The titles of some of his poems speak for themselves: "That Inner Urge," "Likes And Dislikes," "Open Mind," "The Ups And Downs." In "I Snap My Fingers At Temptation" he writes: The inner mind may be perverted. Not all who listen truly hear. One’s strength must firmly be exerted, If one desires to stay austere. He saw no reason to be ashamed or embarrassed for possessing these worldly feelings—as long as one stood firmly on the Buddhist path, such experience would only make one stronger, was Ananda’s message. He felt the most important things are meditation, avoidance of attachments in daily life and following the teachings of Lord Buddha. Ananda, then Friedrich Lustig, was born in Estonia in 1912. At a young age he became regarded as a child prodigy because of his talent as a pianist—he could play difficult pieces by famous composers such as Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. He earned money to pay for his education by playing the piano at the best cinema in his hometown, Narva. These were the days of silent movies, and he had to decide quickly which tune was suitable for each scene on the silver screen.


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