It is 1992, and the Burmese government's current war on its
indigenous people runs into its fourth year. In neighboring
Thailand, a small band of Buddhist monks harbors refugees from
Burma inside their modest temple in the slums of Bangkok. The monks
and refugees are all natives of the Burmese Mon State. All have the
same residential status in Thailand: illegal. Under surveillance,
and overwhelmed by the needs of their charges, the monks reach out
to international aid agencies in Bangkok for help in ministering to
the tortured, the wounded, the diseased, and the orphaned.
Singing to the Dead recalls a Catholic lay missioner's
work alongside the Mon Buddhist monks of Bangkok. For more than two
years, Victoria Armour-Hileman was a go-between for the monks,
interceding with the world outside their temple walls for
everything from a cornea transplant for a land mine victim to money
to buy shoes for barefoot orphans. At the same time, Singing to
the Dead details an aid worker's ongoing education: how to
weave through an embassy bureaucracy, how to stave off burnout, how
to pull money out of thin air at the eleventh hour, when to trust
and when to be cautious, when to kowtow, when to pray.
As the centuries-old conflict between Burma and its Mon people
worsens, police raids on the temple in Bangkok increase. Refugees
have never been safe, but now even the monks' unofficial immunity
seems tenuous. When one of the monks is threatened with
repatriation to Burma and possible imprisonment and torture,
Armour-Hileman begins the desperate race to secure a new home
country for him. She knows that these final efforts are as selfish
as they are humanitarian, for what kind of God, and what kind of
universe, will she believe in if she fails?
Subjects: Sociology, History
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