‘Loving kindness’ will beat the generals

As the events unfolded this week in Rangoon, my mind wandered back to the bedtime stories my great-grandmother told me of a bloody encounter in the 1930s in my native Mandalay. It was between the world-conquering power of the British Raj and the soft power of the world-renouncers, the peaceful and unarmed Buddhist monks and nuns, 17 of whom were mown down. How gallantly they had stood up to the British Raj on behalf of Burma’s poor, she said.

Were she alive today, Granny would recognise the instant crackdown, the baton blows, machinegun bursts, pools of blood, public outrage – and perhaps the downfall of the hated regime.

The involvement of monks in politics goes back to before the colonial era in Burma. Buddhism and its monasteries have for centuries been the catalystic force that mobilised the masses against unjust rulers. Buddhism has deep roots in both rural and urban Burma; it is the bond that unites the main groups: the dominant Burmese, the Shans, the Mons, the Karens and the Arakanese; the monasteries are the meeting places where the rich and the powerful meet the poor and the downtrodden.

Because most monks are drawn primarily not from urban elite families but rather from rural Burma, one of the most likely outcomes of the present “monks power” movement is the political awakening of rural communities that had hitherto remained untapped by the Western-inspired, urban-middle-class, pro-democracy opposition.

This coming together of Burma’s urban and rural communities will be deeply significant. The “Metta (or Loving Kindness) Army” of Buddhist monks that we have seen on our television screens snaking through the city streets have posed the greatest challenge to the Armed Forces since their creation in 1941. And to judge from the relatively low number of casualties since the protests began a month ago – as opposed to 3,000 killed in the 1988 popular uprising against General Ne Win – this revolt has proved itself both potent and pacifying.

The vocation of the Buddhist Order is certainly other-worldly. But in their role as citizens, their agenda is unequivocal: democracy. A protesting monk poignantly summed it up: “I’d rather have democracy for our people than nirvana for myself.” For the monks, democracy will mean the right to change the rulers peacefully and to improve the economic conditions of the people.

Since the bloody crackdown of 1988 the great majority of Burmese people have shifted their attention to other-worldly matters. Their immediate realities teach them to be more mindful of Buddhist teaching: all life is suffering. A cursory look at everyday survival would suffice: poverty, oppression, institutionalised abuse of power, endemic corruption and related moral decay, loss of regional standing as a country, malnutrition, ill-health, ineffectual education, ecological degradation and the wasting of natural resources such as timber, oil and natural gas. That is why, crucially, other local ethnic communities of Christian, Muslim, and other non-Buddhist faiths have thrown in their lot with the monks.

Like the Buddhist order, the rank and file of the Armed Forces is primarily drawn from poor farming communities or urban working classes. The greatest tragedy is that the machinegun-toting rural sons in green or grey uniform are shooting and killing their brethren in saffron, brown or orange robes, armed only with Metta Suttra or the prayer for Universal Loving Kindness.

Yet when we hear reports from other protest areas that troops are refusing to fire at their own brethren, one smells a sea change in the institutional culture of the junta’s war machine. This is despite images in the media of the top echelons of the officer corps ostentatiously making Buddhist offerings or paying respect to senior abbots; or the junta’s spin-doctors desperately telling the public that the saffron-robed protesters are “bogus monks” in the service of Western neo-imperialists.

Given Burma’s staunch support from Beijing, with its unquenchable thirst for Burma’s energy resources, as well as the support of the veto-wielding Russia, the international community has so far not been powerful enough to strong-arm the “bogus Buddhists” in power to find a peaceful resolution. But now the monks’ movement has successfully put Burma at the top of the UN agenda.

In the days to come the junta is likely to continue to show restraint and to make sure that people stay at home so it does not have to resort to force. Any shows of greater brutality will persuade China to cooperate more seriously with the West.

No matter how the current crisis on the streets is resolved, one thing is clear. Burma has changed. The public will reject resoundingly any false claims from the junta of “democratisation” when legitimate and peaceful political parties are not allowed to operate freely; or claims of “economic development” when there is no sign of reform. The monks are winning. A new dawn is on the horizon.

Maung Zarni, founder of the Free Burma Coalition and a visiting research fellow at Oxford.

Published in The Times, UK, 29/09/2007.

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