Monks vs. Generals: A Free Fall or a New Dawn in Myanmar?

My mind wondered swiftly back to the childhood bedtime stories told by my great-grandmother of a bloody encounter in the 1930s in my native Mandalay between the world-conquering power of the British Raj and the soft power of the world-renouncers, the Theravada Buddhist monks and nuns.

She told of the brutal response of the British authorities who mowed down peaceful and unarmed monks, resulting in 17 deaths in total. And she used to recount how gallantly our monks stood up to the British Raj on behalf of Burma's poor, suffering from oppression under alien Christian rule. Were she alive today Granny would say - deja vu - the familiar baton blows, machine gun bursts, pools of blood, public outrage, the immediate crackdown and the eventual downfall of the hated regime.

The involvement of monks in politics goes back to before the colonial era and the Burmese nationalist fight against British rule. Buddhism and its monasteries have for centuries been the rallying, 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 major ethnic communities - the dominant Burmese, the Shans, the Mons, the Karens, and the Arakanese. Ultimately, the monasteries represent the interface where the rich and the powerful meet the poor and the down-trodden.

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

This likely coming together of Burma's urban and rural communities, the latter of which make up the bulk of the country's population will be highly consequential. That Metta (or Loving Kindness) Army of Buddhist monks that snaked through the city streets have posed the greatest challenge to the Armed Forces since its formation in 1943. The labelling of the generals and their underlings as "un-Buddhist" and the subsequent call for their excommunication has invoked a 2,500 year-old ritual against tyrants who tramples on Dharma principles of righteousness.

Judging from the relatively low number of casualties of yesterday's shootings, nine since the protests began a month ago, as opposed to approximately 3,000 in the 1988 popular revolt, the "soft power" of the latest protests have been felt deeply across the entire society, including the rank and file of the Armed Forces.

It is for this reason the junta's spin doctors are desperately informing the public and their troops that the Saffron-robed protesters are "bogus monks"‚ in service of Western neo-imperialists. This is an act of demonisation designed to ensure that the troops shoot to kill when ordered.

Since the bloody crackdown of the 1988 popular revolt in against General Ne Win's one-party rule(1962-88) which ushered in another period of brutish military rule, the great majority of Burmese people had shifted their attention to religious matters. For their immediate realities teach them to be more mindful of Buddhist teaching - All life is suffering.

A cursory glance at everyday life in the country would suffice: poverty, downright oppression, institutionalised abuse of power, endemic corruption and related moral decay, loss of regional standing as a country, malnutrition, ill-health, poor education, ecological degradation and last but not least rapid loss of natural resources such as teak, timber, oil and natural gas.

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

Stories coming out of the country indicate that troops in certain protest areas have refused to fire senselessly on their own people. In the circumstances, one perceives a shift in the institutional culture of the junta's war machine.

In concert, the regime's Orwellian media is broadcasting and printing surreal images of the members of the top echelon of the officer corps, who are making offerings or paying respect to the highly revered senior abbots of the country.

Much as they are reviled domestically and around the world, the generals perceive themselves as good, family men trying their level best to defend Myanmar's sovereignty and territorial integrity. They view themselves as the saviours of the nation from potential Balkanization and keepers of law and order.

Virtually all of them are insular, are stuck in the old father-knows-best mentality and demand complete and utter loyalty. While the rank and file live rather poor lives, not dissimilar to the bulk of the population, a handful of top generals live extremely lavishly by local standards.

The recent move by the junta to a new capital was financed by the loot of the country - rich natural resources sold to the highest bidders amongst the get-rich-quick Chinese, Indians and other Asians. Unfortunately, there has been a dishonorable solidarity amongst the Asian business classes.

Given the staunch political support and unprincipled business dealings from Beijing's bogus neo-communists with their unquenchable thirst for Burma's energy resources, as well as the support of the veto-wielding Russia, the Western-led international community has so far not been powerful enough to either strong-arm or persuade the bogus Buddhists in power to find a peaceful resolution to their self-perpetuated war against their own citizens.

But this Western impotence is changing.

The monks' protests have successfully put Burma at the top of the UN's agenda. The UN Secretary General and world leaders including the Americans, the British, and most significantly, the Chinese are banging their heads together to find a peaceful ending to the showdown in Burma. It has also compelled the intransigent generals from dragging their feet to fully cooperate with UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, arguably the only sympathetic ear they have, aside from their wives, and the Russians.

Even the Chinese are said to be progressively less confident about the generals‚ leadership competence and staying power. It is now time for the UN-sponsored international diplomatic effort, backed by the four permanent Security Council members China, US, UK and France to lead the way. The Russians and the Indians will probably jump on the train when they know it is leaving - with or without them.

The likely scenario in the days to come is that the junta will continue to show restraint or make sure people stay home, so that they do not have to resort to force. A greater show of brutality and senseless use of force, as opposed to efforts at reconciliation and dialogue, will likely persuade China to cooperate more seriously with the West on Burma.

Ibrahim Gambari is flying into Rangoon tomorrow. He must be given ample opportunities to discuss both immediate and broader concerns - not just human rights, democracy, and national reconciliation but also the personal and institutional concerns of the generals and the rank and file. It is in the interests of all - both the generals and the opposition parties - to ensure the success of Gambari's mission.

On its part, the United States and European Union should review the punitive economic and political sanctions, and suspend its inflammatory language of regime change. Burma or Myanmar, whatever the preference, has no choice but to make peace with itself first, if things are to get better.

Maung Zarni is a Visiting Research Fellow (2006-9) at the Department of International Development (Queen Elizabeth House), University of Oxford. He was the founder of the Free Burma Coalition.

Opinion Asia | 28 Sep 2007

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