Witness to History in Burma

Monks in Burma are being silenced, beaten, and murdered for their peaceful protests. Here's what happened and how we can help.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that each and every gun, bullet, warplane, and battleship produced represented resources stolen from the poor and hungry. As a two-term president and former commanding general of allied forces on D-Day, he knew first-hand what he was talking about. If he were alive today, he would view Burma as proof of his words: its military, 400,000 strong, live in luxury, enjoying the weaponry and personal benefits of the modern world, while its other 40-million-plus citizens live in poverty, searching day-to-day for food.
 
The military rulers of Burma have committed many acts of violence against the general population, especially ethnic minorities, and now they have turned their weapons against the Buddhist monks who demonstrate a social conscience. There are as many Buddhist monks as soldiers in their country--an estimated 400,000 of each. The ruling junta are hardening their stance against the United Nations's efforts to persuade them to relinquish some power and enter peace and reconciliation talks. Recently Burma's state-run media reported that a Burmese official told Under Secretary General for Political Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari, that holding the proposed talks with deposed president Aung San Suu Kyi is impossible, and that Burma will not bow to outside pressure.
 
I first heard about Burma in the 1960s, from my neighbor Harry Frank, a musician and bandleader who had flown in the Air Force over the hump into China during WWII. For a long time Burma was peaceful and pious, a sleepy Asian country full of thousands of splendid temples and sacred stupa monuments, still redolent of British colonial rule, where we Western seekers went decades ago for monastic meditation retreats and Theravadin Buddhist studies. The muddy banks of the wide Irrawaddi (sacred goddess) River, which slowly coursed down from Tibet, through the fabled city of Mandalay in the north, and southward through the lush country, was reminiscent of naïve dreams of Shangri-la and the ancient yet timeless Orient that a New Yorker like myself could only imagine.
 
Burma has remained isolated for half a century, not entering the rush to modernity and industrialization that propelled Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, and quoSingapore into the global economy. When I left the International Meditation Center in Rangoon in 1974 to visit with my parents in high-tech Japan, I asked my teacher what I could bring back. “Rubber bands," he said. "We can’t get good rubber bands here.” In contrast, the Tibetan monks I taught English in Nepal had asked for tape recorders and cameras.
 
Burma, now known as Myanmar, has long been almost frozen in time under the repressive rule of military dictators. But this autumn, the totalitarian junta that rules Myanmar cracked down on the first major pro-democratic uprising in 20 years. This is a hard-line group of aged Cold War-era generals scornful of modernity who took power in the early 1960s during the era of Asian demagogues and tyrants. Nominally Buddhist military men, they're vastly subject to superstition, local spirit worship, and numerology; they're widely detested, feared, and censured for their ruthless ways and atrocious human rights record.
 
Burma's military junta—the State Law and Order Restoration Council(SLORC)—took power in 1988. In 1990 the regime ostracized and arrested the progressive, legally elected democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi—who won her place as Prime Minister by a landslide—and silenced dissidents. They hardened their grip on Southeast Asia’s second largest country (about the size of Texas with a population of 50 million), strategically located at the borders of India, Laos, Bangladesh, Tibet, China, and the American military presence in Thailand.  Outside observers have called Burma, “The most repressive, evil, brutal regime on the planet right now.”
 
In September, more than 100,000 peaceful demonstrators–including large numbers of Buddhist monks, who are held in the highest esteem in the country’s traditional social structure–took to the streets of Rangoon and other cities to protest doubled and tripled fuel prices, widespread poverty and lack of the freedom of self-determination. The army shot into crowds of unarmed citizens, monks, and nuns, resulting in what must certainly be hundreds of deaths and countless more injuries and arrests so far.  
Government soldiers have reportedly gunned down 100 to 200 civilians—parents, teachers, and students—while leaving a school in a dissident province . Much higher death tolls have been reported but are difficult to confirm—just as the government intends. The ancient custom of cremation also complicates calculating an accurate body count.
 
The government has also locked Buddhist monasteries and surrounded them with barbed wire or simply emptied them out in an attempt to suppress the protesting activists. Monks and nuns are prohibited from wearing clerical robes in public in one of the world’s most traditional Buddhist countries, where they have seamlessly been part of public life for two millennia. Now it is being reported that 200 young monks were dragged from their monastery in the Ngwe Kyar Yan neighborhood of Yangon (Rangoon) and bludgeoned to death, while thousands of laymen helplessly watched the bodies being carted off in army trucks. More than four thousand monks have been imprisoned.
 
The monastics have bravely stood up and led the people’s call for freedom and democracy, and are in grave danger as a result. In a telling response far more significant than it might seem, and congruent with their nonviolent Buddhist beliefs, multitudes of saffron-robed monks have refused religious services to the oppressors, and turned their daily alms bowls away from the families of the military leaders. These acts of passive resistance are more severe than the old-fashioned Christian punishment of shunning and verge on a kind of excommunication—they are denying the rulers their link to the good karma and future happiness accorded by their own beliefs. The Burmese call this nonviolent resistance the Saffron Revolution.
 
Since Buddha’s teachings are generally geared toward compassion, acceptance, and the cultivation of inner peace, people often underestimate the great power of non-violence. The gentle Buddhist virtues should not veer into the extremes of complacence, indifference, passivity, and disengagement. The socially engaged and activist leader the Dalai Lama of Tibet has called this "misplaced tolerance" and "misplaced forbearance," an approach that only encourages and enables perpetrators and other harm-doers.

The historical enlightened sage Buddha himself was a social activist and reformer—he negotiated peace treaties among warring kings, broke the Indian caste system, was the first leader in history to educate women en masse, helped provide women a say in their own governance, and exhorted his followers to plant at least one tree every year to replenish the earth—2,500 years ago. Burma’s monks have traditionally supported and participated in just political causes within their country, such as the independence movement—Burma was a British colony until 1947—and democracy movement of recent decades.

The current situation is nothing new to Burma. Lacking charity, honesty, compassion, and altruism, the military junta mismanaged the country and then hypocritically used Buddhist symbols—imitating the model of previous kings—to demonstrate that it has absolute power and will not tolerate outside interference. A state-controlled Burmese newspaper criticized the U.N. Security Council for deploring the treatment of protesters. Japan, a major donor to Burma, said it cut more than $4 million in funds after the shooting death of a Japanese journalist during September’s military crackdown. The European Union increased sanctions on Burma and the U.S. said it was considering strengthening its own. Meanwhile, true to form, Burma's state-run official newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, said the government was on a path to democracy and there was no need to be diverted.
 
It is all but impossible to find a single family in Burma without one or more members among the ordained Buddhist clergy and enjoying close ties with local temples and sangha congregations. Now some say that the government has placed shaved-pate false-monk agents provocateurs among the demonstrators to stir up unrest and justify violent reprisals by government troops. In other cases outside the capital cities, where traditional values of nonviolence and reverence for their clerics remain strongest, soldiers reportedly refused to fire upon the monks, and even threatened mutiny.

The ruling general Than Shwe has suddenly moved his own family out of the country in fear of revolt. These are all conditions which have commonly presaged revolutionary events throughout history. We might be forewarned that even more extreme repercussions may be leveled against the Buddhist clergy and other pro-democracy dissidents, similar to the draconian measures taken in occupied Tibet by the Chinese military to disperse and destroy resistance along with freedom of thought and religion to maintain political hegemony.
 
As Burma has faded from the news, the Myanmar have already become more aggressive in condemning dissidents and insisting on the lifting of trade sanctions as a condition for further talks. Generals have again clamped down on all forms of civil rights and free expression, for a brief time cutting off all outside contact, including telephone and the Internet. Its leaders repeatedly put off meeting with UN and American diplomatic envoys for several days, although the visiting officials did visit long-incarcerated pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi twice. The Peace Prize icon, a devout Buddhist meditator and widow of a renowned Buddhist scholar, has proclaimed: “There will be change because all the military have are guns.” She has proven her mettle and will neither give in nor give up.

The U.N.’s Human Rights Council has condemned Burma. China has called upon Burma’s leaders to exercise restraint. President Bush has recently spoken alongside the Dalai Lama against the human rights situation in Burma, and expanded U.S. sanctions while urging China and India to increase pressure as well. "Burma's rulers continue to defy the world's just demands to stop their vicious persecution," he said. "They continue to reject the clear will of the Burmese people to live in freedom under leaders of their own choosing." This announcement followed weeks of unsuccessful international efforts to get Burma's government to ease up on repression of protesters and to open a dialogue with San Suu Kyi.

But none of this appears to be enough. China is reluctant to interfere in the domestic affairs of others in line with its own policy of detaching from world opinion--China also has great interest in Burma’s natural resources of oil and gas. So far India and Russia are similarly disinclined to get involved. What keeps our freedom-and-democracy-spouting leaders from wielding stronger American influence in Burma? Is it only because Burma possesses little or nothing Americans need? Or have we learned lessons from interceding in Iraq?  
It is hard to know what to do. It is certainly difficult, challenging, and even risky to act. Politics mixed with religion is a fragile and volatile combination, as we continue to observe around the globe—in Belfast, the Middle East, Sri Lanka. This current crisis is not a religious matter nor yet a cultural genocide (like in Tibet), but a political and socio-economic wrangle that happens to be in a traditional Buddhist country. Yet the world must do something. But what?

Even while Burma is no longer front page news, petitions and other forms of global activism are starting to circulate.
Perhaps the five million Buddhists on this continent and other like-minded Americans could add pressure by boycotting the upcoming Beijing Olympics to urge China to protect human rights within and without its borders. Maybe an international initiative like the Live Aid concert could be mounted in solidarity with the peaceful freedom-seeking people of Burma, to raise awareness of their plight.
 
We who know and care about the fate of Burma and its ancient culture do not hope for a future Buddhist republic, but rather freedom from despots and totalitarianism. We do hope that international moral and economic pressure can be brought on Burma’s entrenched leaders and her apparent protector, China, to effect meaningful change and peaceful reconciliation. The nations of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations)—of which Burma is a member—could, through condemnation of the corrupt junta’s repressive actions, help bring justice and self-determination to their brothers and sisters in Burma.
 
The great spiritual activist and mahatma (great soul) Gandhi said that those who think that religion and politics are unrelated don’t know much about either. Yet this Burma crisis is not at all a religious issue; Burmese monastics are not fighting for religious freedom but for free and democratic elections in a country long ruled by anachronistic generals out of touch with modern global realities.
 
Gandhi once suggested that we reflect upon the faces of the poorest people on earth and make our decisions with them in mind. The Dalai Lama once advised President Clinton: “Every decision you make should be motivated by compassion.” When we remember universals including interconnectedness and impermanence, death and mortality—don’t we find our priorities come more clearly into focus?
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