Tom Fawthrop writes for The Guardian blog site about a new protest movement in Burma (aka Myanmar):
On Saturday, 10,000 monks made a procession in Mandalay. In towns across the country they have come out on to the streets braving the dictatorship and challenging the state of fear that has ruled for decades. Other protests are quickly nipped in the bud, activists carted off to jail, and routinely tortured. Many have died in custody.
In Rangoon, the monks fearlessly swept past the police barricades around the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of the persecuted opposition party the National League for Democracy, who has been held under house arrest ever since her election victory in 1990. She held an impromptu meeting with the monks and joined them in prayers. “The Lady” – as everyone calls her – remains the one great hope for a new Burma.
A potent feature of the protests has been the declaration by the monks’ union of “patam nikkujjana kamma” – a boycott of alms from members of the military regime, or simply overturning their bowls instead of collecting food. One young monk justified this ban on the armed forces as equivalent to excommunication in the Christian church. This sanction includes a refusal to conduct funeral and weddings services and a ban on other Buddhist ceremonies for members of the military.
Burmese Buddhism is a sect of Therevada, the oldest school of Buddhism. There are some doctrinal differences between Theravada and Mahayana (e.g., Zen, Tibetan, Pure Land), so I’m not qualified to explain the “excommunication” thing in detail. I only know it has something to do with gaining spiritual merit through alms-giving. See also this “Q&A” from The Telegraph.
The presence of monks leading the protests puts the military in a difficult position. Buddhism is an essential part of the Burmese identity, and to physically attack monks would threaten both a popular uprising and their own immortal souls — Burmese are highly superstitious and the generals are no exception. Buddhist authorities have said that monks will refuse to accept alms from soldiers, which effectively prevents them from ‘making merit’ and fulfilling their religious duties.
Back to Fawthrop:
In Burma the chances of any so-called “velvet revolution” as happened recently in the Ukraine and in parts of Eastern Europe appears to be highly unlikely. In 1988, besieged by massive popular protests, the generals ordered their troops to shoot unarmed demonstrators in their thousands.
Since 1988 bloodbath the generals have massively expanded their army and security services, and switched the capital from Rangoon to the obscure ultra-secure town of Naypyitaw, well-protected from the people that they rule. They have never deviated from their iron-fisted determination to cling on to power despite international lobbying for dialogue with the opposition – intimidated but never silenced.
But after the military, it is the Buddhist monks who represent the most important institution in Burma today – revered by almost everybody. Are we heading for another showdown? The civilian population has enthusiastically cheered the stand taken by the monks but remains wary of what happened in 1988.
If massive bloodshed is to be averted, the EU, Buddhist countries and South-East Asian nations all need to act now, putting human rights before trade, and to act in respect the heroism of buddhist monks in Burma. With the junta still a little rattled by these rolling demonstrations of defiance there is a rare window of opportunity for the world to help the Burmese people. If the EU and Burma’s neighbours were to speak with one voice, warning the regime against another 1988, it could make a difference.
Sanctions can only work where there is an overwhelming consensus of nations about the pariah status of a regime. South Africa under apartheid was the classic example. Just as the Zimbabwe disaster should be on the conscience of Africa, so Burma is the special responsibility of South-East Asian nations (Asean). The generals need to be told that more atrocities will result in punishment: to kick them out of Asean; a suspension of all tourist links. And it is above all the voice of Asian countries – Asean, India and China – that should be heading efforts to avert a disaster.
From The Telegraph (link above):
There are three possible outcomes — firstly that the protests fizzle out over time, although this is unlikely as momentum is growing.
Secondly, some sort of negotiated compromise could be achieved, or the regime pronounces itself willing to enter talks, which it would then try to stifle over months and years of prevarications and conditionalities, as it has before.
Third, and seen by some as most likely, is that there will be blood on the streets.
Against this is the influence of China, Burma’s most important ally and trading partner. Diplomats say that China does not want to see massacres carried out by its friends in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics next year, and is urging restraint. But as the ineffectiveness of Western diplomatic moves in recent years have shown, the Burmese regime is adept at ignoring international pressure.
To his credit, President Bush is expected to urge the UN to impose sanctions on the government of Burma in a speech to the UN tomorrow. Just as long as we don’t invade and “liberate” them — Burma has oil and gas, you know, and all those nonbelievers to convert.
Still, I am hoping for the best possible outcome. Go monks!
Personal note: I banged myself up real good in a fall yesterday. The orthopedic guy assured me I didn’t break anything. I’ll be lounging about with lots of ice packs and some pain pills for the next couple of days, however. Posts may be infrequent and incoherent, but I’ll do my best.