Thursday, 4 October 2007

Free Burma: how?

Free Burma!

A couple weeks back my fiancée asked me what I thought of the then recent demonstrations in Burma that were broken up by security forces (Sept. 5, demonstration in Pakokku). I sighed, thinking of the long, unjust, and widely ignored house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma is a nation ruled by its military essentially since its inception just after WWII. What power do a few, or even a great many, monks have there?

My response was that it would probably pass. The government would give some grounds on the monks demands, or it would escalate to a point of violence and then the monks would back down. It seems now that my prediction then, the latter one unfortunately, has come to pass. The escalation culminated in massive protests including tens of thousands of monks and perhaps 100,000 lay supporters being met with automatic gun fire and tear gas. The result, according to the French news agency AFP, quoting Shari Villarosa, is that "a semblance of normalcy has returned, but those of us who live here see the mood has changed..."

However it is unclear what will happen next. And what is the proper Buddhist response?

I asked my advisor, Damien Keown, about it in passing and he too sighed. This was just after we had discussed the lacuna that exists in Buddhist politics and ethics in general, not to mention for specific situations such as this. Buddhism has generally been a religion that stays out of politics. That's not to say that Buddhists always stay out of politics, only that in terms of the body of Buddhist thought, little exists that deals with politics. Think of Tibet: even there the Dalai Lamas (and earlier Buddhist rulers) controlled their nation more with traditional Tibetan methods than with any enlightened and expounded Buddhist political philosophy.

Ashoka was perhaps the Buddhist King par excellence, but no treatise on his methodology was ever written, no rigorous handbook on the principles of proper rule ever composed. Only perhaps in the last thirty years, most notably with Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh, has Buddhism found a voice for political action. Perhaps contrary to professor Keown's and my pessimism is Hannah Beech's comment that, "After all, it was Burma's monks who spearheaded acts of civil disobedience against British colonialists. Time (9/17). Yet the article immediately follows with, "Buddhist clergy were also at the forefront of mass protests in 1988, which ended when the army gunned down hundreds of peaceful protestors and declared martial law."

From a practical standpoint there are many questions:
  1. how strong is the military junta today?
  2. How unified are the Buddhist monks?
  3. How devout/willing to follow are the citizens?
  4. The same goes for the soldiers - will they attack monks?
  5. What is to make us think that now, after nearly two decades of military rule, something will change?
From a more theoretical standpoint I also wonder:
  1. does Buddhism demand social justice, or simply seek it?
  2. Can Buddhists in Burma rise up like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers and demand justice?
  3. Does Burma as a nation have a strong enough history of social justice (as the US did in the 1960s) for such a movement to succeed?
Perhaps most importantly, what can we Progressive Buddhists in the "privileged West" say or do here? Should we boycott Burma? Urge our government to invade and liberate? Or perhaps something in between? And what are the great Buddhist leaders out there saying/doing already?

Further reading:
China's hand behind junta's fist (The Australian)
Timeline: Burma, A chronology of key events (BBC News)
Burma: A Political Timeline (PBS)


  1. Answers on a postcard...

    I, for one, certainly don't know the answers, but the history of South Africa for example shows that enough political and economic pressure can force a regime change.

  2. The regime in Burma is cruel and disinterested in the suffering of the population. Sanctions will only further hurt the average Burmese citizen. The junta will only shrug and, with its restrictions on communication, blame the West -- in league with the Cuban and North Korean models.

    Economic sanctions helped in South Africa because the democratic white government there was responsive to the suffering of its white citizens.