Gene Stoltzfus

Burma's spiritual revolt against repression

By Gene Stoltzfus
September 28, 2007

Burma marches on to the world stage every other decade. The groups with country wide power and influence in modern Burma are now facing each other on worn out streets with potholes calling for repair. The military with weapons supplied by China, is determined to retain its grip on the nation where it has wielded power since 1962. The other, the Buddhist movement with an institutional life going back before the dawn of the Burmese nation more than 1000 years ago, is led by monks armed with the weapons of spiritual disciplines and a commitment to the Middle Way, an ethical system that combines practical living with a deep sensitivity to all of creation. For Buddhists, nonviolence is inherent to the way.

When I see columns of Buddhist monks I think of what they have taught me. The monks begin their day at sun up by engaging in the discipline of taking their begging bowl between their hands and going about the village or city allowing people to give them food or money for the day. This discipline is practised every day. As my adult life unfolded I repeatedly found myself in situations where I needed to raise money to carry out projects. I hated to ask for money, however I was challenged to remember the daily discipline of the Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia and their mendicant cousins in Europe and to consider holding up a begging bowl as a spiritual act. Although I never became a world renowned fund-raiser beggar, my little bit of talent in the area did eventually pay off, due to this time tested discipline of vulnerability. Later when I reread the Bible I found similar hints in the idea of manna, just enough for the day. The monks who are on the streets in Burma today eat the first meal of the day from the fruits of these spiritually grounded receiving exercises.

Buddhist teachings and values are deeply ingrained in Burmese society and when monks lead, an unwritten message is sent to the nation. The arrest of monks creates a shocking dissonance in the minds of the Buddhist population. In the practice of Buddhism in Burma, people frequently leave the routine of their lives for a few weeks to become monks. With saffron robes, shaved heads and begging bowls they examine their lives, perhaps in the hope of gaining merit, more spiritually centered living, or to move along in their own personal cycle of karma. Some of the monks walking in the demonstrations now are almost certainly people who have only recently joined the monastery for a brief break.

The flow of popular participation in monastic life is an opportunity for military intelligence agencies to infiltrate in times like this. According to reports from Thailand, the Burmese military has ordered monks clothing from a factory. At least one role of military intelligence people will be to collect information about plans. An even more dangerous role, familiar to peacemakers around the world, is the placement of agent provocateurs who turn peaceful demonstrations into violent confrontations which are then blamed on Buddhists, who by implication have deserted their nonviolent disciplines.

In response to military actions on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2007, Buddhist monks withdrew spiritual services for all military personnel in Burma. This symbolic move does not go unnoticed in deeply religious Burma and may be in a similar vein as Christian ministers, priests or bishops who withhold communion or the sacrament to members for inappropriate ethical acts.

The Buddhist way is nonviolence empowered by love, and honed by teaching and meditation. However this does not mean that monks are not tough, persistent and even militant.

With little but citizen reporters, sporadic internet flashes and releases from various Free Burmese groups it is difficult to make anything but a broad assessment of the current situation. The pictures of thousands of Buddhist monks marching in Rangoon, Mandalay and other cities hints that there is massive support. Many who participate as civilians were Buddhist monks for a time. Of the fifty-five million Burmese people, one person in a hundred is in the 488,000 person military and its security apparatus. A pattern of intermittent movements led by Buddhist monks and political activists brought Burma independence from Great Britain in 1948. It was considered the country with the best chance of economic success in all of Southeast Asia. Today Burma is the poorest. Little wonder that the movement we now watch, grew out of economic burdens.

Burma is made up of the dominant Burman population as well as a number of significant and organized minorities. One important minority is the Karen people who are Baptist Christians, Buddhists and animists and have carried on a long guerrilla war against the central government. Karen live along the middle and eastern border of Burma adjacent to Thailand. Their discontent is fed by a pattern of human rights abuse by the military and a virtual cut off of all government services.

In 1988 Burmese students were at the centre of the movement for change. The movement was viciously put down by the military authorities. The activists failed to change the government, but the uprising was a major source of pressure leading to Burma's first free election in 30 years in 1990. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi won 392 out of a total 489 seats, but the election results were annulled by SLORC, (State Law and Order Restoration Council) which refused to step down and has continued to rule with the iron fist until the present.

Today's protests have been building since January in small actions. Burma's farmers are major producers of rice. Oil and gas development is underway with foreign corporations in the lead. Despite American government sanctions and bold words about human rights Washington has cautioned critics of the oil industry not to push their legal campaigns to assertively. Burma is the world's second largest producer of opium, an industry that dates back to market development during the Viet Nam war.

The record of the armed forces of Burma is one of violent dispersion of protesters. On the surface the armed forces is unified and has given little indication of a willingness to create an opening for democratic rule. However it should be noted that the present military leadership of Burma were low and mid level officers in 1988 when their soldiers were told to shoot and kill thousands of nonviolent marchers. They know that their regime will pay a heavy price in even deeper discontent at home and greater isolation abroad for a repeat performance.

The road ahead is not pleasant. When change comes, those who replace the military will have to deal with a privileged, often corrupt, entrenched military institution that has dictated policy in all areas of society and developed tastes for the benefits of power. Aside from Buddhism, it is the single most developed institution in Burma. New habits will take years to put into place. Long suspended ethnic conflicts will find new ways to resume patterns of violent and nonviolent engagement, but at the same time traditional forms of negotiation and conflict resolution may have space to be rediscovered.

What we witness in Burma today is one step in a longer process. While it might lead to immediate change, that is not likely. The marches, the risk taking, the international support, are building. It may be weeks or it may be years before there is change. What is clear is that the dictatorship of the men with crisp medaled uniforms are numbered. Perhaps the final push will come from the monks, or the wider population or their children. When it does come, then the real work will begin.

(In response to the world wide call of Free Burma groups we have a sign in our window, THE WORLD IS WATCHING, FREE BURMA with a candle below the sign.)


(c) Gene Stoltzfus. The author is a founder of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an initiative of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Quakers) with support and membership from a range of Catholic and Protestant denominations. Supporting violence-reduction and transformative nonviolence efforts around the world is its mandate. Gene writes regularly at

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