When Buddhist Monks Act

Burma's clergy, like others in Asia, may be liberating

This Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of the day democracy was snatched from the people of Burma. A military junta denied the results of an election that was decisively won by the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ever since then, her political party has been suppressed while Burma (renamed Myanmar) has languished as a Southeast Asian backwater. A decade of international ostracism has done little to put Burma right. Hundreds of political dissidents remain jailed, including 13 journalists - the highest in any nation.

Is there any hope that this poor pariah state might soon become the latest Asian democracy?

The answer may not lie in more economic sanctions, stiff-arm diplomacy, or Nobel Peace Prizes (Suu Kyi won it in 1991).

Rather, it may lie with monks.

Like other Asian nations with large numbers of Buddhists, Burma's robed clergy can play a powerful role behind the scenes. They are stewards of not only a common faith but the nation's identity.

That's why the junta, oddly named the State Peace and Development Council, has tried hard to co-opt or control the monkhood. Its donations to temples are recounted almost daily in the state-controlled press as displays of official piety.

In ancient days, Burma's top monks could topple kings just by withdrawing their approval. A king's power rested on his legitimacy among Buddhist believers, but their reverence went to monks for their devotion to compassion and pacifism.

That reverence is revived daily during the monks' daily walks among the people - barefooted with shaved heads, wearing saffron-colored robes - as they carry empty bowls seeking alms, such as food. They are moral leaders at the rice-roots level.

Monks rely on the people's generosity to survive. As the Burmese suffer more shortages in their nation's isolation, that has compelled the monks to act.

In February, a leading monk asked the junta for an end to the political stalemate. The Monks Union, representing 300,000 clergy, threatens a protest at temples in coming days, pegged to the anniversary, if that demand is not met.

Can the monks spark a revolt now? Unlikely. They have been infiltrated by agents. But their movement is the only positive dynamic in what otherwise appears to be a hopeless situation.

Burma, of course, is not the only Asian nation where Buddhist monks often serve as political activists.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled god-king, has waged a global campaign during his 41 years of exile to undo Chinese control of Tibetan Buddhists. He and Beijing have struggled over which young Buddhist leaders will lead the Tibetan faithful.

And China's Communist leaders were recently shocked by the sudden rise in popularity of the Buddhist-oriented Falun Gong among Han Chinese. The movement has attracted millions of followers and has peacefully protested a government crackdown on the group.

In Communist-led Vietnam, Buddhist monks remain under tight watch, many of them having been arrested, for fear they could become a rival center of power and someday lead a revolt against the country's sole political party. The state "sponsors" the Buddhist clergy in each temple. (The self-immolation of a Buddhist monk during the Vietnam War shows just how activist monks there can be.)

In Sri Lanka, a long, brutal civil war recently compelled many Buddhist clergy to shed a pacifist stance in support of a government war against guerrilla fighters seeking a homeland for the minority Hindu Tamils. The monks' cause is tied up with the nationalism of the island's majority Sinhalese, who are taught that Sri Lanka plays a special role in the Buddhist faith. Other, apolitical monks stick to a pacifist role that is more like the teachings of Buddha, who lived in the 6th century BC.

(And in case anyone thinks monk activism is strictly in Asia, it's worth recalling that Vice President Al Gore attended a 1996 fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles where $55,000 in illegal contributions was collected for Democrats.)

Buddhism's appeal for many comes from the tranquility it brings, based on Buddha's teaching that human suffering can be lessened by reducing human desires. But many of its adherents live in troubled lands. As spiritual seekers, they can empower monks to act on their behalf.

Over Asia's long history, monks have often proved critical in bringing about political change. In Burma's case, that may prove true again.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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