As military allows an election in Burma (Myanmar), watch the Buddhist monks

The monks in Burma (Myanmar) have been leaders in past protests for democracy, a role expected of them by the Buddhist faithful who honor them for their charity and humility. Any ruler fears the monkhood in its power to withhold legitimacy.

Buddhist monks collect morning offerings from the faithful in the Shan State.

The last time Burma’s military dictators allowed an election (1990), they lost – to a woman, Aung San Suu Kyi.

So they ignored the results and have since locked up pro-democracy dissidents, including Ms. Suu Kyi, who is the daughter of modern Burma’s founder and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now 20 years later, the military plans to hold another election, scheduled for Nov. 7. Only this time the junta has rigged the process to ensure its political party will “win,” thus putting a veneer of civilian-run democracy on a Southeast Asian nation that has had a military boot on its neck since 1962.

Any return of democracy to Burma (or Myanmar) won’t likely come through this farcical election. If anything, the limited campaigning by controlled politicians might help revive the most powerful force in Burma’s history: its large community of Buddhist monks.

Kings in ancient times were easily felled when the senior monks withdrew their support, thereby ruining the legitimacy of the king in the people’s eyes. Today’s military leaders, like past kings, know this well and have tried to coopt, jail, kill, or infiltrate the nation’s 400,000 Buddhist monks.

Monks were on the front lines of the first pro-democracy protests in 1988 and most recently in 2007 during the aborted “Saffron Revolution” (so named for the color of their robes). After Cyclone Nargis stuck Burma in 2008, it was the monks, not the military, that responded to the people’s needs.

They are largely beloved by the people for their humility and tranquility, witnessed each day as lines of bare-footed, bald-headed monks leave their monasteries and carry their lacquer bowls door-to-door asking for alms in the form of food.

Their religion of kindness, compassion, and pacifism creates servants out of them, enabling them to be widely accepted as masters in moral guidance, as well as keepers of the Burmese identity.

It also gives them a subtle moral authority to grant or withdraw legitimacy to a ruler.

Suu Kyi understood this, and carefully courted monks during her 1990 campaign trips. I spent a few days traveling with her, just before her arrest, and watched her contritely greet monks at each stop, her hands together in humble greeting.

For now, the monkhood represents the main channel for dissent among the people. The military may try to claim legitimacy through the coming election, but they lost whatever claim that had to authority during the 2007 uprising in which soldiers were told to kill monks.

As the main force for political change in Burma, the monks are the ones to watch in coming months. If they can launch a successful boycott of military personnel and their families in refusing the mornings alms each day, that will be a signal to the people that it’s time to no longer cooperate with this regime.

As Mahatma Gandhi said: “Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.”

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