Burmese Monks Become Spiritual Warriors
"Conditions are now critical for the monks," says Ashin Asabhacara, head of the Burma-America Buddhist Association based in Maryland. "The military break into the monasteries at night, torture monks and throw them in jail. Their hunger for power is making them do terrible things and it will end very badly for them."
Unlike earlier protests in Burma in the past two decades, the Buddhist clergy are taking the lead in demanding social justice and a new political order. And as protests continue, with mounting casualties, the monasteries are the focus of brutal attacks from the heavily armed 400,000-strong military.
But the unarmed monks are retaliating with spiritual tactics that are also powerful in a country where most of the population begins the day with prayers and offerings, and the vast majority believes that good deeds are spiritual capital.
For the monks, refusing food and alms from the military is a gesture that goes to the heart of Burmese Buddhism.
It was backed by an "excommunicative boycott" declared by a group of exiled monks, cutting off religious support from the junta and its supporters.
"The monks of Burma are poor, and they are unarmed, but they exert a life-and-death power over the population," says Guy Horton, a British-based human rights consultant who has spent a decade collecting evidence of the Burmese military's atrocities.
"This goes much deeper than ideology. The government has tried to buy off the monks by building temples and other things. But by attacking the monks they are putting their afterlives in grave danger," says Horton, who is calling on Canada to join a campaign to bring the junta leaders to justice.
Monks normally begin the day by begging for food, and people who fill their bowls earn credits for the afterlife, known as karma. When monks reject food by overturning their bowls it puts the would-be donors in danger of a terrifying spiritual future.
"It's a very high-pressure tactic," explains Bruce Matthews, a Burma expert and professor emeritus of comparative religion at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. "It denies the military their credits. If they die without enough, their rebirth would be at a lower order of existence."
The junta's generals are heavily influenced by Buddhism, says Horton. "They're terrified of the monkhood. They're endlessly filming themselves going to the pagodas, and half of Burmese television is about the military bringing gifts there."
Monks play a role in all major aspects of life, attending marriages and funerals, acting as spiritual counsellors and educating the poor. They run schools, hospitals and orphanages, an alternative welfare system in a desperately poor country with out-of-control inflation.
They also have strength in numbers: about 500,000 people devote their lives to the clergy, but hundreds of thousands of others have spent time in monasteries.
In spite of their unworldly image, Burma's Buddhist clergy have been in the vanguard of political life for decades, sometimes working in partnership with the rulers.
"When you go back in history to how Burma came together, you see that there was a close alliance between monks and warrior kings," says Priscilla Clapp, former chief of mission in the U.S. embassy in Burma. "They took care of people, but they made sure they served the king."
Now, says Clapp, the two generals running the junta see themselves as "modern warrior kings" and have tried - but failed - to resurrect the old partnership. The excesses of the regime, and wretchedness of the Burmese people, have driven the monks to the streets.
"The junta is scared. It's faced with a saffron revolution," she says, referring to the golden colour of some Buddhist robes.
Rank and file soldiers, and some commanders, may be listening to their own spiritual doubts as the demonstrations continue. Unconfirmed rumours abound of two infantry divisions refusing orders to shoot the demonstrators, threatening a split in the army.
These paradoxes of power make the outcome of Burma's democracy marches hard to predict.
Some analysts take the military's hesitation to order wholesale slaughter of the demonstrators as a sign that the regime is breaking down. Others point out that an institution with an iron grip on government, media and economic life is unlikely to crack over months, let alone days, of protest.
"Burma is the most militarized country in the world," says David Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. "All power is centralized and personalized. It's difficult to see the junta compromising and some kind of civil-military partnership coming about."
Even under brutal attack, the monks could claim a moral victory, says Matthews. "Whether they will prevail against the military is difficult to see. But they have done something extraordinary. Even if they and the democratic activists fail this time, the handwriting is on the wall for the junta."
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