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When Buddhist Monks Act

The Christian Science Monitor <br>
May 25, 2000, Thursday <br>
<b>When Buddhist Monks Act <br>
Burma's clergy, like others in Asia, may be liberating<br>
This Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of the day democracy was
snatched from the people of<br>
Burma. A military junta denied the results of an election that was
decisively won by the pro-democracy<br>
leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
Ever since then, her political party has been suppressed while Burma
(renamed Myanmar) has<br>
languished as a Southeast Asian backwater. A decade of international
ostracism has done little to put<br>
Burma right. Hundreds of political dissidents remain jailed, including 13
journalists - the highest in any<br>
nation. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
Is there any hope that this poor pariah state might soon become the
latest Asian democracy? <br>
&nbsp; <br>
The answer may not lie in more economic sanctions, stiff-arm diplomacy,
or Nobel Peace Prizes (Suu<br>
Kyi won it in 1991). <br>
&nbsp; <br>
Rather, it may lie with monks. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
Like other Asian nations with large numbers of Buddhists, Burma's robed
clergy can play a powerful<br>
role behind the scenes. They are stewards of not only a common faith but
the nation's identity. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
That's why the junta, oddly named the State Peace and Development
Council, has tried hard to co-opt<br>
or control the monkhood. Its donations to temples are recounted almost
daily in the state-controlled<br>
press as displays of official piety. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
In ancient days, Burma's top monks could topple kings just by withdrawing
their approval. A king's<br>
power rested on his legitimacy among Buddhist believers, but their
reverence went to monks for their<br>
devotion to compassion and pacifism. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
That reverence is revived daily during the monks' daily walks among the
people - barefooted with<br>
shaved heads, wearing saffron-colored robes - as they carry empty bowls
seeking alms, such as food.<br>
They are moral leaders at the rice-roots level. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
Monks rely on the people's generosity to survive. As the Burmese suffer
more shortages in their nation's<br>
isolation, that has compelled the monks to act. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
In February, a leading monk asked the junta for an end to the political
stalemate. The Monks Union,<br>
representing 300,000 clergy, threatens a protest at temples in coming
days, pegged to the anniversary, if<br>
that demand is not met. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
Can the monks spark a revolt now? Unlikely. They have been infiltrated by
agents. But their movement<br>
is the only positive dynamic in what otherwise appears to be a hopeless
situation. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
Burma, of course, is not the only Asian nation where Buddhist monks often
serve as political activists. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled god-king, has waged a global campaign
during his 41 years of exile to<br>
undo Chinese control of Tibetan Buddhists. He and Beijing have struggled
over which young Buddhist<br>
leaders will lead the Tibetan faithful. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
And China's Communist leaders were recently shocked by the sudden rise in
popularity of the<br>
Buddhist-oriented Falun Gong among Han Chinese. The movement has
attracted millions of followers<br>
and has peacefully protested a government crackdown on the group. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
In Communist-led Vietnam, Buddhist monks remain under tight watch, many
of them having been<br>
arrested, for fear they could become a rival center of power and someday
lead a revolt against the<br>
country's sole political party. The state &quot;sponsors&quot; the
Buddhist clergy in each temple. (The<br>
self-immolation of a Buddhist monk during the Vietnam War shows just how
activist monks there can<br>
be.) <br>
&nbsp; <br>
In Sri Lanka, a long, brutal civil war recently compelled many Buddhist
clergy to shed a pacifist stance<br>
in support of a government war against guerrilla fighters seeking a
homeland for the minority Hindu<br>
Tamils. The monks' cause is tied up with the nationalism of the island's
majority Sinhalese, who are<br>
taught that Sri Lanka plays a special role in the Buddhist faith. Other,
apolitical monks stick to a pacifist<br>
role that is more like the teachings of Buddha, who lived in the 6th
century BC. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
(And in case anyone thinks monk activism is strictly in Asia, it's worth
recalling that Vice President Al<br>
Gore attended a 1996 fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles
where $ 55,000 in illegal<br>
contributions was collected for Democrats.) <br>
&nbsp; <br>
Buddhism's appeal for many comes from the tranquility it brings, based on
Buddha's teaching that human<br>
suffering can be lessened by reducing human desires. But many of its
adherents live in troubled lands. As<br>
spiritual seekers, they can empower monks to act on their behalf. <br>
&nbsp; <br>
Over Asia's long history, monks have often proved critical in bringing
about political change. In<br>
Burma's case, that may prove true again. <br>