Thursday, October 04, 2007

Buddhist Ethics: Burma

Free Burma!

A couple weeks back my (lovely and brilliant) fiancée, Kelly, asked me what I thought of the then recent demonstrations in Burma that were broken up by security forces (Sept. 5, demonstration in Pakokku). I sighed, thinking of the long, unjust, and widely ignored house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma is a nation ruled by its military essentially since its inception just after WWII. What power do a few, or even a great many, monks have there?

My response was that it would probably pass. The government would give some grounds on the monks demands, or it would escalate to a point of violence and then the monks would back down. It seems now that my prediction then, the latter one unfortunately, has come to pass. The escalation culminated in massive protests including tens of thousands of monks and perhaps 100,000 lay supporters being met with automatic gun fire and tear gas. The result, according to the French news agency AFP, quoting Shari Villarosa, is that "a semblance of normalcy has returned, but those of us who live here see the mood has changed..."

However it is unclear what will happen next. What is the proper Buddhist response?

I asked my advisor, Damien Keown, about it in passing and he too sighed. This was just after we had discussed the lacuna that exists in Buddhist politics and ethics in general, not to mention for specific situations such as this. Buddhism has generally been a religion that stays out of politics. That's not to say that Buddhists always stay out of politics, only that in terms of the body of Buddhist thought, little exists that deals with politics. Think of Tibet: even there the Dalai Lamas (and earlier Buddhist rulers) controlled their nation more with traditional Tibetan methods than with any enlightened and expounded Buddhist political philosophy.

Ashoka was perhaps the Buddhist King par excellence, but no treatise on his methodology was ever written, no rigorous handbook on the principles of proper rule ever composed. Only perhaps in the last thirty years, most notably with Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh, has Buddhism found a voice for political action. Perhaps contrary to professor Keown's and my pessimism is Hannah Beech's comment that, "After all, it was Burma's monks who spearheaded acts of civil disobedience against British colonialists. Time (9/17). Yet the article immediately follows with, "Buddhist clergy were also at the forefront of mass protests in 1988, which ended when the army gunned down hundreds of peaceful protestors and declared martial law."

From a practical standpoint there are many questions: how strong is the military junta today? How unified are the Buddhist monks? How devout/willing to follow are the citizens? The same goes for the soldiers - will they attack monks? What is to make us think that now, after nearly two decades of military rule, something will change?

From a more theoretical standpoint I also wonder: does Buddhism demand social justice, or simply seek it? Can Buddhists in Burma rise up like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers and demand justice? Does Burma as a nation have a strong enough history of social justice (as the US did in the 1960s) for such a movement to succeed?

In closing, I also am a member of the Progressive Buddhism blog and will post this over there as well, slightly modified.


Jennifer said...

Hi Justin,
I have been giving the situation in Burma a lot of thought, but it is going in a different direction focusing more on what can we/I do. It is hard to punish a government with sanctions, which often times just punishes the innocent citizenry. How do we stop the killing and imprisoning of social activist? In what way can I make the world a safer better place. These are global questions, but do we need to look at them on the individual level to be able to solve them? Do we make the world a better place in small steps or in giant leaps? I don't know the answer to this, but I don know we shouldn't give up.

Tom said...

Unlike MLK and Gandhi, the Burmese monks or citizenry have no one who can help them whom they can arouse sympathy from. The monks' situation was like the students in Tienanmen Square: The government ask autrociously, but there is no one to stop them; no effort is aroused to hold the killing regime to account for their acts.

We can speak grandly, eloquently about the suffering of the Burmese people, but, seriously, is anything going to get done?

How effective have we been at freeing Tibet?

This is a rather sick joke, I suppose, but Isn't it a shame that Bush doesn't think that there are WMDs in Burma such that there's be a march into Rangoon?

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hi Jen - I agree, we shouldn't give up.

And Tom - I think you're right, unfortunately. I think the analogies between Burma and Tibet/Tiananmen are far stronger than those between Burma and, say, US Civil Rights leaders or the African National Congress. We'll see though. A few bloodied monks will not rouse us the way Rosa Parks did, but at some point the world must listen. My uncertainty is: will the Buddhist monks push it to that point? Will they demand democracy? Or will they fall back to their monasteries and silence?