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CPT – Burma Reflection

CPTnet – 28 September 2007
BURMA REFLECTION: Monks, soldiers, and civilians on the march
by Gene Stoltzfus

[Note: CPT Director Emeritus Gene Stoltzfus worked in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s. The reflection below is adapted from a longer piece available at]

Burma marches on to the world stage every other decade. Two groups with countrywide power and influence in modern Burma are now facing each other across potholes in the streets. The military with Chinese-supplied weapons,
is determined to retain the grip it has had on the nation since 1962. The Buddhist movement, with an institutional life going back more than 1000 years, is led by monks armed with spiritual disciplines and a commitment to an ethical system that combines practical living with a deep sensitivity to all of creation. The Buddhist way is nonviolence empowered by love, honed by teaching and meditation. However, this does not mean that monks are not tough, persistent, and even militant. In response to military actions on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2007, Buddhist monks withdrew spiritual services for all military personnel in Burma.

Buddhist teachings and values are ingrained in Burmese society. In the practice of Burmese Buddhism, people frequently leave the routine of their lives for a few weeks to become monks. With shaved heads and begging bowls, they examine their lives, perhaps in the hope of more spiritually centered living, or to move along in their personal cycle of karma. Some of the monks walking in the demonstrations now are almost certainly people who have recently joined the monastery for a brief break, but the arrest of monks still creates a shocking dissonance in the minds of the Buddhist population.

Of the fifty-five million Burmese people, about one person in a hundred is in the military and its security apparatus. The Burmese military has a long history of violently dispersing protesters. On the surface, the military seems unified and has given little indication of a willingness to create an opening for democratic rule. However, the present military leaders of Burma were low and mid-level officers in 1988 when their commanding officers told them to kill thousands of nonviolent marchers. They know that their regime will pay a heavy price in even deeper discontent at home and greater
isolation abroad for a repeat performance.

The road ahead is not pleasant. When change comes, those who replace the military will have to deal with a privileged, often corrupt, military institution that has dictated policy in all areas of society. New habits will take years to put into place. Long suspended ethnic conflicts will find ways to resume patterns of violent and nonviolent engagement, but at
the same time, people may gain the space to rediscover traditional forms of conflict resolution.

What we witness in Burma today is one step in a longer process. While it might lead to immediate change, that is not likely. The marches, the risk taking, the international support, are building. It may be weeks or years before change occurs. But the days of soldiers with crisp, medaled uniforms ruling the country are numbered. Perhaps the final push will come from the monks, or the wider population–or their children. When it does come, then the real work will begin.

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