The Beggars’ Revolution

When the military junta of Burma used violence last week to put down students and monks protesting against rising fuel prices, they broke a spiritual bond as well as a political one. That act, people of all faiths will agree, is deserving of some very bad karma. It also deserves a response from the world community. Karma alone cannot right the situation. The repressive military junta that controls Burma took power 19 years ago, and these protests have been the largest to date. The junta must answer to both the public and the country’s approximately 400,000 monks, with a combination of both rightful governing and spiritual correctness. In 1988, during the last pro-democratic protests, the regime responded with brutality, quelled the uprising and maintained its hold on power. That must not be the outcome of the current conflict. On August 19, the first protests began quietly, when a drastic increase in the price of fuel threatened to raise the cost of transportation and necessary goods. The government arrested the leaders of these small protests, and others went into hiding. The unrest seemed to be contained until Sept. 5, when soldiers fired over the heads of monks in the city of Pakokku. This act inspired an outcry from the devout population of Burma. There, monks have the power to declare what is moral and what is profane, a power that is certainly greater than that bestowed on a soldier by a gun and some bullets. The clergy demanded an apology, and lines of monks in saffron robes began to walk through the streets of Yangon, chanting prayers and sometimes linking hands with the ordinary Burmese. The protests escalated last week, with troops raiding monasteries and beating and arresting monks. The first deaths were reported as the soldiers continued to use tear gas and guns on the demonstrators. The New York Times stated that “human rights groups and diplomats agree that the number of dead is far higher than the 10 acknowledged by the junta.” On Tuesday, October 2, a U.N. envoy met with the country’s military leader, Senior General Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi. the leader of the opposition. The talks were a necessary step but seemingly unproductive. In a New York Times article entitled “What Makes a Monk Mad,” Seth Mydans wrote, “The military [in Burma] rules by force, but the monks retain ultimate moral authority. The lowliest soldier depends on them for spiritual approval, and even the highest generals have felt a need to honor the clerical establishment. They claim to rule in its name.” When the monks refused to accept alms from the military and the country’s rulers, they effectively excommunicated the junta. Begging, a relationship in which a Buddhist helps a monk survive, and, in return, the monk bestows good karma, is at the core of Burma’s religion. The religion, in turn, is at the core of a stable political situation. The Economist blames fear of the monks’ collective inaction until this point. That may be so, under such a terrifying and violent regime. Yet the power of karma in Burma’s society is not to be understated. By exercising their moral authority and rallying the support of the people, the Burmese monks have taken a step with much more weight than the mired talks of politicians or the tears of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, who made an appearance for the first time in four years. The U.N. and Western leaders must now stop merely expressing support and start taking action to prevent a repeat of the year 1988. They should do this not out of fear for looking immoral, not in the hopes of receiving good karma, but because the support of democratic societies is simply the right thing to do.