Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Martyring for freedom in Burma

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA—Politics and religion should not be mixed. And for good reasons, that is. For one thing, secularism prevents a nation from becoming a theocracy—the antithesis of democracy.

And in the case of radical Islamic groups, their battle for God, or jihad, is carried out as massive, deadly terrorist attacks.

But in Burma, a Buddhist-majority country, religion is now a powerful force for democracy.

It has been over a week since a few hundred Buddhist monks started a protest against the ruling junta in the former capital of Rangoon and other major cities in Burma.

Walking in the rain in Buddhist robes and with their hand clasped, the monks demand for an apology from the Burmese junta for the violent break-up of a civilian rally that was triggered by protests over price rises last month.

Civilians have joined the monks, even though they have asked not to do so for fear of provoking reprisals by the security forces.

To be sure, many activists have been jailed and some have allegedly been tortured for participating in earlier protests.

As a matter of fact, the monks’ march sends a chilled reminder of a mass protest in 1988 when the junta cracked down on activists, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of them.

In the beginning, the junta was reluctant and cautious. The main reason is that, in a country where Buddhist monks are the highest moral authority, a crackdown on them will certainly cause a massive national outcry.

But, after a week of mysterious silence, the junta broke its silence and warned the monks of military action if they did not stop protesting.

Next, military forces arrested over 100 monks and civilians for participating in the protest. But the protesters did not give up, and the military started to crack down on them with tear gas and gun-firing.

So far, three monks are dead and 20 other protestors injured during their clash with security forces. As part of the crackdown, security forces have also raided several Buddhist monasteries.

If anything, the clash shows how defiant the junta is—as always.

As he spoke before the UN general assembly in New York this week, President George W. Bush announced US sanctions against the Burmese military regime.

“Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear. The ruling junta remains unyielding, yet the people's desire for freedom is unmistakable,” he said.

The junta obviously did not care much about Mr. Bush's speech.

Lest we forget, this is the junta that has kept democracy leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest since 1990 when her National League for Democracy (NLD) won landslide elections but was never allowed to govern.

This is the same junta that has since defied pressure from the US, the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—of which Burma is a member—and the entire international community to free Aung San Suu Kyi and allow democracy to take place.

Sadly, the one country that can influence the junta’s action, China, has only urged for stability but refused to get intervene, saying that the protest is a matter of Burma’s internal affairs.

As one of its trading partners and corridor to the Indian Ocean, China does not like an unstable Burma.

But, a Beijing-backed crackdown on the monks over their protest will hurt China’s image as it is hosting the Olympics next year.

It remains to be seen how the clash between the junta and Burmese protestors will turn out in the coming days.

Meanwhile, the protest is most significant in several ways.

First, it is a protest initiated and organized by a religious force, as opposed to a civilian one. To be sure, Burmese monks were involved in the 1998 bloody protest, but only from behind the scenes.

Second, because of their position in Burmese society, the monks present the most serious challenge the junta has faced thus far in the country’s modern history.

Third, if protest results in a crackdown similar to that in 1988, it will be remembered as a most significant event that has ever happened for democracy in Burma.

Fighting for democracy is never easy. Or, as Thomas Jefferson put it: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

More monks and civilians will get hurt in this protest. More will die because of it.

But they will die martyrs, not for God, but for democracy.

The writer is an Asia-based columnist. His writing can be read at


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7:57 PM  

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