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Up in Alms: Dictators Exploit Buddhism and the Monks Fight Back

By PHILIP DELVES BROUGHTON, Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2007

Rangoon, Burma -- Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, described the lessons she had learned from her country's Hsayadaws, its Buddhist holy teachers, in an article for a Japanese newspaper in 1996. One of them told her what it would be like to fight for democracy in Burma: "You will be attacked and reviled for engaging in honest politics, but you must persevere. Lay down an investment in dukkha [suffering] and you will gain sukha [bliss]."

Last week saw hundreds of Burma's monks investing in dukkha as they confronted the nation's military regime. At one point, a large crowd of them gathered outside Aung San Suu Kyi's house in Yangon, where she has spent 12 of the past 18 years under house arrest. She came to the gate in the pouring rain and was allowed to greet them. This single, poignant moment summed up all that was most extraordinary about the demonstrations, as well as what was most frightening to Burma's military junta.

Within a few days, scores of monks were in jail, many had been beaten, and the trickle of reports emanating from the country indicated that monasteries had been ransacked as the military hunted down the last rebellious elements.

Reports in the New Light of Myanmar, the official newspaper, blamed a few bad seeds who had infiltrated the monastic orders for inciting the protests.

Pro-democracy activists have admitted to taking cover in the monasteries to avoid being jailed. But these are footnotes in a much larger tussle in Burma over the use and practice of Buddhism, which became visible to the world during the past week.

This boils down to the issue of which political ideology is a more fitting reflection of Burma's Theravada Buddhism, military dictatorship or democracy. While the answer should be obvious, the military has done all it can to tilt the balance its way.

Burma is a patchwork of ethnicities, languages and religious practices. The struggle to keep it together has been the key narrative for the successive military governments, dominated by majority ethnic Burmans, that have run the country since 1962. The military has used this struggle to justify economic and democratic deprivation. Furthermore, despite the junta's flagrant disregard for the five principles of Buddhism -- abstention from killing, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, lying and using intoxicants -- its members seize every chance to depict themselves as Buddhism's true guardians.

Not a week goes by without the state media reporting a general's contribution or visit to a temple. Even as Burma has slid into poverty, the government has funded lavish new temples and the regilding of the famous golden pagodas. The military has also built pagodas as a means of asserting ethnic Burman sovereignty in areas where other groups live and Islam or Christianity is the prevailing religion.

This practice dates back to the Burmese kings who built pagodas in neighboring kingdoms as a way of establishing a lasting claim to rule.

For most of the past century, there have always been a few politically active monks. Under British rule, monks were jailed for urging the Burmese not to adopt British forms of dress and religious practice. Under military rule, monks have been at the forefront of the opposition.

The extent of the monks' role as the national conscience can be seen in the measures taken by the military to organize and co-opt the monastic orders.

During the democracy protests of 1988, 600 monks were among the 10,000 people killed. In 1990, on the second anniversary of those killings, more than 7,000 monks and novices walked through Mandalay. Soldiers confronted them and opened fire, killing two. Across the country, monks responded by refusing to accept alms from members of the military or their families. By denying the military the ability to give alms, the monks were denying them the opportunity to make "merit" for their present and future lives. Monasteries were raided, hundreds of monks were arrested, and a new law was introduced placing the "sangha" -- the monastic orders -- under government regulation. Anyone setting up new orders or protesting or agitating within this new sangha framework could now be jailed for up to three years.

The military could have risked closing down the monasteries altogether, but not only are the generals frightened and superstitious, but they also use certain elements of Buddhist philosophy to justify and strengthen their position. One is "samsara," a complex idea involving the interplay of the mind and physical matter and the cycles of existence; it has come to mean a view of life as fleeting and thus not worth complaining about. Everything is impermanent and life is hard, so feeling powerless is not a consequence of a political situation, which can be changed, but an existential fact.

Another element abused by the military is "dana," the act of giving without expecting a reward. When accused of using forced labor to build infrastructure and pagodas, the generals have said the unpaid workers are simply practicing dana.

Since she returned to Burma in 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi has become a far more devout Buddhist than she was before. Many of her imprisoned supporters practice Buddhist meditation as a means of surviving Burma's jails. The monks, of course, know this just as well as they know the true natures of the generals who offer them tributes. Choosing between the two has put them in the center of the fight for Burma's future.

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