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A Buddhist solution for Myanmar's woes?

by James Rose, South China Morning Post, October 23, 2007

Hong Kong, China -- Buddhist monks and nuns are by and large pretty special people. Perhaps they don't get enough credit for being a political force, especially in certain parts of Asia. In Myanmar, Buddhist monks and nuns have been at the forefront of what might be a significant moment in the history of their country, the region and the world.

The timing of the latest rallies for democracy was significant and seems chosen specifically. This is no robed rabble. This is smart politics. The last time there was serious pro-democracy action in Myanmar was in 1988.

Today, similar hopes are once again in the air. The Myanmese religious leaders must have based their hopes, at least in part, on successful Buddhist involvement in political affairs across the border in Thailand last year. As the followers of the Santi Asoke Buddhist sect gathered in central Bangkok, set up camp and generated nightly protest rallies last year, it was clear that the government of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in serious trouble. It was, and Thaksin remains an exile in London.

Buddhist activists have had significant political impacts in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam over the decades. Who can forget the self-immolation of the monk Thich Quang Duc, protesting against the repression of the pro-US Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963? The Dalai Lama's rise as a global spiritual leader has done no disfavours for Buddhism generally. His efforts mobilised political action in Tibet and globally.

In most cases, however, while the involvement of revolutionary Buddhist leaders may presage regime change, they generally file back to their temples in the aftermath. Buddhist involvement appears not to influence the incoming secular leadership nor society's emerging political shape.

In Thailand last year, for example, Santi Asoke sought to undermine rampant materialism, which it said was killing Thailand. This agenda has been largely ignored since Thaksin left.

As for Myanmar, if the recent protests are revived, and succeed, then what will replace the junta? Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has many credentials, but it is questionable whether Myanmar could establish a democratic system quickly. And, so, we look to the Buddhists: could they devise a system for Myanmar that would cover at least an interim stage?

As persecuted monks cross into Thailand, there is news of another, more focused, campaign to be undertaken by Myanmar's monks. In turn, there may be other outbreaks in such places as Tibet and perhaps Thailand, as Buddhist leaders there reassess their success in encouraging a more selfless political society.

What shape might a Buddhist-based regime take? Nominally Buddhist rule in Tibet for centuries remained largely feudal until Beijing imposed its own form of secular dictatorship. Few other examples are known. It remains to be seen, then, whether the rest of the world is as time-sensitive and as smart as Myanmar's Buddhists.

James Rose was an adviser to a UN special ambassador working in the area
of humanitarian relief

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