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Friday, October 05, 2007

"Seeing these monks marching made me pray for the first time for Buddhists. "

The Martyrdom of Burma's Marching Monks
by Rev. John Dear
Imagine this: thousands of priests, nuns, monks, bishops and cardinals dropping everything and taking to the streets. Around the White House they march, week after week, and then off they head to the Capitol and the Pentagon. They walk with a sharp demand. Stop the war on Iraq. End the occupation of Palestine. Abolish all electric chairs and nuclear weapons. And turn over the vast sums, earmarked for death, to the world's poor and hungry.
Alas, here such a scenario is a fantasy, but not in Burma. Since mid-August something rare has arisen — a historic and magnificent display of creative nonviolence. Buddhist monks stopping the nation's unjust business as usual, taking to the streets, and facing off with Burma's brutal dictatorship. They're in the midst of a dazzling act of resistance and hope for which many have given their lives. They've forced the world to look at their reality.
Things began when the government in August ruinously raised gas prices by 500 percent. In response there were a few small demonstrations. The dictatorship in turn cracked down — at which point the monks began to organize.
Burma is home to some 54 million, ninety percent of whom are Buddhist, and monks there command enormous respect. So much so that the dictatorship adopted a policy of trying to buy them off. Public funds have gone toward pagodas and temples during the last 17 years, while for the people tax burdens have skyrocketed and civil rights vanished.
But turns out, the monks can't be bought. They've formed a national coalition called the All Burma Monk Alliance. And from this alliance, the marches sprang. They began modestly, two-thousand monks at first, all of them with their begging bowls turned upside-down.
The overturned bowl.
Here is a symbolic gesture against the junta and soldiers the power of which eludes American minds. It is akin to a union of Catholic priests denying communion to any U.S. soldier, any federal employee, or any weapons manufacturer. It is akin to workers at Los Alamos being turned away from Catholic altars.
Exponentially the marches in Burma swelled. By late September the number of marchers had grown to hundreds of thousands — tens of thousands of monks plus ten times that many civilians. And in two major cities, Yangon and Mandalay, there gathered in the streets, according to some reports, up to a hundred thousand monks, with a fervid, silent demand for democracy and justice.
As the days unfolded, I presume, the junta decided to let the leaders emerge. They permitted some five hundred monks onto the blockaded street of political prisoner and internationally known peacemaker and hero, 61-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi — the new Mandela, one of our times' great figures of justice and peace. She stood before the monks, tears in her eyes, her first public appearance in over four years.
Then the junta cracked down. It appears that the gesture, and the light touch during the first few days, afforded them time for surveillance. Seems the junta let matters take their course in order to document the organizers and their supporters. Then once soundings had been taken, the killings began. Two hundred have died, say various Asian reports. British reports put the figure at two thousand. And they say thousands more find themselves in jail, having been dragged from their homes. Moreover, many monasteries have been raided and ransacked. And communication has been cut off, including the internet, so the repression goes on, as it were, in the cover of darkness The brutality goes on.
Similar marches erupted in 1988, which the military used as a pretext to take control. The melee caused the deaths of some three thousand and when the dust had settled the junta renamed the country Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi quickly found herself under house arrest, the threat of execution hanging over her head. So far her global fame has kept the executioner away, that and the love and reverence of the people.
They voted her head of state in a 1990 election, but the junta threw out the results and imprisoned members of her party. Then in 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This to the junta was an inconvenient turn of events, but they refused to be moved And to this day, uttering her name is risky business. (People dart their eyes and lower their voices, and speak only of "the Lady.") Riskier yet is to display her photo or own her writings or recite her words.
"Please use your liberty to promote ours," she tells the world.
One caught transgressing this ban is likely to be trundled off to a Burmese dungeon, more often than not a one-way trip.
My friend Richard Deats of the Fellowship of Reconciliation traveled to Burma in mid-September just before the drama began to unfold. Off he went to lead a series of secret trainings on nonviolence. The junta forbids gatherings of more than five, so Richard hustled from living room to out of the way restaurant. And along with seething unrest, he found broad interest in the way of nonviolence. They were especially eager to hear the story of the People Power movement in the Philippines, and how it nonviolently toppled the Marcos regime.
(On Richard's return, not coincidentally, authorities at the Newark airport singled him out for special attention. He endured a thorough search and inspection, and as he cooled his heels in a remote office, a close reading of every sentence of his notes on nonviolence.)
The monks' marching resembles epic movements of the last century. In particular, Gandhi's salt march and Dr. King's Civil Rights movement and the nonviolent campaigns in Lithuania and South Africa. And the Burmese crackdown smells of the massacre of Tiananmen Square. But in all their travail, the monks and Burmese marchers teach us a thing or two about how to resist tyranny, what the spiritual life looks like, and for Christians, how to follow the nonviolent Jesus.
Jesus himself formed a procession into Jerusalem — atop a donkey, a display of street theater that struck a public nerve and mocked imperial power. And then he gave his life nonviolently resisting the occupying empire on behalf of the poor.
The monks are doing the same. Their example calls to us. We too must take a stand, march for peace, and put our spirituality into public action. That too is risky business, but transformation is sure to follow — social, economic and political. What bears fruit in distant corners of the world will bear fruit in our own imperial regime.
And so what to do? Surely pray for the Burmese monks and civilians behind prison walls. Pray for Burma's liberation and for the return of the noble Aung San Suu Kyi. More, join the growing chorus to pressure China, host of the next Olympics. Demand that China work for an end to Burma's repression. Call for sanctions against U.S. oil companies operating in Burma, beginning with Chevron. Study the situation (see and Support solidarity groups (see and
Most of all, take to the streets. March for peace. Put your spirituality of peace on display. Emulate the marching monks and practice creative nonviolence down Main Street, America, and say, like them, No to occupation, No to injustice, No to war. And fund the peace movement, not the war machine. Then turn your begging bowl upside down.
As "the Lady" pleads, let's use our liberty to promote theirs.
John Dear is a Jesuit priest, peace activist, and the author of 25 books on peace and nonviolence, most recently, "Transfiguration." He is the subject of a new DVD, "The Narrow Path," featuring music by Joan Baez and Jackson Browne (available from He recommends the new book by Justin Wintle, Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, (Random House). He writes a weekly column for the National Catholic Reporter, at For info, see:
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  • 29 Comments so far

    1. nigelUK October 4th, 2007 12:30 pm
      Quite so, Fr. John, especially as I'm a practising Anglican. Seeing these monks marching made me pray for the first time for Buddhists. Their beliefs are different from mine, but their humanity (and the dignity that's inseperable with it) is exactly the same.
    2. Ken Hausle October 4th, 2007 2:12 pm
      This is poem entitled: "Wrath of a Displaced Monk"
      Walking for Peace. Killed by the killers………but killers don't know - so many more monks……the monkswrath is building amongst the monks……..the wrath will be like nothing ever before……..killer, the wrath is upon u:u killer will now learn or die….
      Its just a poem but it expresses my sentiment.
      Ken Hausle
    3. ezeflyer October 4th, 2007 2:34 pm
      Nothing fails like prayer. But if there was ever a country to embargo, this is it.
    4. curmudgeon99 October 4th, 2007 2:48 pm
      The populace seems to be supporting the monks by NOT running away as they did in previous hard times. It would seem the spirit of Ganhi, Badshah Khan, and Martin Luther King is not dead as the US MSM would have us believe. I mean one would think that they want us to believe the people have given up, faced wit the brutality of the regime as a waring to those of us who are ready to march in the same spirit in this country. I could be wrong.
      From The Times
      October 4, 2007
      Monks defended by power of the people
      Protesters stay put to battle junta as world waits on Burmese border
      By Peter Popham in Mae Sot, Thailand
      Published: 04 October 2007
    5. Joy Goldstein October 4th, 2007 2:52 pm
      One of the things that I find hopeful is that we seem to have major outbursts of non-violence on a fairly regular basis. Maybe we're learning? It's not just justice and freedom for Myanmar, it's the development of skills and understanding and training in non-violence. If you have a chance to take a workshop, DO. It's not true that violence is human nature; violence comes from being frightened and not knowing any other ways to respond.
    6. Ken Hausle October 4th, 2007 3:16 pm
      Common Dreams - thanks for letting me get that poem off my chest.
      What is the world coming to when monks are gunned down?
      But you know what, Joy Goldstein - i am also hopeful. The question really is how much more suffering must we witness before we get inwit.
      Ken Hausle
    7. vinlander October 4th, 2007 4:39 pm
      "Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest," Amen. Sorry, but monks live off the work of others. They are parasites. They are morally superior to the regime against which they are marching, but then, that can be said of some American corporations too.
    8. Ken Hausle October 4th, 2007 4:42 pm
      vinlander - yes indeed it can, and lets also be careful about denigrating those who have just given up thier lives…..
      Please, we must be respectful.
      Ken Hausle
    9. dreamertoo October 4th, 2007 6:17 pm
      Thank you, Father John Dear.
      Peace is not the absence of violence; peace is the absence of ignorance.
    10. whitewatersally October 4th, 2007 6:20 pm
      when america invaded viet nam..the very first thing they did was annihillate (genocide an entire village of buddists.)if you substitute the word love for the word neptunium and the word evil for plutonium,you would understand why evil seeks to meltdown neptunium in order to feed its large plutonium(habit) diet,add americum to the mix and wallah,you got absolute power….perhaps love is the thing evil fears most…love is life evil is anti-life..i feel sure (god)knows and considers the true intentions of our hearts.
    11. whitewatersally October 4th, 2007 6:22 pm
      dreamertoo..very nice
    12. rebelnow October 4th, 2007 6:38 pm
      From the article regarding the monks in Burma; "A historic and magnificent display of creative non-violence. Buddhist monks stopping the nations unjust business as usual taking to the streets and facing off with Burma's brutal dictatorship."
      I just checked the news; google news "Burma" and you will find some very depressing news. The streets are emptied, monks and civilians are fleeing to Thailand, most of the monasteries are empty, hundreds, maybe thousands are dead, with and estimated 6000 imprisoned. And this may just be the start. So much for stopping business as usual.
      As noble an idea as non-violence is and as much as I admire Gandhi, I wonder sometimes as to it's effectiveness.
      Yogananda's teacher once remarked in reference to Ahimsa (non-violence). "It has it's place at times but at other times you may be practicing non-violence inside the belly of a tiger."
    13. Ken Hausle October 4th, 2007 6:51 pm
      rebelnow - agreed. Buts lets also agree that we are not going to be rid of domination of others unless we agree to stop even trying to dominate each other.
      This is not a riddle, it is just basic, simple respect and reverence for life.
      Ken Hausle
    14. Truthseeker58 October 4th, 2007 7:26 pm
      Boycott Chevron. They have been a big part in supporting the militia.
      Well-said about domination, Ken Hausle.
    15. rebelnow October 4th, 2007 8:15 pm
      Ken, I agree with you about domination of others, we must agree to stop it. The problem is, what if, as is the case with the Burmese military, others don't agree to stop?
      My dad taught me to box when I was very young. He had been a boxer in the Navy and said that "it may come in handy one day if you have to deal with a bully". And he was right. I had to use it twice in high school and it worked very effectively. The key was, and he taught this very clearly, was that it was "the last resort" in resolving a conflict.
      Years later I studied aikido. The primary teaching being to neutralize an attacker and/or divert their aggression back on themselves.
      Would it have been better for me to have allowed the shit to be kicked out of me in high school? Not according to me. My defensive counterattacks gave me confidence, and the so called bullies left me alone. Now had I then in turn become a bully because I saw the power in my abilities I would have lost ultimately. So it's a question of balance and as far as the Burmese go, I have no answers but I feel so very sad about their plight, as well as the plight of the Iraqi's and the Sudanese and….it's all so tragic.
      Truthseeker58, I will boycott Chevron. Is there any oil company NOT tainted with the blood of suppressed and exploited people?
    16. millercopter October 4th, 2007 8:21 pm
      Kill me once shame on you.
      Kill me twice shame on me.
    17. tenzing October 4th, 2007 8:42 pm
      Vinlander writes, above: "Sorry, but monks live off the work of others. They are parasites."
      Though I'm a Buddhist monk myself, I don't entirely disagree with Vinlander's sentiment if I understand him correctly.
      In my opinion, monastics who receive alms and other aid from lay people, and give in exchange prayers only, are in danger of engaging in an unequal exchange and living too much from the labor of others. To me that's not "Right Livelihood."
      This can be especially problematic in a theocratic state, such as precommunist Tibet (not that things are better nowadays!), when 1/6th and more of the society was monastic.
      However, monks and nuns are often not only good for reciting prayers, but perform many other useful functions–as educators, medical caretakers, and counselors, for example.
      Today, in Myanmar/Burma, we see also that monks and nuns perform another vital service, defending human rights–and being beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and killed on their behalf.
      These are not the behaviors of "parasites."
      Om Benzra Sato Hung
    18. BugsBBunny III October 4th, 2007 9:38 pm
      It has begun. Like in Chile or Argentina or South Africa, the people have seen that they and the generals are not the same. A separation has occured and will not be mended. By hundreds of thousands, the people of Burma have seen themselves through different eyes than 'permitted' by their military rulers. It will not be undone by repression though it may take time, neverteless, the people see that there is something else besides the way their rulers would have it.
      The darkness fell and left 100,000 overturned bowls littering the streets. Silent streets, grim, fearful and bloody but the people saw there is more than the emptiness of blind - powerless obedience. They saw themselves with courage and true hearts and it will remain in their hearts no matter what the military does. They saw what the military feared most. That the people chose.
      Such courage, remains in the mind. Such hope remains in fearful spirits. It wasn't only dreams this time. They saw themselves and regained their identity as a country without the military's permission. It has happened and will not be undone.
      So do pray for a shortening of the time between these now 'darkened' streets covered by empty bowls. They are the hearts of Burma's people. Give alms to them by refusing to leave that dark pall to maintain the silence like before. The monks ask for us to see them. The world must remind the rulers what we too have seen and that it DOES matter.
      But take heart as history shows, the people took a great step through the courage of the monks. It broke the silence. The world must continue to hear their call through that dark which now silences the streets again. But we all saw didn't we? It will not be undone…unless we let them down. Then it will just take a little longer.
      The military can put back the silence for awhile perhaps but not erase the memory from the people's minds that they were one and the military was 'outside' them. Someday like Chile… change has begun. One cannot easily undo such courage. The lamp has been lit. It is only dark for awhile yet but the light has been seen and will not be undone.
    19. whitewatersally October 4th, 2007 9:51 pm
      the monks are my new heroes…just when i was beginning to believe,there that are no more heroes….the monks..sweet angels…
    20. gyptian October 4th, 2007 11:06 pm
      "but their humanity (and the dignity that's inseperable with it) is exactly the same"
      If it was exactly the same all our cardinals and bishops and nuns would be out on the street dont you think !!
    21. Umlaut October 5th, 2007 4:37 am
      The Myanmar officials must not read American news.
      If they did they wouldn't bother so much with the protesters and just continue with their M.O., as we have learned here, despite massive protests the government can continue with behavior the populace rails against with no consequence.
      As I've said before my utmost respect for those monks.
      I don't agree with the serf monastic system that the Maoists fought against however.
      Not sure if this is the goal of modern Buddhists, just in the near past they don't have much to brag about as far as human rights go.
      But I do wish there were more people of this stature in western society. They are a true model of what is missing in western political societies in this certain situation.
    22. Mr. Duncan October 5th, 2007 7:45 am
      Concerning Chevron: of course not. All mineral resources seem to require an input of blood to extract.
      Concerning nonviolence: I just don't think that the question of violent rebellion as opposed to nonviolent resistance can be reduced to schoolyard ethics. For one thing, the Military is more like the administration, not like the bully.
      When someone attacks the government with force, their repression is easy to justify. Nonviolence removes this culpability from the equation and forces the government to become monstrous if they want to repress you.
    23. Ken Hausle October 5th, 2007 10:42 am
      rebelnow - it is very funny in an odd sort of way. Months ago, on another Common Dreams thread I "tongue-in-cheek" challenged the VP to a boxing match (i haven't heard anything back yet so i'm not sure the challenge got through - plus it probably wouldn't have been a fair fight given how young i am compared to him).
      Neverthess, since around that time even though i've never had formal training in boxing, i'm really trying to sharpen my skills. My wife might even suggest that "i'm itching for a fight", but that is not true. I'm a defender not an offender. Always have been (although i'll admit sometimes it might not seem this way…).
      Regardless, per my sensibilities having to be part of a world where somehow government and corporations think they have the GD-RIGHT to kill innocence, well i can't deny it puts me on the defensive.
      Ken Hausle
    24. JohnR October 5th, 2007 11:09 am
      As an American Buddhist, my view is that we as individuals keep training towards wisdom and enlightenment through multitudinous incarnations. We may not win over the course of a small temporal framework. Indeed, it seems as if the military juntas will. But each time we are courageous enough to expand enlightenment to others by opposing injustice we change the karma in the universe for the better as the bodhisattvas of the past did. Whatever human rights we presently enjoy anywhere in the world we owe to them. We may yet win in the long run.
    25. machi October 5th, 2007 11:44 am
      Fellow commondreamers, Burma's tragedy brings to light the myth about peaceful opposition to tyranny. It would be nice if peaceful protest would be the best and ultimate tool to depose a opresive regime, but history shows it's not enough.
      Gandhi could have fasted to infinity if Nehru and Congress' Party had not being present too; later in Vietnam, budhist monks even burned themselves in Saigon's streets, in protest against US backed goverment, but it was the National Liberation Front who made the situation untenable to invaders; here in Chile, the Concertacion Democratica (coalition presently on goverment) would be still begging to the bishops to stage some talks with Pinochet without the pressure put by Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front and other fighting forces.
      It should be nice to gain freedom without suffering, but it's just not so, it goes through bitter and bloody fight, it's a process where we see our best friends die; we had to work very hard and to shed a lot of tears.
      Burmese people cannot expect that foreign pressure or a miracle conjured just by righteous motivations and bare hands could bring them freedom.
      It may sound too hard for some people, but history shows that we have to get our hands dirty with blood and powder for conquering liberty.
      From the green shores of springtime
    26. dreamertoo October 5th, 2007 12:26 pm
      It's amusing to see the actions of these wise monks interpreted as naïve, ignorant, and stupid.
    27. Paul Bramscher October 5th, 2007 12:50 pm
      By being pacifist, these monks did not contribute to violence. You can't fault them for that conviction. But arguably, the main thrust of Buddhism is how one particular being (yourself) achieves enlightenment. It cannot offer much advice about how to save others. Other than by teaching, and encouraging them to likewise practice. Medidate all you want, overcome suffering, etc. and it will help you. But it won't help your neighbor.
      Perhaps this problem is better explained in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita.
    28. termite October 5th, 2007 12:59 pm
      In the early days of Christianity, it was said that "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." I understand this to mean that one of the most powerful actions one can take to oppose persecution and the powerful is to demonstrate that you are unafraid, unafraid even of death. I hope this power is unleashed among our brothers and sisters in Burma.
    29. BugsBBunny III October 5th, 2007 1:03 pm
      Right now the generals have shut down the internet to stifle communication and video of what is going on there. But they cannot keep it shut forever because modern commerce is dependent on the net. They can isolate their country like No.Korea but then they lose economically.
      Machi says armed resistance is necessary. So divestment didn't help, world opinion and a drop in tourism didn't help, businesses which avoided doing business with pariah countries didn't help etc.?
      The armed fronts didn't end it in Chile. Yes they put pressure on but actually it was the world's responses which made repressive measures counterproductive which told in the end.
      Now however we have the net and once people can 'normalize' communications, it will put the pressure on the generals and their economy. The world doesn't like repression …or to put it another way… tourists don't take vacations in places they are afraid of.
      The monks were very wise as well as brave. They called out to us in the outside world and asked us to NOTICE the Burmese people and their predictament. Which we most certainly have.
      To help the Burmese …the world must keep on noticing what happens there. Repression is bad business and bad for future business. The generals hope to restore the silence. That will no longer be possible unless we allow it.
      Is non-violence effective? Non-violence may not have stopped the bombs falling from a B-52 in Nam but non-violence stopped the B-52's from being sent. Did divestment not get the bankers and business interests in Chile to begin pressuring for change?
      The heavy hand of repression keeps the cash registers empty and the tourists away. If you don't think the non-violence of the monks was effective… just ask your neighbors if they have heard of Burma (forget asking if they had heard of Myanmar) and lo and behold they have. The monks and people of Burma don't need the guns of a national front to keep the pressure on the generals… they need us to. They need us not guns. The generals have the guns but the Burmese people have the opinion of the world.

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