Everyone reading this is probably aware of the events in Burma. There is a massive uprising against the military junta. The sangha is playing a prominent, and even a leading role, in the massive, mostly peaceful protests.
Some of you may wonder how proper it is for bhikkhus to be engaged in political actions of this kind. When making your judgment, here are some things to bear in mind;
- The bhikkhus in Theravada countries are not isolated hermits but integral members of the society. They are the sons and brothers of the common people who are suffering under this horrid regime.
- The bhikkhus also have a natural leadership role, and are expected by the laity to give them guidance and moral support.
- There is a scriptural precedent, if not for political marches, at least for the monks to express strong disapproval of immoral laity. This is the Patam Nikkujana Kamma, the over-turned almsbowl. Sometimes called "buddhist excommunication" it is the symbolical cutting of a lay person by refusing to accept alms from him, physically manifested by turning the bowl upside-down. This has been done by the monks in Burma against the military rulers.
- The regime in Burma is one of the worst, if not the worst, in the world. Besides having all the marks of nasty regimes everywhere, brutal, corrupt, venal, oppressive it is also strikingly incompetent. Besides having abundant natural resources and a literate population, Burma languishes in poverty, near the bottom of the UN rankings.
- If all that wasn't enough, the leaders are quite mad, and have been for a long while. As far back as 1970, the then dictator Ne Win ordered the country to switch to driving on the right-hand side because of a dream he had. More recently, the capital was moved from Yangoon to a remote town in the jungle on the advice of an astrologer.
- Any reports in the media of bhikkhus being involved in violence should be taken with a grain of salt. It is not impossible that some monks may act improperly, of course, but it is much more likely that these incidents are perpetrated by government agents disguised as monks. (If even the Canadian police resort to these kind of tactics, why not the Burmese junta?)
The situation has the potential of turning very ugly. The long-suffering Burmese people have nothing left to lose, and the junta is not likely to show restraint. International pressure can do little, the regime is already very isolated and doesn't really care what outsiders say. Let us all hope this beautiful country, an important focus of the Dhamma, is able to come through the fire to peace, prosperity and freedom.
Some links -
Buddhist Channel - a source for Buddhist related news has very good ongoing coverage of the crisis.
Rule of Lords - an excellent blog of Burmese and Thai politics.
Info Please - their page with background on modern Burmese history.
Human Development Statistics - for Burma, if you like your data raw.