The mass protests in Burma, supported and led by the sangha, failed to topple the military regime. But for a brief moment they turned the attention of the world to the plight of that unhappy country. Given it's abundance of natural resources, Burma should be another Asian tiger, instead of an economic basket-case, near the bottom of all the UN rankings.
Burma is a beautiful country, and it has a rich tradition of Dhamma. Burmese bhikkhus have specialized in the two complementary fields of abhidhamma and vipassana. Some of the many insight meditation techniques developed in Burma are now practiced around the world. The modern western Buddhist tradition has strong roots there, particularly in the lineage of Mahasi Sayadaw.
Many western Buddhists have been to Burma to meditate in the large practice monasteries. This in itself requires an ethical decision that I know many Dhamma travellers have agonized over. Does traveling there on a meditation visa (yes, they have such a thing) constitute support of the regime? Certainly the traveler has to pay visa fees and so forth which gives the government much needed hard currency. But spending money inside the country also helps the people, who are very hard done by.
World opinion has been appalled at the sight of repression of peaceful protestors, especially the monks. There is an understandable urge to do something to help. But what can the outside world do?
The obvious answer is sanctions. We need to think carefully, however, about measures that could impose even more hardship on the Burmese. Sanctions as an international measure have a very spotty history. Certainly they helped a lot to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa, but on the other hand we should recall the ugly story of the starvation sanctions imposed on Iraq which took hundreds of thousands of innocent lives through lack of medicine, hygiene and food. We would not want to do that to Burma.
Nor is the international system governed by humanitarian principles. Statesmen in America and Europe may make noises about sanctions, but what they come up with will most likely be cosmetic. They will not want to touch the quite significant corporate interests which are profiting from resource extraction in Burma. Nor will China, India or Thailand agree to any real measures.
Furthermore, petitions and appeals from the UN, protests outside Burmese embassies and speeches by European leaders are all certain to fall on deaf ears. The generals just don't give a tinker's damn about any of that.
The fact is that the salvation of Burma must come from inside Burma. It is difficult to see how this can happen when the junta has such an overwhelming monopoly of force and no scruples against using it.
It seems to me that the one factor which may tip the scale in the peoples favour is a revolt in the lower ranks of the army. There were a few indications of this starting to happen back at the end of September. It appears that the regime managed to put a lid on it, but with the press blacked out, we don't really know how widespread it was.
The common soldiers come from the common people. They must have brothers and cousins in the democracy movement, and in the sangha. Political conditioning of the ranks only goes so deep. And the regime has destroyed the basis of it's own legitimacy. By cracking down on the monks, it can no longer use Buddhist themes in its propaganda with even minimal credibility. The Burmese people, and that includes the common soldiers, are devout.
Maybe next time....
Here are two articles to read, pro and con.