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Burma's Revolt of The Spirit

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By Michael Gerson
Friday, September 28, 2007

The great virtue of Buddhism is serene courage in the face of inevitable affliction. That courage is on display now in Burma -- a nation caught upon the wheel of suffering.

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The sight of young, barefoot monks in cinnamon robes quietly marching for democracy, amid crowds carrying banners reading "love and kindness," is already a symbol of conscience for a young century. On closer examination, these protests have also shown that nonviolence need not be tame or toothless. The upside-down bowls carried by some of the monks signal that they will not accept alms from the leaders of the regime, denying them the ability to atone for bad deeds or to honor their ancestors. These chanting monks are playing spiritual hardball.

Once again -- as in the American civil rights struggle and the end of communism in Eastern Europe -- religion is proving to be an uncontrollable force in an oppressive society. Religious dissidents have the ability not only to organize opposition to tyrants but also to shame them. Political revolutions often begin as revolutions of the spirit.

But the spirit, at least for the moment, is fastened to the body, which is subject to truncheons, tear gas and imprisonment. The junta in control of Burma, as we are seeing, is capable of extraordinary brutality. A regime that employs forced labor, conducts war on ethnic minorities and engages in systematic rape will hardly balk at the murder of monks and other protesters -- something it has done before by the thousands.

Fortunately, however, the regime's aging, increasingly feeble leadership is also capable of extraordinary stupidity. After the pointless construction of a new capital in a remote part of the country and the building of luxury housing for the military elite, Burma's government is cash-strapped. So it increased fuel prices by up to 500 percent, causing bus fares and the cost of basic commodities such as rice to spike. All through the summer, the democratic opposition has wisely focused its critique of the junta on the collapsing economy -- a collapse the regime is doing its best to hasten. After 40 years of military rule, Burma's per capita income is about one-fifth that of its neighbor Thailand, and child malnutrition is widespread.

The Bush administration hopes this economic discontent injects an element of instability into the regime itself. While the upper ranks of the Burmese military are well taken care of, the lower ranks often scramble for basic necessities. The Burmese guards outside the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, according to one U.S. official, are currently getting by on a single meal a day.

The sanctions President Bush announced at the United Nations this week are designed to exploit these tensions. The new measures focus on the main five or 10 leaders of the junta and their families, along with key Burmese businessmen who broker foreign deals for the regime. With greater pressure at the top, perhaps a second tier of military leaders will be tempted to overthrow their well-fed superiors. "There is kindling here for change," says one senior Bush official.

This strategy would have a much greater chance of success with the support of nations in the region. When the strongest outside pressure comes from the United States, France and Britain, it is easier for the regime to rally opposition against the "colonial powers." But the response of most Asian nations has run from anemic to shameful. India has traditionally been content to deal with the regime instead of confronting it because it covets Burma's natural gas. And China remains the primary economic prop for the junta.

While Iran is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorists, China has become the leading state sponsor of common thugs, from Burma to Sudan to Zimbabwe. It has positioned itself as a great power without the pesky complication of conscience, willing to court and support any dictator who supplies a tribute of natural resources. At the same time, it has invited moral scrutiny by hosting the 2008 Olympics. China will either begin acting more responsibly in Burma and elsewhere -- abandoning its stated policy of "noninterference" -- or the Summer Games will become the focus of human rights complaints about every one of its brutal clients in the world.

It has become common in recent years to mock the "democracy agenda" as dreamy and unrealistic. That becomes harder as history focuses our choices -- in this case, the choice between the junta and the monks, which is really no choice at all. Burma's revolution of the spirit must succeed.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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