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Dateline Burma: Monks, Not Bombs, a Revolution Make

Is an inverted tin cup a more potent trigger for democracy than any airforce?

October 4, 2007

Is an inverted tin cup a more potent trigger for democracy than any airforce?

True enough, President Bush spoke emphatically about the need to bring democracy to Burma in his September 25, 2007 speech before the United Nations.

And if, as one would hope, the Burmese people do indeed succeed in their heroic struggle for democratic rights, Republicans in Washington are likely to be gripped by another bout of global democracy fever.

And rest assured, U.S. cable news channels will be chock-full of talking heads — literally, and not so gracefully, called “street meat” by the television bookers who seek out these people to fill the countless minutes of airtime.

These fast talkers — and short thinkers — will sonorously proclaim that this is further validation of President Bush’s courageous and determined strategy to advance democracy around the world.

In the next breath, they will argue that the American people will just need to stay the course a little while longer to experience the titillating joy of a similar breakthrough in Iraq.

After all, they will say, people’s yearning for freedom is ultimately unstoppable — and ought to be encouraged wherever possible.

That last statement is certainly true — and, in a way, is what underpins the entire evolution of modern society the world over. But there is nothing peculiarly American about that yearning.

People strive for freedom, whether supported by the United States — or not. In fact, U.S. support can rather be a hindrance on the road to achieving democracy.

The “Orange II Revolution” now under way in Burma, is an entirely homespun product. All it required — and requires — is a tremendous amount of courage among the Burmese people.

In that way, the Burmese revolution is rather like the Polish revolution of 1980 — or even the French Revolution of 1789.

When seriously contested, the writ on obtaining democratic rights is written with blood — the blood of the people. People who sacrificed their lives on the streets — where they were carelessly and callously murdered by their oppressors in uniform.

But as the Burmese case underlines once again, without that all-powerful display of fierce democratic courage on the part of the people, the whole venture might well have been doomed from the outset.

For nothing delegitimizes a military regime faster, and more lastingly, than it spilling the blood of its own people when they muster the extreme courage to meet the oppressors’ tanks with their own bodies.

At its purest, and its most determined, democracy is akin to applying the power of the masses against the weight of the gun barrel.

And in the case of Burma, the spark of ignition was not the U.S. Air Force stepping in to bomb at the whim of a president in Washington, D.C. Instead, it was the most potent symbol of Burmese society — a tin cup.

You see, in Buddhist societies, all those clusters of often youngish monks — always clad in orange garb and sometimes chanting — represent impeccable moral authority.

In fact, they are the ultimate equalizers before whom even mighty and bloodthirsty military dictators become mere mortals.

Just how did this power manifest itself in the revolutionary process underway (once again, after 1988, 1974 and 1948) in Burma? This time, it was with the explosive weapon of an inverted tin cup, that’s how.

To get their daily sustenance, Buddhist monks very publicly beg for alms. And in exchange for receiving food, the implicit “deal” is that the monks will offer things that are considered crucial in Buddhist countries, such as praying for the spirits of family members.

So instead of helicopter gunships flying overhead to spawn, or protect, a fledgling revolution below, Buddhist monks — and the rest of Burmese society working in tandem — deployed a decidedly more low-tech and low-cost strategy.

By inverting their tin cups and refusing offerings from the country’s rulers, the monks essentially excommunicated these leaders from the religion at the core of Burma’s society.

Primitive as it sounds, it is much more potent than all of the military expenditures the United States has incurred in Iraq.

Democracy in Burma — when, not if, it comes to pass — will be rooted in the will of the people shedding their chains of oppression with great gusto and courage.

As a result, when — as is inevitable in the birthing period of a young democracy — there will be hard times, including food shortages, people will understand and be patient.

Their immaterial sustenance will come from the secure knowledge that, like a few true blue democrats, they as a people paid with their collective blood and courage in the process of birthing their democracy.

That is a gift for hard times which the Iraqi people will never have. Somebody far away wanted to “gift” democracy unto them — as if that were even possible.

But the Iraqis weren’t ready. As a matter of fact, they had not made their down payment in terms of clear — and, yes, desperate — acts of struggling for their own rights.

In short, they had not proven courageous enough. And bombs delivered by the U.S. Air Force are never a substitute for domestic courage — which, in turn, is a prerequisite for spurring democracy.

Sure, there are always those who argue that Saddam Hussein was too big and bad a dictator for Iraq to have democracy without U.S. intervention.

But after the riots in Rangoon, their case falls flat — because even they cannot argue that the Burmese military has somehow proven to be a kinder, gentler oppressor of its people.

If anything, then the remoteness — and irrelevance — of Burma from Washington’s perspective was a critical condition in the possible success of the operation.

The world can only hope that the always intervention-minded ranks of U.S. neo- (and theo-) conservatives — instead of absurdly taking credit for what happened 8,600 miles away — this time around will unexpectedly prove to be part of the modern evolutionary process.

That would mean that the joyous events in Burma would lead them to understand, at long last, that democracy cannot be gifted (by air force) — and that, if one tries nevertheless, that democracy runs the risk of quickly turning into a poisoned chalice, bringing with it the seeds of its own self-destruction.

How so? Building a dependable democracy and sustainable patterns of economic growth is tricky business, which — as is the nature of the beast — involves backlashes and pitfalls.

It is at those moments when people need to know that it was they themselves who brought about democracy in their land — not the Americans (even assuming they can).

Because if it is imported from abroad, or above, at the first bad turn in the road, or at least the second, the people will blame that “foreign” gift of democracy for their troubles.

Whether as the world hopes, they succeed now — or sadly only later — the Burmese people can already be eternally grateful that they mustered the courage which the Iraqis never had.

The latters’ “democratic” leaders’ choice to lobby Washington — instead of taking to the streets at home — was tantamount to an attempt of triggering democracy by in vitro fertilization.

In short, compared to the natural process, the odds for it to succeed are low — and the associated costs, regardless of success, staggeringly high.