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Events in Myanmar

10/05/07 1:29PM By Olin Robison
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(HOST) Commentator Olin Robison has been thinking about politics, religion and the conflict in Myanmar - or Burma, as many still call it.


(ROBISON) A few days ago I called a friend in Europe to ask her opinion about the events in Myanmar, or Burma, as she insists on calling it.  She has spent a great deal of time there, and she could not conceal her indignation at the dictatorial military leaders in Burma; but she did say that she sees what has happened  as the beginning of the end for Burma's long-time dictators.  It will not come quickly, but, my friend observed,  Burma's military rulers finally crossed the line into the unacceptable when they started shooting and beating Monks in the streets of Rangoon.
 
There are, on the Internet, some absolutely appalling videos of the police actions in the streets of Burmese cities.  Should you choose to watch, viewer discretion is strongly advised.  Once the country's rulers discovered that Burmese bloggers were getting pictures out of the country, they, the powers that be, pulled the plug on the Internet.  It is a reversion to Stalinist days and, while it will work in the short term, it is not, in my opinion, likely to work over time.
 
It was 200 years ago last year that the first small group - and I do mean small;  fewer than ten - of Protestant missionaries set out from the United States for India.  The British East India Company soon threw them out of India, and they wound up in Burma.  They were an astonishingly resilient lot.  First, they had to learn the language from scratch.  Then, in their first 17 years they had only 10 converts to Christianity.  Several of them died of tropical diseases.  But still they stayed on, and there are today quite a few Baptist churches in Burma serving a small percentage of the population - but nonetheless there.
 
If we fast-forward to the present we find a country that is mostly Buddhist, a population that is terribly poor, and a country where the people have been beaten into submission by a military dictatorship who apparently have pocketed the proceeds from sale of the country's rich natural gas reserves.  That gas is sold mostly to China, India and Thailand.....none of which have so far done very much to cause the Burmese leadership to behave with restraint.  So, once again, we have a harshly repressive regime kept in place by the energy resources taken out of the ground.
 
The reason my European friend thinks that they, the military rulers of Burma, have finally crossed the line into the unacceptable, is that the hundreds of thousands of Buddhist Monks really are at one with the people.  The Monks go into the streets each morning with their begging bowls, into which ordinary people place food.   It signifies an unbreakable bond.  There was a telling story on the news a few days ago about a Burmese military officer who walked into Thailand seeking asylum because, he said, he simply could not shoot or beat the Monks.
 
There have been dramatic stories and pictures out of Burma over the last days of Monks marching in the streets with their begging bowls held upside down, signifying to the soldiers that they, the Monks, would not accept alms from the soldiers - which is, in effect, to excommunicate them.
 
I seriously doubt that there is much the American government can do right now to be helpful.  But China, India and Thailand could.  Don't hold your breath.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.
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