Peaceful monk protests highlight Buddhism

Rashah Mcchesney

Americans who appreciate their civil liberties and protections should take a look at Myanmar and what happens to political dissenters under their oppressive government.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is sandwiched between India, Thailand, China, Laos and the Indian Ocean. Richard Mansbach, professor of political science, said it has been closed off to tourists and outsiders for most of the period since it gained its independence.

The U.S. Department of State’s travel Web site on Myanmar describes the country as being run by an “authoritarian military regime” and says the government “suppresses all expression of opposition to its rule.”

For those who aren’t up on the latest conflict in the region and the “Saffron Revolution,” Nikki Bado-Fralick, assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies, clarifies the situation.

“It’s been a pretty brutal military coup and it’s been going on for years,” Bado-Fralick said.

According to a series of articles in The New York Times, the Buddhist monks in the region have taken to the streets in nonviolent protest against the brutal regime of the country’s current military government, or junta.

“The monks are not campaigning for a particular party – they’re basically protesting the violence,” Bado-Fralick said. “They’re protesting the cruelty, and they’re protesting the oppression that people have lived under for such a long time.”

This is not the first highly publicized case of nonviolent protest by Buddhist monks. On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist Monk from Vietnam, burned himself to death in an intersection in Saigon in protest of persecution of Buddhists by the Ngo Dinh Diem administration in South Vietnam.

The photos from that event, taken by Malcolm W. Browne, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, show a monk unmoving in the face of certain death.

Bado-Fralick said although the situation going on in Myanmar could lead to this type of self-immolation, it is more likely it could lead to a wholesale massacre by the military government that is in power.

In an Associated Press article from Oct. 5, the government of Myanmar said it had “detained hundreds of Buddhist Monks” during a crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

Because Myanmar exports a lot of natural resources to China and India including gas, oil, raw materials and drugs such as opium, Mansbach said “China and India are at loath to do anything to jeopardize their supply.”

The Los Angeles Times reported on Oct. 2 that a United Nations envoy had met with a few of the junta’s top generals in an effort to dissuade them from their violent tactics against demonstrators.

The article explained that the envoy was also allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner who led the National League of Democracy that won the elections in 1990. She has been under house arrest in Myanmar for 12 of the almost 18 years since that election.

This idea of extreme nonviolence, even in the face of brutal suppression, is not one that is new to Buddhists.

Yin Yani, graduate student in chemical and biological engineering and president of the Lotus Society, said in Buddhism, they are “taught not to do violence to other people.”

For example, she remembered an incident in Afghanistan in 2001 when some people destroyed a statue of Buddha, and Buddhists wouldn’t fight back.

She said in Buddhism, there are not clear definitions of right and wrong, because what is right in one culture may not necessarily be the same in another culture.

One of the things Bado-Fralick said she found interesting about the religion was that Buddhism wasn’t spread through conquest or war.

She said although some religions were spread through the “convert or die” philosophy, Buddhism has always spread through nonviolent means.

“It was spread through trade,” Bado-Fralick said.

Bado-Fralick said there is a very long history of a commitment to nonviolence in India and it came through two religions: Jainism and Buddhism.

She said they both believe in Karma, which is the idea that actions have consequences.

“Two things I think together really motivate or propel Buddhism in the direction of nonviolence,” Bado-Fralick said. “One is Karma and one is compassion.”

She described an idea called “Engaged Buddhism,” which is a term coined by a Buddhist monk and writer in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hahn.

“Say you’re watching a person getting beaten up and you just might say, ‘Oh well, you know it’s just his Karma to get beaten up’ and not do anything about it,” Bado-Fralick said.

She said Engaged Buddhism really focuses on the element of compassion in the religion.

“You don’t want to see any living creature suffer, and so you try to do what you can in a nonviolent way to prevent or stop that harm,” Bado-Fralick said.

She said she thinks ISU students should understand this is something anyone could do.

“I think that this is a real attempt by regular people, not just monks or religious specialists, to take back control of their government, of their lives and of their country,” Bado-Fralick said.

“They’re just trying to do it in a nonviolent way, in an ethical way, in a compassionate way.

“Right now the world seems to be just standing around and watching.”