Something remarkable is happening in Burma. For the past nine days in this military-controlled country of 50 million, tens of thousands of monks have swarmed the streets in protest. The protests are being dubbed the Saffron Revolution, because the monks don saffron robes that make a beautiful swath down the middle of the crowded streets, as they stride on their slow, peaceful marches amidst throngs of supporters. The show of dissent is inspiring beyond words, for two reasons.


First, the Burmese people have been terrorized by one of the worst military juntas on earth for forty years. Dubbing itself the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), the junta has been particularly ruthless since 1988, when it killed at least 3000 civilians during mass calls for democratic reforms. Any hint of dissent in Burma since 1988, has got civilians shot or a fate some consider worse, imprisonment; Burmese prisoners are tortured, in some cases into a vegetative state.

As I write, the SPDC has issued curfews that the monks continue to defy, and has declared martial law. I fear we’ll wake up to headlines of a bloodbath.

The brave monks not only took to the streets this week; they also held up alms bowls upside-down, a withering gesture of defiance, ending support from or collaboration with a government that favors Buddhism over other religions. In addition to this snub, monks rallied civilian compatriots with chants of “This is our task” and “Democracy, democracy now.”

Set off by a doubling of gas prices a month ago in an already crippled economy, what’s happening in Burma is a show of courage hard for free civilians to imagine. Everything has worked against the Burmese. Hardly multilateral, U.S. and European sanctions have yielded uncertain results. Democracy has been kept at bay by a government hellbent on stalling, with its endless (and fake) Constitutional Conventions.

The corrupt SPDC funds its terror against civilians, especially ethnic minorities, in part through support from larger countries like China and Russia (and lately India). These countries, less concerned about its rights record, have clamored for Burma’s energy resources, and (in the case of China) for its access to the Indian ocean.

What might be in store for these monks if they continue their protests?

The regime’s record bodes ill for the monks. The world’s only incarcerated Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains imprisoned in her own house. A disciplined practitioner of non-violent resistance and an unyielding democracy advocate, she has been under house arrest for most of the last 17 years; since she won the presidency of Burma, she has enjoyed only brief stints of freedom. But arrest makes Ms. Suu Kyi lucky compared to her supporters. The last time she appeared in public 100 of Ms. Suu Kyi’s supporters were murdered by government mercenaries and she was re-taken into captivity.

While hope is an ever rarer commodity in Burma, where a third of the population is malnourished, the “Saffron Revolution” proves hope lives under the surface, and the monks are particularly well suited to reignite it, since they are revered by the junta and the populace alike.

Revered or not, though, the monks are testing the regime’s will; they even made a stop at Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in an unprecedented show of solidarity. They approached with words of encouragement, Ms. Suu Kyi, briefly allowed outside, came to meet them; when they left to cover more ground, the isolated Suu Kyi burst into tears. (Typically not even tourists are allowed to approach her house, though some try.) In this land of glimmering pagodas, the universal respect for Buddhism protects the monks, for now. And the courage is a lesson for people everywhere.

Yet, the protests are inspiring for another reason.

Here in New York, speaking at the UN, President Bush promised to tighten sanctions against the brutal regime. This was largely a symbolic gesture, since the U.S.’s sanctions against Burma are the world’s tightest. And it occurs to me that it’s nice, for once, to hear the president speak with moral clarity that isn’t trumped up. He remains full of shit, generally. His folly in Iraq makes what he says more laughable, or laugh-off-able, than it needs to be to his peers on the Security Council who have vetoed sanctions on Burma.

But when he said today, rather concisely, totally aptly, “Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear,” for the first time I can recall, my president spoke for me.

He continued, “Basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship are severely restricted. Ethnic minorities are persecuted. Forced child labor, human trafficking and rape are common. The regime is holding more than 1,000 political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party was elected overwhelmingly by the Burmese people in 1990.” All true. Every word of it. It’s nice to hear–these rare words of the plain truth coming from the president’s mouth, because mostly he’s spinning. So much so, I hardly listen to him anymore… I have no president is mostly how I’ve felt the last 7 years.

Nevermind that oil prices are on the rise around the world, in part because of George’s folly in Iraq. Nevermind that letting the last U.S. oil company stay in Burma to commit atrocities with the regime undermines the president’s solidarity with the Burmese people. Nevermind that no one may join him because his hypocrisy is staggering. Even India, the world’s largest democracy celebrating its 60th anniversary, is more concerned with energy than with rights (a high ranking Indian minister even visited Burma to discuss energy and further arms deals amidst all this).

Nevermind nevermind nevermind.

Tonight I’d just like to go to bed wishing the best for the people of Burma, hoping the junta shows restraint, and proud of my president, for once, as he lambasts Burma’s dictators and discourages acts that enrich them.

–Joel Whitney

More photos of the protests can be found here.

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