Burmese monks give peace a chance

October 4, 2007

Most commentators have predicted that the Nobel Committee will award the Noble Peace Prize to environmental activist Al Gore. Being an aspiring environmental lawyer, I admire Mr. Gore’s contributions to the global warming debate. However, war broke out last week on the streets of Rangoon, Burma. One side of the conflict has a military armed with weapons. The other army consists of monks from the Buddhist monastic order or sangha, who attempted to use their spiritual authority to protect civilian demonstrators and bear the brunt of the military government’s harsh crackdown. For this supreme act of peaceful courage, I submit that the spiritual force behind Burma’s democracy movement should receive the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

The statutes establishing the Nobel Peace Prize entrust the Nobel Committee to award it to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” However, since World War II, most of the world’s bloodshed has transpired as a result of fighting not between different governments but between governments and their citizens. Current peacemakers are not merely diplomats but also religious leaders, activists and ordinary citizens who use their authority and influence to promote peaceful change in their countries.

Over the past weeks, the world has watched as thousands of unarmed Buddhist monks and civilians marched peacefully throughout Burma. The monks began their protests after the country’s military junta raised the price of fuel by 500 percent. On September 5, reports indicated that military thugs had beaten and killed several monks involved in a protest in Pakoku. In response, the All Burma Monks Alliance publicly asked the military to apologize for the deaths, threatening to refuse alms from soldiers, a form of Buddhist excommunication.

After the deadline passed, monks and democracy activists marched by the thousands, calling upon the regime to begin a serious democratization process. The military and its thugs responded by killing dozens of monks and arresting thousands. Descriptions of Burmese soldiers ransacking monasteries recall fifth-century barbarian hordes pillaging villages, not the actions of a twenty-first century defense force. Rather than submit, the monks have used other tools in the arsenal of peace. Even now, arrested monks are on hunger strikes, while those who are locked in their monasteries chant the metta sutta to ward off evil and spread love.

These monks do not suffer in vain. They have successfully used their prominence in Burmese society to draw the world’s attention to Burma. Concerned citizens from America to Indonesia have added their voices to those of the Burmese people by protesting in front of the Burmese and Chinese embassies. A few years ago, a protest for Burmese human rights here in Washington would gather only a few dozen supporters; last Friday, a crowd of over 400 people marched for over three hours. Even political partisans seem unable to resist the call of the sangha; members of Code Pink, a radical anti-Iraq war group, joined the protests and announced their admiration for President Bush’s strong stance against Burma.

The monks’ bravery has propelled Burma onto the international agenda. This past weekend, U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari met with both the Burmese generals and Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic opposition’s political leader. The Association of Southeastern Asian Nations, normally reluctant to criticize one of its members, recently expressed its “revulsion” at the military’s crackdown. Meanwhile, China must either use its influence to promote change or risk tarnishing the Olympic games next year. While we may not see immediate political change in Burma, the monks’ sacrifice has altered the dynamics of international discussion of Burma at the highest level.

In recent years, the Noble committee has come under attack for promoting popular causes rather than recognizing the power of peace. As worthy as these past recipients may have been, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation clearly intend the prize to help those laboring for peace. The pictures of soldiers aiming tear gas and bullets at praying monks are obvious demonstrations of this labor. The Burmese sangha would fit comfortablywith the most celebrated prior recipients, including Elie Wiesel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dali Lama, Martin Luther King and, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no better way to celebrate the original intent of the Nobel Peace Prize than to give this year’s award to the side in Burma’s civil war that has tried to use peace and metta to fight for their basic rights.

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