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When Buddhist Monks Act

Burma's clergy, like others in Asia, may be liberating

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This Saturday marks the 10th anniversary of the day democracy was snatched from the people of Burma. A military junta denied the results of an election that was decisively won by the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ever since then, her political party has been suppressed while Burma (renamed Myanmar) has languished as a Southeast Asian backwater. A decade of international ostracism has done little to put Burma right. Hundreds of political dissidents remain jailed, including 13 journalists - the highest in any nation.

Is there any hope that this poor pariah state might soon become the latest Asian democracy?

The answer may not lie in more economic sanctions, stiff-arm diplomacy, or Nobel Peace Prizes (Suu Kyi won it in 1991).

Rather, it may lie with monks.

Like other Asian nations with large numbers of Buddhists, Burma's robed clergy can play a powerful role behind the scenes. They are stewards of not only a common faith but the nation's identity.

That's why the junta, oddly named the State Peace and Development Council, has tried hard to co-opt or control the monkhood. Its donations to temples are recounted almost daily in the state-controlled press as displays of official piety.

In ancient days, Burma's top monks could topple kings just by withdrawing their approval. A king's power rested on his legitimacy among Buddhist believers, but their reverence went to monks for their devotion to compassion and pacifism.

That reverence is revived daily during the monks' daily walks among the people - barefooted with shaved heads, wearing saffron-colored robes - as they carry empty bowls seeking alms, such as food. They are moral leaders at the rice-roots level.

Monks rely on the people's generosity to survive. As the Burmese suffer more shortages in their nation's isolation, that has compelled the monks to act.

In February, a leading monk asked the junta for an end to the political stalemate. The Monks Union, representing 300,000 clergy, threatens a protest at temples in coming days, pegged to the anniversary, if that demand is not met.

Can the monks spark a revolt now? Unlikely. They have been infiltrated by agents. But their movement is the only positive dynamic in what otherwise appears to be a hopeless situation.

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