In August 2007, in response to a massive government-mandated rise in oil and gas prices, public protests began in scattered towns around Burma. Buddhist monks took the lead in the growing number of marches for justice and freedom that, by Sept. 24, had risen to 100,000 people in the city of Yangon alone.
In mid-September, I was in Yangon facilitating a workshop about Gandhian nonviolence. After our daily discernment, one of my Burmese friends—I’ll call him Mahn—suggested that we go to the Shwedagon Pagoda. Dazzling gold, one hundred meters high, and visible for miles, Shwedagon is not only the most sacred shrine in Burma but also, for many, a symbol of Buddhist resistance to oppression. It was here on Aug. 28, 1988, in the midst of an earlier nonviolent uprising against the government’s brutal policies, that Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a crowd estimated at between 300,000 and 1 million people. The monks’ protest marches in September started with prayers at Shwedagon.
For several hours Mahn and I wandered, barefooted, over the massive grounds amid thousands of pilgrims and tourists. Often Mahn would go into a shrine, bow, kneel, and pray. Although the government-controlled press wasn’t reporting it, we knew from the grapevine that demonstrations were spreading around the country amid mounting anger at the plummeting economic situation.
Slowly the people were overcoming their fear—usually a trump card of bullies and oppressors—and publicly joining the struggle. There was nonetheless caution. At the outset of my visit I was told not to say the name Aung San Suu Kyi but only, in a soft voice, refer to “the Lady.”
In our daily workshops, we viewed segments of the documentary A Force More Powerful, with Burmese narration. The participants were fascinated to learn about other peoples’ struggles—Gandhians in India nonviolently defeating the world’s most powerful empire at the time, the British Raj; Solidarity in communist Poland; the U.S. civil rights movement; Danish resistance to Nazi policies; South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle; and the Chilean overthrow of Gen. Pinochet. They were especially interested in the Filipino “People Power” overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the way Filipinos combined the teachings of Gandhi and Jesus.
But their overriding interest and commitment were to “the Lady.” For 12 of the last 18 years, Suu Kyi has been under house arrest. In her years of isolation, her Gandhian and Buddhist roots have deepened; she has incredibly strong discipline and meditates regularly. She was not allowed to go to England when her husband died nor receive visits from her two grown sons. She can go to them, but only if she never comes back to her homeland. She feels she must stay with her people, whatever the personal cost.
After the crushing of the 1988 uprising, Suu Kyi wrote, “If you ask whether we shall achieve democracy … here is what I say: Don’t think about whether or not these things will happen. Just continue to do what you believe is right. Later on the fruits of what you do will become apparent on their own. One’s responsibility is to do the right thing.”
People ask, “Isn’t it naive to think nonviolence can defeat such a corrupt and brutal enemy?” Suu Kyi, like Jesus and Buddha and Gandhi, embodies a different perspective in which means and ends are interrelated. Violent means poison even the noblest goal. A “revolution of the Spirit,” which is what Suu Kyi calls for, touches the deepest wellsprings of faith and builds a hopeful future.
The Burmese protesters have continued to be overwhelmingly nonviolent, despite ongoing brutal arrests and imprisonment. And The Jakarta Post on Oct. 10 reported that four generals and more than 400 soldiers had been jailed for refusing orders to beat and shoot monks. Reports also tell of continuing, quiet resistance. The revolution is not over.
Richard Deats was on the governing committee of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and author of Martin Luther King Jr., Spirit-led Prophet and Mahatma Gandhi, Nonviolent Liberator when this article appeared. Deats recommended The Irrawaddy as a good source of information from the Thai/Burmese border.