The monks' revolution

Burmese monks revolutionGetReligion apologizes for being so late on the story about Buddhist monks leading peaceful protests for democracy in Burma and being shut down by the military junta. Religion and its relation to government is at the core of this story, and that raised an interesting questions in opinion pages around the country. For starters, Ian Burma in the Los Angeles Times writes that this is a story about "religion as a force for good" in the world:

It has become fashionable in certain smart circles to regard atheism as a sign of superior education, of highly evolved civilization, of enlightenment. Recent bestsellers by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others suggest that religious faith is a sign of backwardness, the mark of primitives stuck in the Dark Ages who have not caught up with scientific reason. Religion, we are told, is responsible for violence, oppression, poverty and many other ills.

It is not difficult to find examples to back up this assertion. But what about the opposite? Can religion also be a force for good? Are there cases in which religious faith comes to the rescue even of those who don't have it?

I have never personally had either the benefits nor misfortunes of adhering to any religion, but watching Burmese monks on television defying the security forces of one of the world's most oppressive regimes, it is hard not to see some merit in religious belief. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a deeply religious country, where most men spend some time as Buddhist monks. Even the thuggish Burmese junta hesitated before unleashing lethal force on men dressed in the maroon and saffron robes of their faith.

That opinion piece as fairly predictable. What really is going on here?

The New York Times' Week in Review cover story solved that question for me, asking the question in big bold letters: "What Makes a Monk Mad?" That question has been in the back of my mind since the news of this revolution first started trickling out.

Reporter Seth Mydans gives us some pretty good answers:

As they marched through the streets of Myanmar's cities last week leading the biggest antigovernment protests in two decades, some barefoot monks held their begging bowls before them. But instead of asking for their daily donations of food, they held the bowls upside down, the black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.

It was a shocking image in the devoutly Buddhist nation. The monks were refusing to receive alms from the military rulers and their families -- effectively excommunicating them from the religion that is at the core of Burmese culture.

That gesture is a key to understanding the power of the rebellion that shook Myanmar last week.

The country -- the former Burma -- has roughly as many monks as soldiers. The military rules by force, but the monks retain ultimate moral authority. The lowliest soldier depends on them for spiritual approval, and even the highest generals have felt a need to honor the clerical establishment. They claim to rule in its name.

Read the rest of the article. It answers a lot of questions.

Lastly, why is it that the Times persists in calling Burma by the name used by its oppressors -- Myanmar? Yes, I believe The Associated Press Stylebook has an entry saying that Myanmar is the preferred name for the country, but that doesn't entirely answer the question. (BBC reporters seem to use Burma fairly consistently, but they probably don't follow the AP Stylebook as religiously as American journalists.)

The Atlantic's James Fallows has a great series of blog entries sparked by President Bush's statement on the nation:

One more thought experiment, on the argument that Burma is a "colonial" name: If a country changes its name in the process of becoming independent, no problem. Today's Ghana had been the Gold Coast as a British colony; when it became independent 50 years ago, it became Ghana too. New country; new name. But suppose a junta took over Mexico tomorrow and said that henceforth the world must call the country Atzlan. (Or, to choose a country with a name more obviously traceable to the colonial era, the Dominican Republican, or the Philippines.) It's not a new country; it's just a new regime, and there would be no need to oblige them, just [as] there is no need to dignify the brutal Burmese generals.

It's not a religion question per se, but it's worth discussing why many media outlets choose to use the term of the military thugs.

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