Burma via New Delhi ~~ October 2, 2007
Give the Nobel Peace Prize to Burma’s Sangha
By Arnold Corso
As the Nobel Committee narrows the list of potential Nobel Peace Prize recipients over the next few weeks, most commentators have predicted that the Nobel Committee will award the prize to Al Gore. As an aspiring environmental lawyer, I admire Mr. Gore’s contributions to the global warming debate, and certainly hope the world takes climate change seriously. However, decidedly lopsided war has broken out on the streets of Rangoon, but only one side, the military, is armed with weapons, guns, tear gas, and tanks. The other army consists of monks from the Buddhist monastic order or sangha, who have 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 would like to nominate the Burmese sangha, the spiritual force behind Burma’s democracy movement, for 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 governments but between governments and their citizens. The current peacemakers are not merely diplomats who draw treaties at negotiating tables but also religious leaders, activists, and ordinary citizens who use their authority and influence to promote peaceful change in their countries. The Nobel Committee has recognized this by giving the award to individuals who have sought to promote democracy and human rights within their countries. The Nobel Peace Prize was crucial in elevating the moral authority of peacemakers struggling against apartheid in South Africa, segregation in America, Communism in Eastern Europe, and military rule in East Timor. It could now protect those monks risking their lives to protest Burma’s cruel military regime.
Over the past week, the world watched in humility and awe as hundreds of thousands of unarmed Buddhist monks and civilians marched peacefully throughout the country. The monks began their protests after Burma’s military junta raised the price of fuel by 500%. 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 or else the monks would refuse alms from soldiers, a form of Buddhist excommunication. After the deadline had passed, monks and democracy activists across the country marched by the hundreds of thousands calling upon the regime to begin a serious democratization process. However, as we have seen, rather than respond in a civilized manner, the military and its thugs have killed dozens of monks and arrested thousands. Descriptions of Burmese soldiers ransacking monasteries recall fifth century barbarian hordes pillaging villages, rather than the actions of a disciplined twenty-first century defense force. Rather than submit, the monks have used other tools in the arsenal of peace. Monks who have been arrested are now on hunger strikes, while those who are locked in their monasteries chant the metta sutta to ward off evil and spread love.
As tragic as these events are, these monks have not suffered in vain. They have successfully used their prominence in Burmese society to draw the world’s attention to Burma as never before. Concerned citizens from America to Indonesia to Costa Rica to Germany have added their voices to those of the Burmese people by protesting in front of 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 our political partisanship seems 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.
Perhaps more important, the bravery of the monks propelled Burma onto the international agenda. The U.N. has sent its envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, to meet with the generals as well as Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic opposition’s political leader. Some western diplomats believe that Mr. Gambari is prepared to spend a significant amount of time resolving the crisis. Administration officials suggest President Bush now views democracy promotion in Burma as a possible “legacy moment.” ASEAN, normally reluctant to criticize one of its members, recently expressed its “revulsion” at the military’s crackdown. Meanwhile, China is now presented with a choice of either using 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 caused a spiritual change and altered the dynamics of international discussion of Burma at the highest level.
In recent years, the committee has come under attack for straying off-message and promoting popular causes rather than recognizing the power of peace. As worthy as these past recipients have been, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation clearly intend the prize to help those laboring for peace. The pictures we saw this week of soldiers aiming tear gas and bullets at praying monks demonstrates the thick red line between violence and peace. I believe the Burmese sangha would comfortably fit in with the most celebrated prior prize recipients, including Elie Wiesel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dali Lama, Martin Luther King, and, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi. What better way to celebrate the original intent of the Nobel Peace Prize than to give this year’s prize to the side in Burma’s civil war that has tried to use peace and metta to fight for their basic rights?
Arnold Corso is a student of Southeast Asian Studies at a Masters Program in the United States. He has been to Burma several times and wrote his thesis on the role of Buddhist monks in environmental conservation in Southeast Asia.