The faith of the oppressed can topple the worst tyrantsThe conviction of the monks could still oust Burma's generals, just as a congregation was the catalyst for the end of East Germany.Guardian Unlimited | Comment is free | The faith of the oppressed can topple the worst tyrants
Religion poisons everything, says my friend Christopher Hitchens. Looking at the Buddhist monks being clubbed and shot on the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay, Sittwe and Pakokku in Burma I thought, well, not quite everything, Christopher.Until the monks were seized or held prisoner in their monasteries by General Than Shwe's troops last Thursday night, they led the heroic demonstrations in Burma, proving a trend of modern times that organised religion is very often the only means people have of challenging a dictatorship and bringing about the enlightened political values that Hitchens holds dear.
He will know that among the many things forgotten about the neglected miracle of the uprising in East Germany in 1989 is that it all began in a Lutheran church - the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig - when a pastor called Christian Fuhrer inaugurated prayers for peace after the Monday evening service. It was a small gesture of defiance but through September 1989, the crowds swelled in the square outside the church. Many carried candles to show that they planned no violence or vandalism, the idea being that you cannot throw a brick when you're shielding a candle in the night air. The vanguard of barefoot monks in Rangoon denoted the same peaceful intention.The turning point in Germany came on 9 October when 400,000 people filled the centre of the city.
From then on, the communist regime in the GDR, among the most repressive in Eastern Europe, was doomed, although no one could have predicted that 31 days later the Berlin Wall would fall and the regimes in Czechoslovakia and Romania would follow quickly.No one had any doubt about what had happened at the Nikolaikirche. One of the six luminaries of the Leipzig protests, Bernd- Lutz Lange, remarked that the leadership was not a person, but a place. 'There was no one leader of the revolution. In fact, the only leadership was Monday, 5pm, the Nikolaikirche.'The discussions about freedom of speech, travel, assembly and association would have taken place anyway. The point is that church provided the institutional context in which to challenge the state, while the faith of so many ordinary people gave them the courage to go into the streets on that critical evening when paratroops had been flown in, the Stasi were armed and hospitals cleared to receive hundreds of casualties.
Together, faith and passive mass resistance create an inspired force that is more than the sum of the parts. That is why the churches across the GDR in 1989 and temples in Burma last week were points of ignition. I don't say it always happens - the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, was shunned by Catholic colleagues before being shot in his cathedral in 1980 - just that religion can be a platform of resistance and any history of liberty and modern civilisation must concede that.
There are other striking similarities between Burma and Germany The GDR was ruled by an inflexible and out-of-touch gerontocracy led by Erich Honecker. Like the aged Burmese generals, Honecker's party officials lived in privileged enclaves with every possible service and luxury, while the people went without. Both regimes made the mistake of allowing conditions where the people had nothing but their lives to lose.The GDR was a political dependency of the USSR, as Burma is of China.
In October 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev went to the GDR to attend the country's 40th anniversary celebrations. During the visit, he made some not-so-off-the-cuff remarks to a TV reporter about history penalising those who did not change with the times. In their oblique way, the Chinese may be saying the same to the Burmese junta, although there is a difference in relationship. While the GDR needed Soviet oil, the Chinese are desperate for Burmese oil.Yet the Chinese sense the danger of this extraordinary movement in Burma and they must wonder if the course of their own peculiar political evolution is threatened by infection from their client state, as was the Soviet Union by the revolutions in Europe.
The Chinese want the Burmese situation to go away as quickly as possible. That may have been achieved for the time being, but the fire has been lit and the resolve of the people and monks may yet prevail.Much was made last week of the way the Burmese used the internet and mobile phones to skirt round the fierce censorship by the regime, often sending tiny fragments of a picture or report by text message.
In the autumn of 1989, there were no mobile phones in East Germany, Apple had just released its first laptop and an obscure scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, had only just published his paper on hypertext, describing the idea of a web. Communication was at a minimum. Just one camera hidden and fixed along the route partially filmed the historic march on 9 October, which is why the West underestimated what was happening.I am not persuaded that the internet and mobile phone make peaceful uprising easier. In the technology race between state and the people, the state has constantly moved to control technology or equip itself with the means of spying on its citizens, as in Britain and the USA.
The Chinese first censored Google, then allowed the US search engine to censor itself, which, if nothing else, proves that a company which celebrated its ninth birthday last week has the morals to match its age.Still, it has been difficult not to be moved by the film coming out of Burma , particularly of Aung San Suu Kyi receiving the marchers in the pouring rain.
Seeing this marriage between the heroic, poised secularity of the elected leader and the staunchness of the monks, I wondered if the Palestinians were not missing a trick. The circumstances in the Middle East are obviously different, but peaceful processions in Gaza and along the Israeli defence wall, processions that excluded the bully boys firing AK47s from the back of pick-up trucks, may well have an arresting effect on world opinion and attitudes in Israel.
But the thing that should come to us as we allow the sequestration of our rights to assemble in Parliament Square, to communicate without being monitored and to move about without being watched is that once these things disappear into the vaults of the state, we face a long, perilous fight to reclaim them.
The crowds in Burma could only offer passive resistance to Than Shwe's forces. They may look beaten now, but their day will come, even if the general resorts to mass internment and large-scale executions. World opinion is activated and on the eve of the Olympics, China must move to control him.
In Germany, the regime was restrained by the Soviet Union which refused to mobilise any of the hundreds of thousands of troops stationed the GDR. Yet the actual reason the demonstration in Leipzig on 9 October did not end in bloodshed was that on the morning of that extraordinary day, a statement was read from the pulpits of every church in the city appealing for peace and self-control. The pastors gave that message authority and the people courage. Without them, the most peaceful revolution ever seen would have been very different.The monks have been beaten and their monasteries sacked in Burma, yet they have served the cause of freedom and their religion well.
This is an excellent article and well worth reading. Henry Porter speculates about the Palestinians, that if they held peaceful protests then maybe the world would listen, but I think that he is misguided with this speculation since the Palestinian issue is not about the tyranny of Israel, but it is about Islam and the jaded way in which Islamists seek to convert the world to Islam - that is it is either convert or perish where they are concerned. He has not understood the nature of blood libel, and that some events that have been reported world-wide have been set up. The al-Durah case is a good example of blood libel because there is footage available that shows that the man and his son had the opportunity to escape from behind the barrel, and that there was someone close by who was filming the event. There were even people who ran past the spot whilst father and son remained in their designated position. The world turned against Israel because of this blood libel, but I think that there is sufficient reason to doubt that the boy died that day.
There has been a lot of bloodshed in Burma within the last week. The Buddhist monks and nuns took to the streets for a good reason, that is the oppression of the military junta. They had no rifles or other weapons, yet the junta sent in the army and many hundreds of people died. It is through their faith that the Buddhist monks and nuns believed that they had the means for peaceful resistance. In the long run perhaps they will be rewarded because of their faith that they will become free.
The oppression of the military junta in Burma is another form of slavery. The people are crying out in order to be released from that slavery. I pray that the Lord will hear their pleas and that something will happen that will lead to the end of their oppression.
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