Two October is the United Nations-designated International Day of Non-Violence. October second is the anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Gandhi who has become the world-wide symbol of non-violent action against injustice. Speaking of the power of non-violence, which he called Satyagraha (holding fast to truth), Mahatma Gandhi warned that “Unless all of us strengthen the forces of satyagraha, the methods of violence are bound automatically to gain ascendancy.
” Gandhi coined the term satyagahi for those who use the truthforce of non-violence and went on to say “The satyagahi desires to harass neither the government nor anyone else. He takes no step without the fullest deliberation. He is never arrogant. Yet he will never, out of fear of punishment, leave a duty undone. It is my unshakable faith that before so great a self-sacrifice even the power of an emperor will give way.”
It is thus appropriate that on 2 October in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN’s Human Rights Council will hold a Special Session on the human rights situation in Myanmar. The military have been in power in Burma from 1958 to 1960 and then from 1962 until today. However, in 1988, there was a student-led uprising, resulting in some 3,000 deaths from the military shooting at unarmed protesters. After the 1988 events, there were some changes among the military at the top. In order to pretend that it was no longer the same military government, the Army leaders decided to change the name of the country from the Union of Burma to Myanmar and the spelling of some of the cities and towns. Otherwise, there were no visible changes in policy or practice.
In 1988, the protests were led by university students and young urban professionals. Monks had played only a small role. The Army did not hesitate to open fire on the students. Today, it is in the spirit of non-violence and holding fast to truth that the Buddhist Sangha (community of monks) is leading the protests against injustice in Myanmar. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote “ Non-violence in its dynamic condition does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the putting of one’s soul against the will of the tyrant…If you have really understood the meaning of non-violence, it should be clear to you that non-violence is not a principle or a virtue to be brought into play on a particular occasion or to be practiced with reference to a particular party or section. It has to become a part and parcel of our being.”
Gandhi stressed the need for discipline, self-control, joint action and organization in a non-violent campaign. For the moment, this advice has been followed. There is some evidence that the military have been buying monk’s robes and shaving their hair in order to infiltrate the ranks of the monks to push them to violence, either to discredit the movement or to give an opportunity for the military to open fire. Communications from Burma have been largely cut, and journalists are unwelcome. Thus, it is difficult to have reliable information, especially of more remote areas. There is an increasing flow of refugees especially into Thailand. Yet it is never easy to bring together into an overall picture the reports of individual refugees. What seems true is that the army is trying to block the monks within their temples so that they can not go into the streets. However, there have also been reports of soldiers laying down their weapons as the monks pass as a sign of respect.
The Buddhist Sangha, with its roots in the population, is leading the protests against the negative actions of the government. However, they have not been trained in non-violent techniques. Thus, they must invent their tactics as they go along. All they have is the advice of the Buddha who said
“ Since it is impossible to escape the results of our deeds, let us practice good works. Let us guard our thoughts that we do no evil, for as we sow so shall we reap…The wise use the light they have to receive more light, and advance in the knowledge of truth.”