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Myanmar's Monks Show the Way

Anyone sick of the endless rhetoric about bravery should take a look at the real thing -- the extraordinary uprising by the monks of Myanmar.
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Anyone sick of the endless rhetoric about bravery and heroes that passes for political discourse these days should take a look at the real thing -- the extraordinary uprising going into its second week by the monks of Myanmar. In the pouring rain and scorching heat, they have filed in rivers of burgundy through the streets of Yangon (Rangoon), Sittwe, Mandalay, and Bago, with nothing but alms bowls to protect them from the guns of one of the most brutal regimes on the planet.

The monks upped the ante by stopping to visit the off-limits home of the leading opposition figure in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected president of the country under house arrest for 12 years. As many as 100,000 people were said to have marched in Rangoon, a boggling number in a police state whose spies and hired thugs quickly put an end to any public protest.

The tension is at a peak as I write this. Myanmar's military junta has banned gatherings of more than five people and, according to wire service reports, trucked in troops to Rangoon to the area around Sule Paya, near the scene of a bloody crackdown in 1988, when several thousand Burmese were killed during student-led protests that almost brought the dictatorship down. The world stood by and did nothing then. Will the U.N. be able to get the Myanmar dictators' bosom buddy, China, to avoid another bloodbath?

The Chinese have to be held to task here and not be allowed to weasel out with their usual non-interference gambit. As in Darfur, the Chinese hold the key. Massive Chinese investment, particularly in oil and gas, has been propping up Myanmar's generals for years. Thanks to the Chinese, as well as other Asian trade partners, sanctions and boycotts have done nothing to dent the gilded lifestyle of the khaki-clad kleptocrats that run Myanmar. The military brass live like kings, while the rest of the nation that was once the most prosperous in Southeast Asia is pauperized.

When I was in Myanmar last year, many locals told me the sanctions were a joke and that feverish trade from China was why. Boycotts makes us feel good, but in this case it's a false exercise. The isolation is only hurting the Burmese people. "If the boycott was a real boycott, honored by all countries, we would support it," one man told me.

Desmond Tutu recently compared the Myanmar regime to apartheid. It's an accurate frame of reference, not only because of the appalling treatment of Burma's indigenous tribes, but also in the parallel world set up to benefit only the military elite. For instance, on a bus in the central highlands of Myanmar, a man pointed out the new military hospital going up, while civilians had no clinics in the area. The army got a 10 percent pay raise during my visit while people who have engineering or law degrees drive taxis. The military elite and cronies drive late-model SUVs around Rangoon. Money also flows to the generals from the illicit gem, drug and teak trades. I saw truck after truck and barge after barge loaded down with giant teak logs, a favorite hard currency, since Myanmar's money is worthless.

The regime has the appearance of a Soviet police state -- billboards exhorting everyone to watch out for third columns, spies, and a propaganda rag called "The New Light of Myanmar," with rhetoric straight out of the old Pravda playbook. But there's no socialism here anymore, no "ism" other than the ideology of greed and power. It is as many have described it, Orwellian.

Meanwhile, major cities get two hours of electricity a day. "We're not afraid of the dark," said a young woman in Mandalay in her early 20s. It's always dark in the land of "New Light of Myanmar.

But there is plenty to be afraid of with another massacre looming. There are reports of the regime having infiltrators shave their heads and don Buddhist robes to stage provocative violence and invite another crackdown.

The monks vow to march on until the dictators are gone. It's a lesson for the rest of us about the power of feet in the streets when all seems lost. A slogan from the 1988 uprising, "Do-aye!" still resonates in today's marches. "It is our task," the Burmese say.

And ours, too.