Religion and Politics, Saffron-Style

Now that President Bush has imposed sanctions on the Burmese junta, the growing protests against the dictatorship -- and the galvanizing role Buddhist monks have played in mobilizing public outrage -- should get the coverage it deserves from the American media.

Until recently, domestic news outlets have provided desultory reportage on the first massive public protests in Myanmar since 1988. The demonstrations began in August when the country's military leaders raised the price of fuel 300 percent -- a devastating blow to legions of subsistence workers and the poor. But press here only picked up when Buddhist monks took to the streets. See, for example, today's New York Times article and Washington Post editorial. If you really want background on what's happening and why, you'll need to look at the BBC's coverage as well as clips from Asia and Australia.

American news outlets found photo ops when the "Saffron Revolution" drew thousands of demonstrators into the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's capital city, and other urban areas. But besides mentioning that Buddhist monks wear bright robes and are held in high esteem, there's little explanation of why they are protesting or the relationship between Buddhism and democracy. For that, see Professor Jay Garfield's essay. Garfield, who is now at Smith College, argues that Buddhist moral and social theory are compatible with democracy, a position shared by the Dalai Lama along with Buddhist monks Thich Nhat Hanh and Thich Quang Duc. Quang Duc was the Buddhist monk whose self-immolation, on a Saigon street in June 1963, focused world attention on the corrupt South Vietnamese regime. Quang Duc's protest grew out of a long tradition of Buddhist activism against oppression. But reporters rarely contextualized his action within the political and religious dynamics of the time.

During the past decade, American journalists have seen the link between religion and politics play out in the Religious Right's incursion into presidential campaigns and the rise of values voters. We've also witnessed Muslims worldwide engage in various permutations of religion and politics. But as recent events in Myanmar prove, there are other, equally vital ways to understand what it means to do God's work in the world. In an article written last year, Australian historian Martin Stuart Fox, explores how Buddhism interacts with politics in several Southeast Asian countries. His comments on Burma are prescient.

Given the escalating stakes -- on Monday, Aung San Suu Kyi was permitted to pray with the monks, the first time her detention has been lifted since 2003. The coming weeks will be dramatic. What effect will Bush's sanctions have? Will the junta crack down on protesters? How will the monks proceed if they are successful (what will success look like)? There are many questions with few answers. But one thing for certain, religion is playing a key role in Burmese politics -- and the process looks very different than it does here.