The Power of Silence

One would generally assume that silence symbolizes a feeling of powerless and it has often been portrayed negatively; yet the history of the world have experienced a few poignant moments in which Power was truly demonstrated and symbolized through silence. And today, we are so fortunate to experience yet another poignant moment of truth as thousands of monks flow out into the street in an act of defiance, against the military junta that has ruled Burma since 1962. All that it has taken was a group of determined monks persuaded to collectively make a stand against the Burmese soldiers who were not prepared to tender an ‘apology’ for their unwarranted actions when they ransacked a monastery. That single act of arrogance on the part of the soldiers; and that particular act of courage on the part of the monks, has resulted into a mass movement, which has left the ruling junta State Peace and Development Council in a political quandary. 

Quite contrary to the 1988 democratic uprising in Burma, this recent protest initiated by the monks is armed with nothing more that its moral authority and the power of silence. What started as a localized protest has now turned into a nation-wide movement involving thousands of monks, who have come out into the streets with nothing more than their bowls and their strong conviction for restoration of democracy. Unsure, how to engage with the monks, who are revered in the Burman culture, the military is running out of options; and the longer the protest continues, the stronger the movement will grow. The Burmese army which has been trained so well to respond to violent situations is suddenly caught off-guard and is hesitant how to confront a very disciplined and non-violent protest. This scenario symbolizes a classic encounter between the forces of violence and non-violence.     

What make this latest crisis unusual is that the protest is coming from within the Burman culture and from a section that is respected by both the junta and the democratic movement alike. Indeed, blessed are the poor and weak, because that is where true power lies. And this kind of power which is organic in nature and represented through the grassroots is different from all other kinds of power. The power of the poor and the weak is a very compelling kind of power that is unifying in spirit and one that has no ulterior selfish motive other than to dismantle and transform the structures of injustice. This form of power is not filled with hatred or revenge; neither does it seek to replace the powers that be. This form of power is longing to break free from the clasp of oppression and it seeks the triumph of human freedom and justice. Only in the fullness of time will it come to pass in Burma.

For now, the monks have provided the best of opportunity in recent times. By sustaining and intensifying their protest the monks have created a situation, required to broaden the possibilities in uniting internal and external factors in their common objective to restore democracy in Burma. The question is whether internal and external key stake holders will step up to the plate. For those who have been following the situation in Burma will agree that while iconic figure of Aung San Suu Kyi has come to represent the democratic movement in Burma to the international community, she has been reduced to a state of symbolism as far as her political role is concerned in policy matter. For some time now, it has become quite evident that other leaders with more active role and grasp on day-to-day basis have emerged and it is prudent that the international community takes this opportunity to take them into confidence in a more apparent manner.  

While ASEAN is an obvious choice as an alliance that could make some positive intervention, considering that Burma is now a member of the body, it is unlikely that any concrete steps will be taken until Malaysia takes a stronger position in reference to the stalled negotiation process to restore democracy in Burma. One country that will be a deciding factor in the Burma crisis is undoubtedly China. Several analysts have already indicated that China would want to see that this latest round of protest is resolved peacefully through non-violent means; and perhaps in its growing international isolation, Burma would not wish to lose China’s support and has therefore been very careful to avoid using force to quell the protest.    

China has over the years made major investments in Burma and is eager to have a peaceful Burma in order to satisfy its needs and interest. Earlier this year China blocked a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Burma’s human rights record. However it can also be said that it has employed quite diplomacy and subtle public pressure on the junta, urging it to move towards inclusive democracy and to hasten the process of negotiation and democratic reforms. Now that the monks have created a political crisis which has caught the public imagination, the monks perhaps have provided the best opportunity for China to assume a more positive role in enabling Burma to move towards democracy. The fire lit by the monks cannot be subdued until the path to democracy is realized. If China wants to continue protecting its interest to Burma and seeks to be a key player in international politics, China has a unique chance now, by ensuring that the junta agrees to make Burma into a democracy. 

Will the power of silence awaken the sleeping giant?