You might see a skinny corpse rising out of the ground in Concord, Massachusets tonight, to lift its bony fist in support of an awe inspiring tenacity taking place thousands of miles away.
In 1846, Henry David Thoreau was confronted by a local tax collector who demanded he pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. He refused. Thoreau stated that he would not pay because he did not support the Mexican-American War. He was taken to jail, and protested fervently when released after a solicitous aunt paid the taxes for him. This incident prompted him to produce a famous essay we now call ‘Civil Disobedience’.
I don’t know if the Monks in Myanmar have read his words, but they are a tremendous example of the power of Civil Disobedience. And today the military government strives to squeeze the juice out of their cause.
What is the conflict? By now even fairly preoccupied Americans have probably heard snippets about thousands of monks protesting in Burma. In the country Burma (Myanmar), the revered Buddhist Monks of the region have taken up the cause of the people against a strict military regime. They have been marching every day for 10 days in Yangon from the Shwedagon Pagoda, giving life to protests that sparked over a dramatic hike in fuel prices by the government.
The sight of thousands of cinnamon robed monks walking the streets peacefully has given a power to the protests. More and more people have been inspired to join the marching. And Myanmar’s ruling military junta is outraged.
Yesterday, the first monk killings began. Reports vary widely between the government’s claim that one monk was killed, and other reports through cell-phones and internet that a possible 8 monks were shot during protests.
The buddhists marches are peacable, but the monks are a powerful symbol. When the government closed in and tried to block their path yesterday, it was the bystanders who grew angry. They threw rocks and bottles, they surged forward, and eventually the junta had to let the monks pass.
There’s something awesome about the force of calm rebellion. It’s strange how a unity of peace can turn an oppressor into a spitting demon, a creature that will use any force to crush what it can’t control.
This morning, Thursday, protesters gathered again, but the night took its toll. Government raids before dawn left tell-tale blood stains betraying beatings and kidnappings on the cement floors of many prominent pagodas. Several hundred monks were taken in the night. Today the buddhist pagodas have been ‘contained’. 100 monks ventured outside the Shwedagon pagoda, sat down and began to pray, breaking the junta’s order that gatherings of 5 or more people were not allowed. Violence ensued.
There is more to this story. The democracy movement in Burma has another powerful symbol. That symbol is the 62 year old Nobel Peace Prize winner being held in indefinite detention, Aung San Suu Kyi. The monks marched past her compound and chanted prayers on Saturday, and she came outside in tears to listen.
The world is learning this story because the force of the will of these people has expanded beyond the menacing borders of country and government controlled media. People all over the world are praying for a cessation of violence and hope for the Burmese protesters, but more blood will likely spill in Myanmar today.
Excerpts from ‘Civil Disobedience‘ by Henry David Thoreau
I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right…
…Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus (2) and Luther,(3) and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
…Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her — the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. If any think that their influence would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, “But what shall I do?” my answer is, “If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.” When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.
…Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to have this way or that by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live? When I meet a government which says to me, “Your money or your life,” why should I be in haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society. I am not the son of the engineer. I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.