Henry David and the Monks in MyanMar

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.

suukyi.jpgThere 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.


AC Story

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.


12 thoughts on “Henry David and the Monks in MyanMar

  1. I’m going to come back later and read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” because it’s been a long time since I last read it and a re-reading will do me good.

    Thanks for this amuirin. I’ve been taking a news break for a while (sometimes the news can be bad for my health and a break helps me recharge for the next onslaught). I heard a snippet of something on NPR this morning about the monks in Myanmar, but didn’t have time to stop and listen.

  2. Glad to se that the US is doing someting about this. One can’t claim to have a commitment to democracy and then ignore this. It does make one wonder why we are just now doing something, though.

  3. I’ve been following this one on the BBC News and the PBS Newshour this week. Impressive to see so many people in such long, marching lines, and how the protest has grown.

    I wish I had more optimism for them. Sadly, this is not the Ukraine or Prague; I don’t have much faith in the junta’s ability to consider peaceful solutions.

  4. Jaynova,

    The trouble is that the world and our citizens are fickle. The want us to do something (FREE TIBET!) but they want it to be fast, cost nothing, and harm nobody.

    Couldn’t the same be said for Iraq? We can’t claim to have a commitment to democracy and then ignore their continuing need for support?

    Just pointing out that the desire to fix a problem comes with the weight of an acceptable and workable solution. Sanctions are great I guess, but since Burma is listed as one of the poorest nations in the world, I don’t think it’ll make a lot of difference. If we get too involved we’ll find ourselves in another situation where we can’t fix it, we are committed beyond original expectations, and if we leave it will explode.

    Guess I’m feeling pessimistic today.

  5. I think these people are showing tremendously strong will. The junta may win the issue, but they have already suffered politically, and the people will make any future changes they try to impose all the more difficult. I believe in the Burmese people. They are not waiting on military involvement from other countries, it is their fight and some things are more important than simply winning.

  6. i have the pleasure to interact in my life with a couple burmese friends every week or so, they haven’t been here too long, they are…

    undescribally some of the best and most stimulating…friends

    if you happened to read the Dalai Lama book release of 2005,

    The Universe In A Single Atom – The Convergence Of Science and Sprituality

    the writings go into great detail their need, and mistake of not grasping onto technology….

    for survival

    so sad.

    maybe in science there is god?

  7. we’re just now doing something about, in my opinion, because the media is on it now, which opens the windows to americans that do not open their own windows, and since the people here control the gorvernment, we aren’t that bad of people, just a little slow, we’ll help now, even though we never agreed with much of this at first, actually we never recognized the union, but the UN did, and because the UK, the first ‘owners’ and UN are really the ones who have lead this from the begining,, we can’t play cowboy, with a pistol ready on this one, i am hoping for UN resolution, with a US presence, it will give the time needed for the people actually there to work this out, the history is unstable, anything is possible with the right leader or movement, maybe this will be a spark, though the current military there has about a 15 year head start, the country is “new”, topples are still in the cards until something sticks for more than 20 to 40 years, maybe a democracy, doubt it, the pressures and feeders at hand are too close, the taste of money and power are too close, join now or be crushed later, says the voice ‘above’, military, good, soft mountian people with prayer, unrealistic, weak

    the not so obvious is fear induced survival, and the protection it may provide to the majority, they’ll take commands or play the same games, and small enough in size to go back to their country and preach…who is eating out of who’s hand now! power, money, and more control is ours now, we must stay course to the globalization of the East, be strong, and make our allies now

    the monks are anything but allies to the powers at hand that surround them, there is nothing wrong with being a zionist, for now, but there is also no shame in being pulled out of your pond, and killed by a weapon, especially if you do this with honor, pride, and strength by not moving

    all just my opinion of course (so sad)

  8. if i don’t think out my posts better you can do whatever with my posts, so sorry, but i have to share more, please…

    this is a great link, will really show more than what is on tv right now, or in paper

    many Burmese people in the US now are ‘Kachin’ if brought up


    oh and do Kachin in wikipedia to see the ‘state’ flag!!! awesome flag! and to read about one of the first Burmese armies!

    the video clip on the link is as interesting as the pictures of traditional wear

    and there is also a news link there from Kachin News Group, etc…

  9. The monks’ actions reminds me of the Liberation Theology arm of Catholicism, which is now long rejected by The Vatican. Spiritual leaders have a role to play in politics. How could priests or pastors sit back and watch immoral, corrupt, violent actions? These monks didn’t sit back. Yet our US religious people do exactly that. They not only DON’T speak out; they endorse. The Vatican has thrown out Catholic priests who used to play the role of fighting for the impoverished and disempowered.

    I was uplifted to see these monks take to the streets. To care enough about the well-being of the people to risk their own lives. It gives me hope. I am Catholic and presently disappointed and disenfranchised by an organization that has come to accept the idea that God must have put our leaders into power; hence, we must obey our leaders. Is that what Jesus would have done?

  10. vatican must always be careful now, kinda like germany, john pall II helped progress the ability to act again, but time ran out

    the freaky thing was to meet my friends about 2 years ago, sushi manager (burmese) female, married, and to hear all the good, and finally the bad stories, (no i don’t go there every week or so to eat, actually my neighbors to the right are second generation vietnamese, and to the left is first generation chinese), and to see her words come to life years later. i bring this up because i really don’t think there is some higher power behind all of this, my friend knew it would happen and she doesn’t claim to speak to higher powers, and she said who will lead them out of it. ummm, that is why she is not free, cencensored, unable to gather, and restricted to one location for the most part, even though she is not an army. one step out and she is always a moment from being asassinated…

    what if the UN can free her and protect her within the state?

    it is like Year of the Woman all over the world, it is spreading

    we all need to be held on the left side for a bit (yield left, lol), or provided a gentle touch for a bit, to solve a lot of these problems, i think. pick up the NewYorker for great articles on hillary clinton, and colic babies. the colic article is mind blowing, what if we need to restart with the world, not possible i know, and this time hold it for over 16 hours until it is at least two. i’m talking a more gradual progression to independence.

  11. Thanks for this. I haven’t heard anything more from Myanmar for a good while, have you? Ybonesy’s comment brings to mind MLK’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”. A quick search should bring up an audio copy of his speech. I have speeches mixed in with my music (along with Broadus’ Power Ranger theme songs) and listen to shuffled selections in my studio as I work. MLK’s letter is always so arresting.

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