Symbolic Politics and Hope
As this story from The New York Times makes clear, what the monks wielded against the regime was symbolic power.
last week leading the biggest antigovernment protests in
two decades, some barefoot monks held their begging
bowls before them. But instead of asking for their daily
donations of food, they held the bowls upside down, the
black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.
It was a shocking image in the devoutly Buddhist nation.
The monks were refusing to receive alms from the
military rulers and their families — effectively
excommunicating them from the religion that is at
the core of Burmese culture.
That gesture is a key to understanding the power of
the rebellion that shook Myanmar last week."
Among the events that this claim brought to my mind was the eruption in 1981 of Solidarity in Poland. That movement too, was laced not just with symbolism, but with distinctly religious symbolism. And members of the opposition proved more than willing to use symbols to coordinate themselves and to try to discrcedit the Communist regime even more than it already had done itself. In the short term the symbolic power that Solidarity commanded was dramatically inadequate in the face of the overwhelming military force that the regime mustered. Thus, in the spring of 1982 shortly after the Communist Regime had imposed martial law, one Polish worker lamented: “We’ve got all the symbols, and they've got all the guns and tanks.” Just so. But of course, in Poland the resistance moved underground, continued a surreptitious symbolic battle with the regime, and arguably was instrumental in the way, eventually, Polish Communism fell in 1989.
Like the Polish resistance in 1982, the Burmese opposition now confronts the crucial, immensely difficult task of maintaining Hope in the Dark. Easy, perhaps, for me to say. But true, I think, nonetheless. So this is my note of encouragement.