01 October 2007

Symbolic Politics and Hope

Photograph © Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The news out of Burma (see here and here too), restricted by effective government censorship, is not encouraging. It appears that the regime is attacking, imprisoning and, in many instances, killing the Buddhist monks who had led last week's demonstrations. In large measure this state of affairs seems to represent the victory of "real" politics backed by military might over "symbolic" politics. As this story from The New York Times makes clear, what the monks wielded against the regime was symbolic power.

[These three images © Reuters ~ Unknown Photographer.]

As this story from The New York Times makes clear, what the monks wielded against the regime was symbolic power.

"As they marched through the streets of Myanmar's cities
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.

P.S.: I found all these images on line. I have not credited the final two photographs because they were taken and distributed by someone in Burma who may be in danger should their name be widely published.

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Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

Unfortunately there is no hope. The demonstrations have already completely ceased and the rumors are now leaking that thousands have been slaughtered:

BTW, you left out one important, if not decisive, factor in your analogy of the Polish Solidarity movement and the Burmese monks: the robust support of the U.S. and the Catholic church. You don't really believe a single Polish trade union could take on the USSR on its own, do you?

01 October, 2007 14:58  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

If the above link isn't working just visit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk then click on world news.

01 October, 2007 14:59  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Dawei, Of course, the US government and the Church backed Solidarity. But their support was of the moral variety only. They did nothing when the regime imposed martial law and interned many, many members of the opposition. I think the role of symbols was more complicated than I let on here. But they were indeed crucial.

01 October, 2007 15:26  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

PS: I had seen the story you refer to as well as the pictures - there are more available online. At the moment things seem hopeless. The argument I would make is that things seemed similarly hopeless in December 1981 when the Communists imposed military rule in Poland. The hope I hold out, and that is the theme of SOlnit's book, is a long term one.

01 October, 2007 15:34  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

It boggles my mind that the junta, in the age of digital cameras and broadband internet, was able to essentially seal off the country to the world and commit mass murder-these Stalinist bastards run a tight ship.
What I find especially disheartening is the complacency of the international community. How ironic that only world leader that harshly criticize this despicable junta in the UN last week was Bush. Sadly, we all know that with America's currently credibility in the world he might as well be talking to the wall. Not surprisingly, in China, this story has largely gone ignored. If not for proxy servers, people would know nothing of it. I guess this is what they call "real politik." Then again, China is no stranger to supporting regimes that are at war with their own population.

BTW, there is now a youtube video of the Japanese photojournalist getting shot in point blank range.

01 October, 2007 15:58  

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