Religion can dictate terms of resistance: Henry Porter

Religion can dictate terms of resistance: Henry Porter
Tuesday Oct 2, 2007

Tags: Religion, Henry Porter , Buddhism, East Germany, resistance, Independent, New Zealand Herald

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It remains a little remembered fact that a congregation was the catalyst for the end of communist East Germany. And while some commemorators are inclined to argue that “religion can poison everything”, I found myself looking at the Buddhist monks being clubbed and shot on the streets of Myanmar cities such as Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and thought, well, not quite everything.
Until the monks were seized or held prisoner in their monasteries by General Than Shwe’s troops last Thursday night, they led the heroic demonstrations. And they were proving a trend of modern times that organised religion is very often the only means people have of challenging a dictatorship and bringing about enlightened political values.

The uprising in East Germany in 1989 all began in a Lutheran church – the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig – when pastor Christian Fuhrer inaugurated prayers for peace. It was a small gesture of defiance but through September 1989, the crowds swelled in the square outside the church.
Many carried candles to show that they planned no violence or vandalism, the idea being that you cannot throw a brick when you’re shielding a candle in the night air.

The vanguard of barefoot monks in Yangon denoted the same peaceful intention.
The turning point in East Germany came on October 9 when 400,000 people filled the centre of the city. From then on the communist regime, among the most repressive in Eastern Europe, was doomed, although no one could have predicted that 31 days later the Berlin Wall would fall and the regimes in Czechoslovakia and Romania would follow quickly.

That church provided the institutional context in which to challenge the state. And the faith of so many ordinary people gave them the courage to go into the streets on that evening when paratroops had been flown in, the Stasi were armed and hospitals had been cleared to receive hundreds of casualties.

Together, faith and passive mass resistance create an inspired force that is more than the sum of the parts. That is why the churches across East Germany 1989 and temples in Myanmar were points of ignition.

I don’t say it always happens. The Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, was shunned by Catholic colleagues before being shot in his cathedral in 1980. Just that religion can be a platform of resistance and any history of liberty and modern civilisation must concede that.
There are other striking similarities between Myanmar and East Germany. The German Democratic Republic was ruled by an inflexible and out-of-touch gerontocracy led by Erich Honecker.

Like the aged Burmese generals, Honecker’s party officials lived in privileged enclaves with every possible service and luxury, while the people went without. Both regimes made the mistake of allowing conditions where the people had nothing but their lives to lose.
East Germany was a political dependency of the USSR, as Burma is of China. In October 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev went to the GDR to attend the country’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
During the visit, he made some remarks about history penalising those who did not change with the times. The Chinese may be saying the same to the Myanmar junta. Although there is a difference in the relationships. East Germany needed Soviet oil and the Chinese are desperate for Burmese oil. But the Chinese sense the danger of this extraordinary movement in Burma and must wonder if the course of their own peculiar political evolution is threatened by infection from their client state, as was the Soviet Union by the revolutions in Europe. The Chinese want the Burmese situation to go away as quickly as possible. That may have been achieved for the time being, but the fire has been lit and the resolve of the people and monks may yet prevail.
Much was made last week of the way the Burmese used the internet and mobile phones to skirt round the fierce censorship by the regime, often sending tiny fragments of a picture or report by text message.

In the autumn of 1989, there were no mobile phones in East Germany, Apple had just released its first laptop and Tim Berners-Lee had just published his paper on hypertext, describing the idea of a web. Communication was at a minimum. Just one camera hidden and fixed along the route partially filmed the historic march on October 9, which is why the West underestimated what was happening.

I am not persuaded that the internet and mobile phone make peaceful uprising easier. Still, it has been difficult not to be moved by the film coming out of Burma , particularly of Aung San Suu Kyi receiving the marchers in the pouring rain. Seeing this marriage between the heroic, poised secularity of the elected leader and the staunchness of the monks, I wondered if the Palestinians were not missing a trick. The circumstances in the Middle East are obviously different, but peaceful processions in Gaza and along the Israeli defence wall, processions that excluded the bully boys firing AK47s from the back of pick-up trucks, may well have an arresting effect on world opinion and attitudes in Israel.

The thing that should come to us is that once our rights to assemble in Parliament Square, to communicate without being monitored and to move about without being watched disappear into the vaults of the state, we face a long, perilous fight to reclaim them. The crowds in Myanmar could only offer passive resistance to Than Shwe’s forces. They may look beaten now, but their day will come. World opinion is activated and on the eve of the Olympics, China must move to control him.

In East Germany, the regime was restrained by the Soviet Union which refused to mobilise any of the hundreds of thousands of troops stationed inside the republic.
Yet the actual reason the demonstration in Leipzig on October 9 did not end in bloodshed was that a statement was read from the pulpits of every church in the city appealing for peace and self-control. The pastors gave that message authority and the people courage. Without them, the most peaceful revolution ever seen would have been very different. The monks have been beaten and their monasteries sacked in Burma, yet they have served the cause of freedom and their religion well.
– Observer


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