Joan Bakewell: A lesson in how religion can play a big role in politics

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The Independent Online

What place do spiritual values have in shaping and defining the policy of the country? It's a question that would certainly not be asked at a UK party conference. Other than an occasional grace said before meals, our institutions pay little heed to the religious lives of their people.

As a secular country, we rarely regard the pronouncements of the established church as applying to us. The monastic orders are in sharp decline, and their empty old buildings are being put to other uses. So it is odd to read of a place where empty monasteries bear eloquent witness to political crisis.

Burma's monasteries have been emptied by a military dictatorship that fears their influence. Only 10 days ago, they were right to do so. The sight of tens of thousands of saffron-robed, shaven-headed monks was curiously awesome. They streamed through the streets of Rangoon, for all the world like the terracotta army come alive. People began to speak of the saffron revolution. Their demeanour told us much about modesty, obedience and shared values.

But what exactly did the Buddhist people of Burma expect to happen? They may have hoped to infiltrate some spiritual unease among individuals in the junta. It's said these men are strongly superstitutious, believing in astrology and the influence of magical numbers. Apparently monks can exercise a sort of excommunication that can damage their karma, ruin their afterlife.

But it is a strange kind of politics, and it has not yet effected any positive change. The sheer number of the monks must count for something. Clearly Buddhism, with its message of non-violence and philosophy of contemplation, is active throughout the country. The monks come from the people and are largely from the countryside. Pledged to a life of simplicity and prayer, they are respected by villagers and citizens from whom they daily beg alms. No one seems to question their right to be idle and dependent.

Individuals can become monks for a few years of their lives, then revert to the way of life they came from. All this is strange and mystifying to the western mindset. The nearest we come is the religious retreat, a form of quick-fix, spiritual renewal enjoying a modish revival in the west. What is clear to everyone, east and west, is that the monks and the movement they support for democratic government, have a heroic leader sharing their outlook and degree of commitment. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burma's independence hero, Aung San. She has the credentials typical of Asia's ruling dynasties – the Gandhis, the Bhuttos – and that must certainly appeal. But she has much more.

At a time of her life when it should be full of joy and fulfilment, she took it upon herself to give up the familiar ways of the world. The interests of her husband – who died without her at his bedside – and her two growing sons, were to come second. She opted for an alternative that has involved almost permanent house arrest, periods of solitary confinement, the junta's rejection of the democratic party she leads, and the crushing of all those who offer her support. Not even the most devout of monks could be making as great a sacrifice as she is. What she is giving them is inspiration.

The rest of the world discusses further sanctions, castigates Total oil for its trade with Burma, urges China to exercise its influence. The UN envoy Mr Gambari comes and goes. ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, threatens to ratchet up diplomatic pressure. All these moves are the stuff of realpolitik, Church leaders worldwide deplore what is happening, bloggers from both Burma and China call on people to wear Red T shirts as a show solidarity, and numerous petitions are circulating on the internet. Worldwide popular reactions spill into a void from which all we now hear is of empty monasteries and rumours of slaughter.

So where will the difference be made? Will Burma's spiritual resources be effective, or simply die away in resignation? We must trust that the impact of the monks' peaceful protests is finally effective. Aung San Suu Kyi's hopes must rest with the 400,000 strong army itself. Many soldiers must number monks among their family and friends. If their Buddhist values have sunk deep enough, then the army itself will split and enough soldiers who take their Buddhism seriously will rebel against their orders and fracture the power of the junta. The real change must come from within the country. It must come from within its unhappy population, and it must come from the strength of individual religious conviction.

If it does, then Buddhism may have something to teach us all. It would not be about the prevailing strength of one religious faction against another, of, as it were, Catholic against Protestant or Sunni against Shia. It would be about the collective power of peace and contemplation to bring about justice. We in the west have never given it a try.