Michael Vatikiotis: Monks' crucial role in fight for freedom

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The Independent Online

The sight of hundreds of saffron-robed Buddhist monks marching in protest through the streets of Rangoon, their hands clasped in prayer, is a strong reminder of the significant role that religion plays in the politics of Asia.

It may be too early to tell whether the fledgling alliance of monks will prove strong enough to topple Burma's military regime, but many observers recall that the popular revolt that forced Burmese strongman Ne Win to step down in 1988 was also spearheaded by the country's influential Buddhist clergy.

Religion in Asia is a powerful leveller. Few popular movements for freedom and democracy in the region have taken off without strong support, if not inspiration, from religious quarters. The earliest movements for independence in Burma and in Indonesia drew inspiration from religious groups. In modern Indonesia, Islamic scholars and thinkers such as Abdurrahman Wahid and Nurcholis Madjid spearheaded the fledgling democracy movement of the 1990s, with Mr Abdurrahman eventually becoming President.

Elsewhere in the region, the link between struggles for freedom and religion is less overt but still present. In the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo rode to power in 2000 on the back of a mass movement that tapped support from the Catholic Church.

The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement that mobilised hundreds of thousands of people to march down the territory's busy streets in 2002 and 2003 drew inspiration from the Catholic Church, which has a strong presence in the former British colony.

The religious tinting of protests against authoritarian rule has helped keep many of them non-violent and reduced conflict levels. Political change has been accompanied by short bursts of violence, but all-out civil war is rare.

The mainly-Buddhist kingdoms of Thailand and Cambodia maintain a healthy balance between clergy and state. Even in Burma today, the Buddhist hierarchy has yet to declare its support for the protests spearheaded by younger monks.

The role of religion in Asian politics will only be further marginalised once political pluralism is more firmly established. This is why the agenda for political reform must go beyond ensuring free elections.

For now, democratic politics in many Asian countries represents a marginal adjustment by vested interest groups which continue to trample on the rights of citizens while hiding behind flimsy policies and manipulated mandates.

The writer is the Singapore-based regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a conflictresolution group