Revered for self-sacrifice, Buddhist monks in Burma are standing up to the guns of a selfish regime. But these holy men in saffron robes are serving more than a people's desire for freedom. The protests also serve as a reminder of religion's historic role in shaping the kind of moral concern for others that is the root of democracy.
Democracy, after all, is simply the best way to bestow legitimacy on the few to rule the many for the care of all. In Burma (also known as Myanmar), any legitimacy of the military to govern ended long ago. Decades of repression, rather than caring, have left poverty and fear.
Last month, when the junta was forced by its bungling to double fuel prices, the people's economic suffering was intimately observed by the monks, who daily interact with the faithful in acts of humility and kindness. Their natural legitimacy has propelled them to lead nonviolent demonstrations aimed at withdrawing support from the regime and to demand democracy. Worldwide, religious leaders from the Dalai Lama to South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu have offered moral support.
Events in Burma are a model, repeated throughout history, of religious movements helping overthrow colonial powers and dictators. Protestant clergy helped spark the American Revolution, with one British commander complaining that "sedition flows copiously from the pulpits." The Vatican II changes of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s helped followers in many countries stand up to tyranny. Catholic nuns and priests were on the front line of a "people power" revolution in the Philippines that overthrew a dictator in …