Burma

Monks, masses and military

Tuesday 9 October 2007, by S.D. Muni

THE military in Myanmar looks firmly in command, having crushed the democratic protests led by monks. This is not for the first time that monks have raised their voice against a repressive state and this is also not for the first time that the state has prevailed. In fact, this has happened throughout the political history of Myanmar.

Buddhism has been nursed and protected by kings in Myanmar, and monks stood by them against the British imperialists. In 1874, the Buddhist clergy stood by King Mindon when the British conquered Myanmar, which was then called Burma. Again, during the 1920s and 1930s, monks joined Burma’s freedom struggle with the army and other Burmese people. They had formed their own organisation, the General Council of Sangha Associations, way back in 1922 to lead the opposition against the British. Young monks such as U Ottama and U Wisara are still revered in Myanmar’s monasteries for the leadership and inspiration they provided in opposing British rule.

Monks have had an uneasy relationship with the state in Myanmar since its independence in 1948. Under U Nu’s leadership, the secular character of the state was asserted to keep the Sangha out of the “secular, legal and political space”. But this was done with due respect to religion and by offering incentives to monks and monasteries to confine themselves to the religious code. In return for the respect and dignity offered under the democratic political order, the Sangha questioned the legitimacy of General Ne Win’s takeover in 1962. The new ruler set out to purge the religious order by making a distinction between real monks and impostors (ditthis). He cautioned people who indulged in “showy prestige” to earn false “religious merit”.

There were strong protests in April 1963 at the Mahamayatmuni Pagoda that forced Ne Win to relax some of his restrictions. In these protests, monks refused to accept alms from the military rulers and their families, a form of protest which was re-enacted in September 2007. Ne Win waited for two more years and reacted in 1965 by repelling the soft laws of the U Nu period under which monks were free from “law and order” controls. Monks raised protests against the military regime in 1974, 1976 and 1978, but the state subdued them.

They were in the forefront of the anti-military regime protests during August-September 1988. During the agitation, some 600 monks lost their lives in state repression. While the monks pleaded for national unity, among the Burmans and the ethnic communities, they also articulated the ethos of “opposition” to resist any unjust and tyrannical rule.

The monks clearly stood for democratic governance. When the then General Saw Maung called for elections, he claimed that it was being done “in accordance with the request of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee Sayadaws”. Their support for the agitation forced the military to barricade the holiest Shewedagon Pagoda in the then capital Yangon.

There was a clear preference in the clergy for the National League of Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. To snub the military rulers who were not transferring power to the elected representatives, the Sangha asked the NLD to hold the first session of newly elected Members of Parliament in a monastery in Mandalay. Even after the suppression of the democracy movement and the results of the 1988 elections, the 1990 prison riots in Mandalay, Myanmar’s ancient capital and the second largest city, were led by U Kowainda, a monk.

The second anniversary of the repression of the popular movement was observed by some 7,000 monks in 1990 when police fired on their peaceful march. Some 20,000 monks “overturned their begging bowls”, refusing to accept food and offerings from the state and military-related officials and their families. The monks unleashed a propaganda using religious symbols, such as the oozing of blood in the eyes of Buddha statues and the swelling of the left chest of these statues, to stir up popular sentiments. In the traditional mode of making astrological predictions, the monks in 1990 proclaimed the sure fall of the military regime (State Law and Order Restoration Council - SLORC) and Aung San Suu Kyi as the next ruler of Myanmar.

The present military regime could not afford the Sangha’s alienation from and rebellion against the state to continue. The Sangha is the most well-organised formation after the military, as the political parties are in disarray. According to 1997 estimates, there are 51,322 monasteries in Myanmar that house 406,903 monks. This number matches with that of the army’s strength of about 400,000. While 167,562 are well-groomed monks, 239,341 are novices. These include 24,043 nuns. Most of these monks, particularly the novices, are young and politically radical.

To soften this rebellion, the regime moved on two counts: one was to purge the Sangha of the rebellious elements and the other was to win over the established clergy as supporters of the regime. The repression of the pro-democracy protests since 1988 did not spare the monks. Thousands of the protesting monks were de-robed and many others killed or imprisoned.

But from 1992 onwards, the regime extended formal and generous support to the pro-establishment Sangha to make sure that monks did not join democratic forces. A separate Ministry of Religious Affairs was established to ensure that the Sangha remained appeased and provided support and legitimacy to the regime. One may recall here the limited freedom given to Aung San Suu Kyi during 2001, when she was allowed to travel in the country and address people. However, when the growing presence of monks in her meetings was noticed in the towns and villages around Mandalay, her movements were stopped and she was put under house arrest again.

Thus, there is a history of the radical and politically conscious sections of the Sangha being sympathetic to the cause of democracy. The August-September 2007 revolt was sparked off by common people coming out on the streets to protest against the rise in fuel prices. The Myanmar junta has been grossly mismanaging the economy of their resource-rich country by spending more on purchase of arms, construction of a new and luxurious capital at Naypyitaw and launching expensive information technology projects. In order to meet the additional economic burden, the regime had planned new economic reforms that included, on the suggestion of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, substantial cuts in national fuel subsidies. The prices of essential commodities skyrocketed for the majority of the Myanmarese people who even otherwise live in economic hardship because of lack of development and adequate economic opportunities. The monks who closely interact with ordinary people on a day-to-day basis for their food and socio-religious rituals came out in support of the people, asking for drastic reduction in fuel prices and the release of innocent protesters who had been put under detention.

The monks’ agitation took a political turn when they called upon people to join them and also when they went to see Aung San Suu Kyi for guidance and support. The “Alliance of All Burmese Monks” had taken the leadership of the movement. The defiant nature of this organisation is evident in its name itself that uses “Burma” and not “Myanmar”.

The monks also asked for a dialogue between the regime and Aung San Suu Kyi so that real political reforms could be initiated. The regime had taken 14 years to conclude, in 2006, the National Convention on Constitutional Guidelines. Under these guidelines, the regime wants to secure a legitimate and lasting political role for military. Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD had refused to participate in this convention. Uneasiness at the junta’s firm resolve to proceed along their chosen political road map of political reforms was gradually building up following the conclusion of the national convention and the uncertainty about any national political reconciliation and liberalisation. Therefore, both political and economic factors combined to add momentum to the monks’ 2007 agitation. The regime, which took a relaxed view of the economic protests initially for about a month, could no longer tolerate the snowballing agitation, which took the form of nearly 100,000 demonstrators, comprising monks and ordinary people, coming on the streets in Yangon and other major towns such as Sittwe and Mandalay in the last week of September.

Buddhism and politics

Political radicalism among the Buddhist clergy is not a Myanmarese uniqueness. The Theravada sect of Buddhism is widespread in Southeast Asia, particularly Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, and also in Sri Lanka. Studies by Martin Start-Fox on Southeast Asian countries and Urmila Phadnis on Sri Lanka have critically examined the nexus between Buddhism and politics in these countries. Traditionally, Buddhism has played the role of providing legitimacy to the regimes in these countries. Thailand and Sri Lanka stand out as representative cases in this respect. In Thailand, the Sangha has blessed the latest coup against a democratically elected government and is supporting a military regime backed by the King.

In Sri Lanka, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike firmly set the relationship of Buddhism with politics through his successful “Sinhala Only” campaign in the 1956 elections. Both the Sinhala mainstream parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party, since then have been competing for the Sangha’s support and patronage in their struggle for power against each other. Since the beginning of the new millennium, the monks in Sri Lanka have formed their own political party, the Hella Urumaya, and are presently driving the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in seeking a military solution of the Tamil ethnic problem.

Monks all over Asia and in the world have extended support to their brethren in Myanmar. Through demonstrations and statements by monks in Japan, India, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, the Myanmar junta’s repression of the agitation has been criticised and demands for democracy have been raised. The Dalai Lama, in a statement issued on September 23, said: “I extend my support and solidarity with the recent peaceful movement for democracy in Burma. I fully support their call for freedom and democracy and take this opportunity to appeal to freedom loving people all over the world to support such non-violent movements. I pray for the success of this peaceful movement and the early release of fellow Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Notwithstanding this extensive support from the Buddhists and non-Buddhists all over the world for the agitating monks, the military regime in Myanmar has got an upper hand. This cannot be understood simply by referring to the ruthless repression by the junta. The monks proclaimed their political affiliations at the early stages of the movement. They should have waited to see Aung San Suu Kyi and instead carried forward the economic demands of the masses until the agitation became more powerful.

There is also no denying the fact that the Sangha in Myanmar, as perhaps also in other Buddhist countries, is politically divided, with a sizeable chunk of the established clergy supporting the state. Radicalism and anti-state stance is traditionally prevalent more among the young monks and novices. The state-supported Venerable Monks Committee of Myanmar issued instructions to “prohibit monk members from participating in secular affairs and for avoidance from getting involved in party politics and instigation”. The Minister of Religious Affairs, Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung, alleged that the rebels were getting support and money from foreign sources and were being incited by “external and internal destructive elements”.

The official position, as reflected by Foreign Minister U Nyan Win in his U.N. General Assembly statements, hinted at the U.S. being behind the monks’ revolt. The labelling of the rebellious monks as externally inspired eroded their credibility in the socio-political context of Myanmar, in the apolitical sections of society, where foreigners have historically been looked upon with distrust and suspicion. This helped the Generals to mobilise state-managed but impressive rallies of rural masses in their support.

The Generals have also succeeded because the forces fighting for democracy are fragmented and the international community supporting them is divided. The U.N. Secretary-General’s special envoy Ibrahim Gambari has failed to make any substantial change in the situation and the European and American pressures for isolating the Myanmar junta will not alter this situation. China will not allow the West-supported liberal democratic forces to gain ground in its sensitive neighbourhood, and India has too fragile a leverage to be effective even when it raises the pitch of its pro-democracy rhetoric under the U.S. persuasion.

The military in Myanmar has won its battle against the monks but not its war against democracy.

Hopefully, the monks and the masses will rise again, reinforcing those areas where they are vulnerable and designing a strategy that carries more punch than idealism.


S.D. Muni is the editor of Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

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