by Ingrid Jordt
In the global narrative
of how democracy springs eternal and ultimately vanquishes the forces of
oppression, the dissolution of the Burmese military junta in 2011 told of a
people’s capacity to enshrine the principles of universal human rights and
tolerance in a pluralistic nation.
The heroine of this
romantic story was Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the martyred independence
leader Aung San and herself a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose 15 years of
house arrest personified Burma’s captivity to autocratic rule. Her
non-violent strategy was, moreover, seen as perfectly mirroring the
spiritual goals and political inclinations of the Buddhist monks who
constitute the moral core of the nation.
Then, inexplicably to
most international observers, those same monks changed direction, rallying
by the hundreds in defense of Buddhism, using their newly won democratic
freedoms to insert constitutional amendments restricting interfaith
marriage, and demanding that Muslims be banished from the country.
A perplexing new
landscape of communal aspirations, historic antipathies, and an enigmatic
conceptualization of how religious and national identity ought to be
conjoined, boiled over in the form of communal violence and extremist
Buddhist chauvinism directed toward the Muslim minority.
Foreign media produced a
spate of man-bites-dog stories expressing astonishment that those who had so
recently marched in non-violent demonstrations using expressions of
universal kindness and compassion towards all beings could now be inciting
hate and advocating the withdrawal of human rights from another religious
community. Writing for the BBC magazine on May 2 of last year, Oxford
historian Alan Strathern asked, “But aren’t Buddhist monks meant to be the
good guys of religion?”
To make sense of what is
happening in Burma, it is necessary to understand the complex role monks
play in the country’s political order.
For the past 800 years,
the authority of the Burmese sovereign has been dependent upon the Sangha,
the Buddhist monastic order whose forswearing of power and renunciation of
worldly things is the source of spiritual potency, or hpoun.
Hpoun is generated
through the accumulation of wholesome deeds leading to good karmic results
in the future. It is the hpoun-gyii, the monk, who is best situated
to accomplish this. In turn, the monk confers hpoun on those whose offerings
he accepts, using his “merit field” to create a network of lay supporters.
At the top of the
political food chain, the Sangha must supply hpoun to the ruler, who lacks
legitimacy without it. In order to control the populace, the ruler must have
access to the merit fields of the monks.
rulers have made this spiritual regime work for them by identifying and
supporting monks sympathetic to their authority while discrediting
individual monks or segments of the Sangha who interfere with their
ambitions. Similarly, “pretenders to the throne”—as political aspirants are
still referred to because of the ongoing symbolic connections to
kingship—challenge existing authorities by mobilizing around monks whose
spiritual authority challenges those elements of the Sangha made corrupt
through association with ruling regimes.
For 60 years Burmese
rulers have been trying to disentangle this spiritual-political dynamic and
allow the government to function independent of the Sangha. After seizing
power in a 1962 coup, the country’s military assured its economic and
political supremacy by divide-and-rule politics and the perpetuation of a
continuous war against minorities.
In 1990, when the
military rank and file joined the rest of the public in electing Aung San
Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) Party by a
landslide, the generals refused to relinquish power. In the ensuing
protests, several students and a monk were shot to death.
This triggered a “strike”
by the Sangha in which thousands refused to accept the alms of the military
and their families. (Because lay peoples’ merit depends upon supporting the
Sangha, the Sangha can deny them merit by refusing to accept their alms.)
Many military wives, their own merit fields jeopardized by the actions of
their husbands, refused to cook for them. Respected monk elders demanded
that the regime publicly repent its actions.
Thereafter, the generals
embarked on a project to separate military personnel and their families and
to dissolve the warm feelings between the army and the general populace.
They also sought to divide the Sangha by cultivating a separate segment of
monks loyal to the regime who would serve as the merit fields of the armed
In the prolonged economic
depression of the time, many Burmese joined the military for the special
privileges it provided. The tradeoff was loyalty and subjugation to the
patron-client ties that kept the military government functioning, including
support of the military’s monks.
The junta also required
that civil servants’ pay be skimmed for offerings to designated monks. So
closely was the activity associated with the regime’s corruption that in the
capital Yangon (Rangoon) the act of making such offerings was cynically
referred to as “doing bribery.”
When the 2007 monk-led
demonstrations erupted, the generals were ready. They imposed curfews on
military compounds so that military families were confined to limited
engagements with the outside, including monks. Battalions were brought in
from the hill tribe areas (where the regime has fought ethnic insurgencies
since 1948) to prevent loyalty conflicts among soldiers, monks, and
violence, the regime killed some monks (unofficial estimates put the number
between 30 and 40) and rounded up many more, interring them in a Yangon
soccer stadium. Patriarchs from the State Sangha Maha Nayaka
Committee—installed by the military to adjudicate in the Sangha courts—were
instructed to go to the stadium and disrobe the monks, thereby demonstrating
that their monastic status was bogus and their protests, a political ruse.
The patriarchs refused.
This refusal was a sign
to the people that the Sangha had not been captured by the military and was
not (entirely) corrupted. Within days, the junta filled the committee with
more compliant patriarchs. But “Monk Killer Than Shwe,” as the senior
general and junta leader became known, could not recover from this crisis of
On May 2, 2008, Cyclone
Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Burma, struck
the Irrawaddy Delta. The storm was interpreted by Burmese Buddhists as a
sign of Than Shwe’s illegitimacy, its devastation as a karmic consequence of
his violence against the monks.
In Burma, the weather is
inseparably linked to the ruler, the people, and the sacred geography of the
realm. It is, according to traditional Burmese Buddhist thinking, an index
of the ruler’s legitimacy.
So in the world that most
contemporary Burmese grew up in—where there was little news beyond what the
government gave them—the weather report was itself a form of propaganda. The
government-owned New Light of Myanmar always published the same
forecast: “The weather will be fair throughout the land.”
Fearing that it would
provide a cover for foreign military intervention, the generals blocked
international humanitarian aid for the victims of Nargis for a month. All
donations were to go through the military, thereby preserving the principle
that the ruler is the chief donor of the land. The generals were also
concerned lest incipient donation networks grow into political action
parties that might contest their authority.
After Nargis, Than
Shwe—probably in recognition of the fact that there could be no return to
the status quo ante and reputedly on the advice of his personal
astrologer—pushed through a sham referendum in support of the military’s
draft constitution. “The time has now come to change from military rule to
democratic civilian rule,” the state media reported.
With hundreds of millions
of dollars of state resources secured in personal accounts in Dubai, Than
Shwe had long since prepared his golden parachute. Now he distributed
national assets to his loyal generals and cronies in the name of opening the
country to democracy and free market capitalism.
Thus would the promised
transition to democracy wipe the historical slate clean while dividing
Burma’s rich resources as so much booty among the elite. Aung San Suu Kyi
would be released from house arrest but constrained by a constitutional
arrangement rigged in the generals’ favor by guaranteeing the military 25
percent of the parliamentary seats.
And the rest of the world
poured in, ready to take advantage of one of the world’s last great economic
development opportunities. Commercial greed and the possibility of
reasserting some Western influence in the Asian region made it easy to
overlook the warning signs.
Enter Ashin Wirathu, the
monk whom Time’s July 1, 2013 cover dubbed “The Face of Buddhist
Born in Mandalay in 1968,
U Wirathu left school at 14 to become a monk and in 2001 joined the 969
Movement, a nationalist Buddhist organization known for hostility to
Muslims. Two years later he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for giving
incendiary sermons but in 2010 was released with many other political
He came to prominence in
September 2012, when he led a rally of monks in Mandalay on behalf of
President Thein Sein’s controversial plan to deport the 800,000 Burmese
Muslims known as Rohingya. “I call them troublemakers, because they are
troublemakers,” he told New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller in June
of last year. “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.” A month after
his Mandalay rally, violence broke out in Rakhine State on the Bangladesh
border, where most Rohingya live.
between Buddhists and Muslims is in fact well-rehearsed state theater—one of
Burmese rulers’ favorite art forms. In the 1930s, riots drove out Indians
who had emigrated during British colonial rule. Another expulsion took place
at the start of Ne Win’s military rule in 1962.
Burmese Indians had at
one time made up fully half of the population of Yangon, the country’s
commercial as well as political capital. Their expulsions were explicitly
meant to rectify economic disparities and Burman displacement by a more
commercially successful community. Typical Indian physical features would
become synonymous with Muslim identity, mirroring emergent national ideas of
the unity of race, language, and religion for the Burman Buddhist majority.
Rohingyas has been a recurring phenomenon. In 1978 Ne Win launched Operation
Naga Min (Dragon King), expelling 250,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. A
year later, following an agreement with the Bangladeshi government,
Operation Shwe Hintha (Golden Bird) returned an equal number to
Rohingyas were variously
excluded by citizenship laws (1982), expulsions (1992, 1994), and
restrictions on marriage and reproduction (2005). On each occasion, the
flare-up against this population served national political purpose even as
it reflected religious and economic tensions.
The 2010 elections again
put the Rohingya issue into manipulative play when the Election Commission
permitted “Guest Citizens” (Rohingyas holding White Identity cards) to be
eligible to vote in exchange for casting ballots for the military’s own
(formally civilian) Union Solidarity and Development Party.
For those who suffered
through decades of corrupt military rule, U Wirathu’s speeches have
considerable appeal. It is widely perceived that minorities with ties to
other countries (China, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia) have been able to take
advantage of the corrupt patron-client system to purchase citizenship cards,
migrate into Burma from Bangladesh and China, build mosques, benefit from
land grabs, and receive business concessions.
For many Burmese
Buddhists, their displacement by immigrating ethnic groups makes it
self-evident that the sasana (religion) is under threat. The threat
has also been evident from the weakening of the Sangha, which relies on lay
By controlling the flow
of lay donations, the military restricted the movement of monks, and imposed
curfews and the requirement to seek governmental permission for every sermon
made to gatherings of more than five people. Agents planted in significant
monasteries operated openly, jotting down the names of laity who came to
make offerings to monks. Big donors were then solicited to contribute to
state construction projects.
Under the circumstances,
many Burmese keenly felt the need for both Buddhist and Burmese revival. U
Wirathu’s defense of the religion speaks to this common sentiment. In his
talks, he links Muslim business activity to the slighting of Buddhist
spheres of control. Secularization proceeds through private ownership, and
this combination, which appears to favor Muslim businesses, is deeply
troubling to Buddhists.
The fear is that
secularism and private ownership will work together to destroy the Buddhist
public sphere. Most Burmese Buddhists see the 969 boycott of Muslim
businesses as a peaceful way to collectively sanction the economic
advantages held by Muslim shopkeepers and businesses. Indeed, they view the
969 Movement not as a provocation but as a way of redressing the unfair
advantages that secular politics and a privatized economic system have
conferred upon those with the financial resources and political connections.
2013 cover story by Hannah Beech was itself widely considered an attack on
Buddhism. Tying the attacks on Muslims to Islamic violence (“Now it’s
Buddhism’s turn”), Beech wrote that U Wirathu had described himself as the
“Burmese Bin Laden.” Although he seems only to have said that that was what
his Muslim opponents called him, the international press repeated her
In fact, U Wirathu walks
a tight line between protecting the religion and “doing politics”—which is
forbidden to monks and a cause for disbarment from the monkhood. He has
repeatedly stated that in his community, 969 campaigners do not use
violence. Nevertheless, the United Nations and international NGOs have tied
the 969 movement and Buddhist monks to anti-Muslim violence.
The Sangha Maha Nayaka
Committee, which adjudicates monks’ orthodoxy and behavior, has declared it
illegal to form monk networks based on the principles of the 969 Movement
and bars linking its emblem to the religion. However, the Committee has not
sought to defrock U Wirathu for alleged engagement in politics or inciting
violence. Rather, he is portrayed as speaking against violence.
For his part, President
Thein Sein has said that the government would take action against those who
exploit the religion for their own benefit—suggesting that he may not have
full control of the situation on the ground. Tying the violent anti-Muslim
riots to the religion and the monkhood surely benefits some persons, it is
believed, while simultaneously discrediting the Sangha, weakening its
capacity to confer legitimacy to the ruler.
That U Wirathu enjoys the
backing of the regime is strongly suggested by the fact that he has been
given freedom to travel the country and preach without any governmental
constraints, as well as by evidence of the military’s involvement in the
production and distribution of DVDs of his sermons. By contrast, monks who
have protested land-grabbing—for example, by the Chinese-backed Letpadaung
copper mine—have been immediately and violently put down and jailed by
believe that elements in the military have deliberately orchestrated the
anti-Muslim campaign in an attempt to foil the democracy movement and Aung
San Suu Kyi’s popular support in advance of the 2015 elections. UN observers
have pointed to the strategic efficiency and planning involved in the
anti-Muslim riots, noting that government security forces have stood by and
even participated in the violence against Muslims.
According to the new
rules of Burmese politics, entrenching the military requires not only force
of arms but also the will of the people. To achieve political legitimacy,
the generals must demonstrate that Burma is still unfit for democracy and
that the army is the only institution capable of holding the nation
To do this, they must
discredit Suu Kyi’s vision. This is not so hard to do.
The Burmese democracy
movement has always been first and foremost an anti-regime movement, and Suu
Kyi has long been the best-positioned opponent of the regime. But she
herself takes a secularist approach to Buddhism. Her presentation of the
faith as a “revolution of the spirit” towards Western humanist principles
has never been fully accepted by even her most ardent supporters inside
This secularized vision—a
far cry from the Burmese ideal of a Buddhist state—was tolerated and
overlooked by Burmans who recognized her ability to represent the cause of
Burma to the international community. But now she is caught in a bind.
Standing up for human
rights means siding with the Muslims and not supporting the place of
Buddhism in the nation. Siding with the Buddhists undermines her credibility
as a human rights superstar. She has chosen to remain silent—and drawn
criticism from every corner.
Meanwhile, U Wirithu, as
agent provocateur, seeks to reveal and exploit this contradiction to
discredit Suu Kyi on both Buddhist and Burmese grounds. When a National
League for Democracy office refused to allow a Buddhist ceremony in
commemoration of the martyrdom of her father, he pointed out that the
landlord was Muslim and had forbidden the ceremony from taking place in his
Depicting Suu Kyi as
having been in this way “surrounded” and contained by Muslims, he cuts to
the heart of Burmese Buddhist doubts about “The Lady’s” ability to rule.
“She doesn’t know about
Burma and its nature,” he said in a statement endorsing Thein Sein as the
presidential candidate most capable of defending the religion. “All she
knows is to stage revolution and attack the government. If she became the
president, the governance would be in chaos. Racial and religious conflict
His endorsement of Thein
Sein in 2015 has won the approval of even such highly respected monks as
Tipitakadhara U Indaçariya, who observed that Aung San Suu Kyi’s view of
Buddhism was not in conformity with Burmese Buddhists’ and that she wants to
internationalize Burma’s social and cultural life.
This is the crux of the
struggle over what democracy and political legitimacy means for Burma two
long years after the military dictatorship supposedly ended and President
Obama declared the country “open for business.” The military and the
nominally civilian government have given Burmese mobs a license to terrorize
because their ultimate goal is to show that security is preferable to
freedom and defense of the religion demands strong rulers capable of
safeguarding the Buddhist realm.
As she seeks to change
the constitution—which bars her, as the widow and mother of foreigners—from
running for the presidency, Aung San Suu Kyi is feeling the political ground
shifting under her feet. Her popularity is being overtaken by support for
Thein Sein, whose legitimacy as defender of the sacred as well as the
secular dimensions of the realm has been strengthened in the confusion of
The history of Burma is
replete with stories of heroes who overthrow unjust kings and reestablish
Buddhist rule. Suu Kyi’s father is considered one of these and many Burmese
see her as such a figure—a minlaung or challenger to the throne.
But at the moment, her
“revolution of the spirit” does not look capable of achieving the genuine
democratic transformation she had in mind. Rather, its notable success is
being subsumed by the traditional Burmese tug-of-war over legitimacy between
Sangha and state.