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State and Sangha in Burma

Asian Human Rights Commission

AHRC - Human Rights SOLIDARITY -
July 2000 Volume 10 No. 7 - State and Sangha in Burma

State and Sangha in Burma

Gautama Buddha envisaged a role for the Buddhist clergy, the Sangha, as 
moral guardian of political life: "In the Aggana Sutta the sociogenesis of 
political power is traced to a social contract. In his discourses to kings, 
the Buddha indicated his preference for consensual government based on just 
laws... Unleashing state terror against the people, the Buddha warned 
rulers, would drive resentment underground. Violence would erupt again and 
society would be caught in an unending spiral of violence and
counter-violence." (Nalin Swaris, Magga: The Buddha's Way to Human 
Liberation, 1997, p. 403.) Other discourses, such as the Satta Aparihaniya 
Dhamma, offer rulers advice on ensuring their people's prosperity.

In Burma, the Buddhist clergy historically served as a counter-weight to 
oppressive governance. For centuries, kings both sought the Sangha's 
approval and attempted to limit its power, as monks held a range of unique 
social, political and economic sanctions with which to undermine 
incompetent rulers. Later, under the colonial regime, their legitimising 
influence was no longer sought and government agents merely viewed monks 
with suspicion: "Nearly every, if not every, serious uprising against the 
British Government was concocted in some form of monastery... It seems 
strange that monasteries, rather than courts of justice or private 
dwellings, were the favourite haunts of these scheming scoundrels." (WW 
Cochrane, The Shans, Vol. 1, 1915, p. 212.) Given that the Europeans had 
comprehensively dismantled the social structures through which monks and 
nuns derived authority and consistently desecrated Buddhist places of 
worship, monastic opposition to their presence should perhaps have been 
less surprising.

The Sangha's traditional relationship to the government underwent renewal 
in more recent times. Both the post-independence
government and successive military regimes have desired the clergy's 
sanction, yet have attempted to diminish its influence to a
passive non-threatening level. The current regime has taken both to new 
lengths. In the absence of another governing ideology it
has developed a role for itself, in mimicry of ancient monarchs, as 
religious patron. Almost daily generals queue to offer donations and 
oversee openings of new religious institutions (see official media at 
www.myanmar.com/nlm). Simultaneously, the government exercises control 
through a central committee of senior monks and a programme for 
"purification" of the Sangha, amounting to the systematic eradication of 
anti-military elements within its ranks. Years of infiltration and 
intimidation have seemingly weakened resistance, yet monks and nuns both 
prominent and obscure continue to defy government edicts.

Recent reports indicate a new public rift between State and Sangha. It said 
to have begun when two popular abbots, Pegu
Kyahkhatwine Sayadaw and Maha Gandhayon Sayadaw, admonished both the armed 
forces and democratic opposition for the ongoing political stalemate in the 
country, ten years since results of the last election were rejected by the 
military. In response, the army began imposing restrictions on the abbots 
and lay-followers. The conflict grew and soon, according to exiled monks in 
Thailand, plans were afoot for a march on Rangoon. Official media sources 
reported that police met with select senior monks and told them "to be on 
guard against the insidious danger of some members of the Sangha". About 
one hundred monks arrived individually in Rangoon from Mandalay, in spite 
of restrictions imposed on travel, but authorities were aware of their 
presence. In the capital, the deadline for protests passed apparently 
without incident. Independent radio stations reported on disturbances in 
Mandalay, and Mergui in the south, however these appear to have been 
stifled by an intimidating military and police presence.

That nothing much seems to have happened is not surprising. Almost without 
exception, mass uprisings in Burma have occurred
spontaneously. Proclamations for change have met with vigilance from 
authorities and corresponding muteness from the populace. But nor should 
the absence of open confrontation be taken as a lack of activism on the 
part of either clergy or lay-people. Numerous examples testify to the stand 
by monks and nuns in Burma against militarization, such as when Aung San 
Suu Kyi was welcomed by the famous Thamanyar Sayadaw after her release from 
house arrest in 1995. Photographs of the meeting were widely circulated and 
this simple act by the old abbot was enough to send military minds reeling. 
And while the actions of
important persons attract widespread attention, courageous acts of 
less-prominent religious figures have also become the stuff of
legend. In the east of the country, a local militia commander in a civil 
war area informed an abbot that his soldiers were going to
burn down a nearby church. The Sayadaw replied, "When you have finished, 
come back and burn down my monastery too" and spoke to the officer on the 
virtue of all religions, averting the arson. The devotees of an abbot in 
the north were forced to labour on a road rather than attend a religious 
festival, so the monk came to the construction site. The villagers laid 
down their tools while the abbot preached that suffering occurs in 
countries with rulers who have breached the moral laws laid out by Buddha 
in the Cakkavatta Sihanda Sutta. In Burma to make such criticism of the 
military, however obtuse, is nothing less than a life-threatening act.

No doubt the last decade has left Burma's Sangha worse for wear. The 
intimidation, arrests and subjugation of "destructive
elements" within its ranks have been thorough and relentless. However, 
reports suggesting it has been weakened to the point of
ineffectuality are ultimately unconvincing, as recent events serve to 
demonstrate. They tell us more of the media's weaknesses
than those of the clergy. Currents of resistance often run deep, not easily 
recognised by the casual observer. Regardless of
headlines, the Sangha will doubtless continue the struggle to fulfill 
Gautama's mandate in quiet day-to-day defence of human rights and dignity 
in Burma.

[This article first appeared in the Religious Groups for Human Rights 
e-newsletter of June 7, 2000. To subscribe, contact

Asian Human Rights Commission
Email: ahrchk@xxxxxxxxxx