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date: 29 February 2020

Burmese Buddhist Politics

Abstract and Keywords

This article looks thematically at several important aspects of Buddhist politics in Myanmar, from the precolonial period to the present. It considers a number of arguments regarding the use of Buddhism in both supporting and opposing political authority, especially as they are rooted in a dualistic conception of human nature. It presents several examples of Burmese Buddhist political thought that creatively combine traditional Buddhist ideas with other political ideologies and practices, revealing a once-vibrant tradition that will hopefully be revitalized with the country’s current political transition. The role of monks in politics is controversial in Myanmar, and the article looks at some of the unique aspects of monastic activism, using examples from the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” and the current anti-Muslim Buddhist nationalist movements. Finally, it offers several different strands of democratic thought, including a provocative Burmese Buddhist notion of “moral democracy.”

Keywords: Buddhism, Burmese, Myanmar, monastic, politics, political authority, monks, nationalist, democracy


While Theravāda Buddhism is not a totalizing influence on Burmese politics, the religion has provided both a set of ideational raw materials and a general conceptual framework within which most Buddhists in Myanmar think about and practice politics. Within this framework, Burmese Buddhists have developed a wide range of interpretations of basic Buddhist ideas, often combined with political ideologies from other sources. Burmese political thinkers have used Buddhist principles to both defend and contest political authority and to construct a national identity in which state and religion are, for many, both interdependent and inseparable. Monks have played a leading role in Myanmar’s politics, justified via their responsibility to defend and propagate the religion as well as their obligation to reduce suffering. Monks and laypeople across the political spectrum have also developed conceptions of democracy that make reference to Buddhism, but, in prioritizing different elements of the religion, these conceptions result in contrasting democratic visions.

The appropriate relationship between Buddhism and politics remains an essentially contested question within Buddhist communities. This is true not only of monks (whose charge to remain detached from society would seem to restrict political participation), but of laypeople as well (for whom the line is often unclear between using Buddhist reasoning to support a policy and cynically exploiting Buddhism for political purposes). In Myanmar, the tradition of Buddhist political thought has been sporadically developed, due in large part to almost five decades of restrictive military rule. However, with political reforms since 2011, more space has opened up for public political participation, revealing a wide range of opinion regarding the relevance of Buddhist teachings to politics and the relationship of Buddhist identity to Burmese national identity. Research on Burmese Buddhist politics, while limited, is poised to expand rapidly, with increased access and the inclusion of more scholars from Myanmar.

This essay explores scholarship on several thematic aspects of Burmese Buddhist politics, employing a broad understanding of politics as that which pertains to the power relations between human beings in society. The first section touches on ideas about political authority, opposition to political authority, and the persistence of various aspects of the traditional Buddhist cosmology in the modern era. The next section presents two political concepts from Burmese Buddhist thinkers that creatively combine Buddhist ideas with other political ideologies and practices. The third section looks at the controversial topic of monastic involvement in politics, while the fourth examines a range of contemporary Burmese Buddhist interpretations of democracy.

Buddhism and Political Authority

Previous generations of scholarship on Buddhism and politics in Burma focused heavily on what we might call the “traditional” model of the Theravāda polity. In this sociopolitical structure, two forces served as constraints on human action: the political authority of the king, and the moral authority of the dhamma (the Buddha’s teachings), embodied and propagated by the sangha (the community of monks). Ideally, these two institutions guarded against the threat of anarchy and the possibility of moral and material catastrophe that it held as a result of inherent human weakness. Buddhist doctrine paints a dualistic picture of human nature. On the one hand, humans are pu htu zin (Pāli puthujjana), enslaved to desire and incapable of acting without hurting themselves or others. According to this view (which anchored the traditional model), people need to be ruled to protect against their baser instincts. However, the other side of human nature (which informs the more democratic interpretations examined in the last section) is the possibility of moral perfection, which ought to be cultivated through free action. This picture of human nature results in a productive tension that, I argue, underlies much of Burmese Buddhist political thought (Walton 2012).

In the precolonial Burmese polity there was a conceptual distinction between the affairs of the state (nain ngan ye, generally understood to be the affairs of the king and his advisors) and the political practices at a more local level, the latter of which were likely derived more from tradition and custom than royal edict (Sarkisyanz 1965). Even after independence in 1948, many Burmese continued to think of politics (nain ngan ye) as a practice reserved for elites—no longer kings or princes, but elected officials and leaders of political parties. The actions of these national leaders were far removed from village life, a situation reflected in a conceptual distinction observed by political scientist John Badgley in the 1950s and 1960s. Villagers rarely used the phrase nain ngan ye to describe “politics” in their own communities. For such local phenomena, they instead referred to traditional practices of cooperative action, compromise, and reconciliation as ayu ahsa (beliefs) or atway ahkaw (ideas) (Badgley 1965, 71). Research on local conceptions of politics and their relationship to religious beliefs has been relatively restricted during the past decades of military rule, but increased openness since 2011 should result in more research on this subject in years to come.

Many accounts of Buddhism and politics in Myanmar present religious, cultural, and national identities in the precolonial era as unproblematically (and in some cases, primordially) intertwined. However, this ignores the rich and complex history of the ways in which these identities became intermingled as the Burman Buddhist polity achieved its dominance. The traditional religio-political model described in the previous section provided scholars with an idealized view of the Theravāda Buddhist polity and cosmology but there has been less research on the contextualization of this model as a construct of royal propaganda or of its development in particular places. As historian Jacques Leider argues, the royal and religious chronicles “provide didactic narratives driven by a single underlying motive: the triumph of a pure religious tradition, thanks to orthodox lineage of monks and meritorious kings” (2004, 102). The study of these chronicles in historical context reveals much about the dynamic relationship between Buddhism and politics in precolonial Burma.

For example, it was a small group of literati from the provincial Lower Chindwin region that helped to transform the legitimating rhetoric and symbolism of the ruling Konbaung dynasty in the second half of the eighteenth century (Charney 2006). While previous rulers had made some use of this symbolism, these regional intellectuals used their royal connections to assist the monarchy in creating a lineage that connected it back to a legendary first king, Mahasammata. At the same time, they asserted the dominance of their own newly-established tradition of monastic practice, the Sudhamma lineage. With this pedigree of royal approval, Sudhamma has remained the largest and most influential monastic lineage in Myanmar until today.

These interconnected religious, administrative, and political reforms occurred in the context of what historian Michael Charney calls “Burma’s ‘early information revolution,’” in which religious and political authorities were not only collecting texts, but actively using them to selectively shape both perceptions of history and a developing national identity (2006, 53). The power struggle over the use and interpretation of particular texts resulted in the ascendancy of the Sudhamma lineage and practice. It also deepened the legitimating narrative of the Burman Buddhist Konbaung kings and complemented the efforts of rulers such as King Bodawphaya (1782–1819) to collect additional administrative data on his subjects and further centralize authority. The use of Buddhist ideas and symbols in the justification of political rule was thus intimately connected to localized struggles for both religious and political power, but it had national implications for religious and political identity. This demonstrates that significant fluctuations in the concepts underwriting political rule took place well before colonialism provoked a crisis in traditional Burmese thought, challenging the idea that colonialism was the sole catalyst for the transformation of thought and governance in the Theravāda Buddhist world.

Another aspect of the relationship between Buddhism and political authority concerns the nature of that authority. The two primary political antagonists of Burmese politics in the 1980s and 1990s were the military regime that had ruled in various forms since 1962, and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman’s seminal (1999) work on Burmese Buddhist politics of this period posited a clash between two distinct manifestations of power, associated respectively with these two groups. Ana is the idea of order, command, or authority, most commonly associated with the top-down disciplining power of the military. Awza, by contrast, denotes influence, but that which is more associated with self-purification through moral practice. The two are not complete opposites, as they are ideally combined in a model of righteous and ethical rule, but, as Houtman notes, the story of political authority throughout Burmese history is one of primarily ana-based, centralizing power and awza-based moral opposition: “The idea of ana is that it is limited by boundaries and frameworks—a domain and some kind of lifespan such as a period of government; awza, however, is so fluid that it transcends and trickles through all boundaries of time and place” (Houtman 1999, 169).

Houtman extended the binary opposition by associating military leaders with the meditation practice of samatha, concentration meditation designed to increased one’s ability to control the world around oneself. NLD members, on the other hand, practiced vipassanā, insight meditation believed to be a more direct path to enlightenment, one that focused not on controlling others but on developing and accepting a right view of the inherent impermanence and selflessness of human existence. While Houtman’s characterization of the clash between competing meditation practices was probably only valid for a brief period in the 1990s (and even then, most likely a reflection of a few elites in each institution, rather than the general membership of the military and the NLD), his attention to different indigenous Burmese Buddhist notions of authority has inspired similarly-oriented research since that time.

Buddhism and Political Resistance

Although it was not the only trigger for social and political change, the British colonial occupation that lasted from 1824 to 1948 did generate significant resistance, much of it formulated through Buddhist symbols and using Buddhist ideas. The rebellions that occurred in the years immediately following the dissolution of the monarchy in 1886 were aimed mostly at restoring royal rule. But the first years of anticolonial activism in the twentieth century were led by monks and laypeople who varied in their choice of political regime but were uniform in connecting foreign rule to the deterioration of morality and religious practice. Historian Alicia Turner (2014) has argued that, contrary to most accounts that posit these decades as a first stage of nationalism, the activism of this period was oriented primarily toward strengthening a Buddhist identity and protecting the sāsana (the Buddhist religion) rather than the Burmese nation.

The argument that individual and collective moral practice could have tangible political results is implicit in much of Burmese Buddhist political thought (Walton 2012), but it was clearly articulated by the influential monk Ledi Sayadaw even before the British had completely taken over the country. In his Nwa Myitta Sa (“Cow Letter”) of 1885, Ledi attributed the Burmese defeat and humiliation at the hands of the British, at least in part, to the failure of Burmese Buddhists to uphold the precepts and protect morality in their communities. His suggested remedy included specific morally advisable behavioral changes (such as refraining from eating beef) that would reorient Burmese Buddhists on the correct moral path, thus creating the necessary groundwork for reclaiming political independence. Ledi’s own activities in support of these religious reforms included traveling around the country promoting vipassanā (insight) meditation practice and organizing lay study and discussion groups on subjects previously reserved for senior monks, such as the abhidhamma (Buddhist philosophy of existence). Erik Braun’s (2013) study of the life and work of Ledi Sayadaw reveals the ways in which his encouragement of lay practice was both a response to the colonial encounter and an innovation situated within the Burmese Buddhist intellectual tradition.

Several decades later, politically active Burmese monks would further develop the idea that religious and political liberation were interconnected (Walton 2012). U Ottama, who was educated in India and deeply influenced by India’s independence struggle, presented worldly freedom as a necessary prerequisite to enlightenment. In a 1921 speech, he contrasted the conditions of colonialism in Burma with the conditions during the Buddha’s life. In his opinion, living under the yoke of non-Buddhist colonial rule had actually eroded the ability of Burmese Buddhists to reach enlightenment: “When Lord Buddha was alive, man had a predilection for Nirvana. There is nothing left now. The reason why it is so is because the government is English” (cited in Smith 1965, 96). In making this claim, U Ottama not only asserted the connection between political circumstances and moral practice, he also suggested that, in certain circumstances, Buddhists might have to temporarily subsume their goal of enlightenment to the more pressing task of securing political freedom. A variation of this argument would be used by later political authorities in the country and by monks associated with the post-2012 nationalist movement.

Another Burmese monk of the same era, U Thilasara, also saw colonial rule as negatively affecting the mental state of colonial subjects, contrasting it with the spiritual and moral benefits that would come from self-government: “Without being free from bondage, which stems from the fact that one nation is subject to the rule of another, one can hardly find peace in one’s heart or in one’s environment, the environment in which the Buddhist way of life may be practiced or the compassionate love of a true Buddhist disseminated to humanity at large” (cited in Sarkisyanz 1965, 125). From his perspective, British colonial rule was objectionable because it actively inhibited the ability of its subjects to engage in the ideal moral practices of Buddhism, such as cultivating mettā (loving-kindness). U Thilasara’s vision of the ways in which spiritual and political liberation were necessary complements to one another is clear in his wish for his countrymen, that, “through the attainment of political and personal freedom, they may be more favorably and firmly placed on the road to Nirvana” (ibid., 125).

Withdrawal could also be a form of political resistance, something that scholars of Buddhism and politics in Myanmar have considered in a number of different contexts. Millenial movements have been common during times of social upheaval in Theravāda Buddhist societies, and some leaders of millennial movements have established their bona fides by withdrawing from the world to strengthen their moral practice. Niklas Foxeus has explained the emergence of millennial cults in postindependence Burma as a response to the modernizing tendencies of the new state, with some of these groups seeking to revitalize a tradition of ethical Buddhist kingship, informed by esoteric interpretations of Buddhism (2011). Even when religious figures do not withdraw in order to consolidate power and challenge the authorities, political leaders often see the power that accrues to these figures as a threat. Since the late 1980s, successive Burmese governments have attempted to co-opt the legitimating moral authority of these “saints” of the forest as part of their efforts at centralizing the sangha (monkhood) (Rozenberg 2010).

Ingrid Jordt’s (2007) study of the mass lay meditation movement in Myanmar posited the emergence of a lay moral community, constituted through vipassanā (insight) meditation as an indirect yet culturally relevant challenge to the ruling military regime. Although Buddhists in Myanmar may not have supported the regime, Jordt argued that their attitudes were somewhat ambivalent, since, by building pagodas and patronizing monks, the ruling generals were in part governing as a good Buddhist king ought to, by creating opportunities for their subjects to make merit. On the other hand, people could (privately, at least) question the generals’ intentions in making these donations; Jordt calls this questioning the “politics of sincerity.” While direct political opposition was punished harshly during military rule, in Jordt’s formulation, lay meditators took upon themselves the critical mantle of moral judgment (previously the purview only of monks), articulating an alternate vision of the moral community. With space for political protest now gradually increasing in some parts of the country, it is unclear what political role vipassanā meditation might play in Myanmar’s democratic future.

The Persistence of Cosmology

Scholars continue to debate the relevance of the Theravāda Buddhist cosmology to contemporary political views and practices. Some have presented the cosmology as a totalizing, self-contained framework that explained both the physical structure of the universe and the laws that governed existence, especially prior to the advent of colonialism. It implied a natural hierarchy in which individuals were ranked according to their actions in the past and included detailed descriptions of the many realms that existed besides the human one. Political and religious authorities used the cosmology to provide moral guidance to the population and to legitimize monarchical rule. Its characterization of humans as fundamentally flawed and driven to immorality by desire and craving necessitated a powerful leader whose position was justified with reference to his actions in the past as well as his continued governance according to moral precepts.

One strong statement of the centrality and persistence of the cosmology comes from Burmese historian Michael Aung-Thwin. He made the controversial claim that the imposition of military rule in 1962 represented for Burmese people a welcome return to the cosmological sense of order that both the British colonial administration and the democratic parliamentary government lacked (1985). A less normative statement that still reinforces the permanent and immutable nature of the cosmology comes from anthropologist Mikael Gravers: “the concepts and ideals of the Buddhist cosmology are universal and everlasting, and they constitute a total model of the society and for its future development” (1999, 17). Similarly, anthropologist Ingrid Jordt has written that “The totalizing force of Buddhist cosmology … acts as a force majeure on both the state and the civil society” (2007, 209).

Others have argued that, not only was the precolonial cosmology likely not as static as was previously believed, but significant and fundamental changes occurred in the religious beliefs of Burmese Buddhists from the middle of the nineteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth. Mid-nineteenth-century political, administrative, and religious reforms instituted by King Mindon altered established relationships between the state, the sangha, and the society. Anthropologist Juliane Schober has described the result as a “rationalized” cosmology, shorn of elements that did not accord with modern science (1995). She and others have noted an additional effect of this process of realignment of social relationships: the increased “laicization” of Buddhism, evidenced by the proliferation of lay meditation and religious study groups, areas previously reserved for monks (see also Braun 2013 and Turner 2014).

Questions remain as to which elements of the cosmology have persisted into the modern period, and whether any could be considered universal. Schober has asserted that one of the universal elements of the Burmese Buddhist worldview is a “pervasive concern with the realms of existence and their hierarchy” (1989, 5–6). I argue instead that what persists is the belief in the world as a place governed by particular moral rules (exemplified through the Buddhist doctrine of cause and effect), as this “moral universe” provides a framework within which Burmese Buddhists reason about the political world (Walton 2012). As Myanmar continues to open up after decades of isolation, belief in the traditional cosmology may diminish, but Burmese Buddhists are likely to continue to adapt their views, as they have in previous eras.

Burmese Buddhist Political Thought

Buddhism has often been the vehicle for either innovating new political concepts or importing ideas from elsewhere. Scholars have disagreed over whether political actors have used Buddhist symbolism and ideas as a way of consciously manipulating the Buddhists beliefs of the population or of speaking to people in a familiar language; the attribution of motivation often depends on ideological perspective. For example, McCarthy assumes that, when the generals who led successive military regimes began to pay more explicit and public attention to Buddhism, publicizing their donations to prominent monks and the construction of new religious buildings, these were cynical attempts at using people’s beliefs to gain some legitimacy (2007). However, most analysts attribute more genuine motivations to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when she speaks or writes in a Buddhist idiom.1 Often unconsidered is the fact that all of these individuals exist within and are influenced by Burmese Buddhist culture; for any or all of them, their usage of Buddhism could reflect genuine views and attempts to merge Buddhist beliefs with political concepts from other traditions. The following section considers two political ideas from Myanmar’s past that are part of the country’s tradition of Buddhist political thought.

U Hpo Hlaing and Participatory Politics

Within the Burmese tradition, one of the most creative innovators was the royal advisor U Hpo Hlaing, who worked in the administrations of Mindon and Thibaw, the last two kings of the Konbaung dynasty in precolonial nineteenth-century Burma. His Rajadhammasangaha (“Rules of Kingship”), a manual of advice written for King Thibaw in 1878, is a creative yet pragmatic work that attempts to interpret contemporary political situations using learning drawn from Buddhist texts (Maung Htin 2002). In this work, U Hpo Hlaing frequently situated Western political practices in the context of the Buddha’s teachings and Burmese political traditions, attempting to find a traditional anchor for the new practices he advocated for, as well as legitimizing the Burmese tradition by demonstrating that the same principles had been at work there for centuries. He often cited the Buddha’s famous advice to the Licchavi princes on how to maintain unity among the Vajjians that they ruled, which specified that if decisions having an impact on the community were considered collectively, with the intention to achieve consensus, the polity would remain united and strong.

U Hpo Hlaing proposed an assembly in which the king would hold discussions with his officials in order to arrive at the best decision for the country. He argued that if members of this assembly were guided by the rules of sannipata (unity) and samagga (harmony), it would guard against decisions being negatively influenced by the four agatis (biases or corruptions).2 Although no single individual could always overcome the inherent tendency to partiality,

… if a number of people get together for any sort of action, there can be no question of following the agati way. In such assemblies what one man does not know another will; when one man has feelings of hate, another will not; when one is angry, another will be calm. When people have agreed in a meeting and preserve their solidarity, there will be no need for fear. For these reasons, we must affirm that if a number of people conduct their business in an assembly there is no way in which the four wrong ways can be followed.

(Bagshawe 2004, 174)

As a Buddhist, U Hpo Hlaing assumed that mental states would influence political decisions, and he believed that a political assembly would keep the king from making uninformed, biased, or rash decisions. The king and the assembly would thus generate policies that would benefit the country as a whole. In this work, U. Hpo Hlaing began to develop “new ideas of law that see the individual as the ultimate self-responsible agent in society” (Houtman 1999, 79). The moral principle of cause and effect underlying these new ideas was consistent with what previous Burmese political thinkers had believed: namely, the success and development of a political community depends to some degree on the moral conduct of its leaders. However, U Hpo Hlaing was at the beginning of a trend that expanded significantly after the fall of the monarchy in 1886, in which increasing numbers of lay Buddhists took it upon themselves to contribute collectively to the moral uplift of society through religious associations, thus strengthening both the religion and the polity (Turner 2014). They reasoned that political independence brought with it conditions in which each person was responsible not only for the consequences of his or her own actions, but for the effects those actions had on the prosperity of the community as a whole; in essence, this democratized a moral responsibility that had previously been the purview of the monarch.

Lawka Neikban: The Socialist Utopia

Burmese leftists faced the challenge beginning in the 1930s of presenting Marxism to their colleagues and to the general population in a way that would make the foreign doctrine both recognizable and appealing. For this purpose, many of them drew on lessons from popular Buddhist texts and concepts from the Pāli scriptures. By connecting unfamiliar Marxist ideas to commonly accepted Buddhist ones, they were able to blunt the foreignness of the new concepts, while using terms that were already widely accepted, even among rural populations. Using Pāli was also a way to avoid foreign loan words; even though the philosophical vocabulary was unknown to most Burmese, familiarity with the Pāli words themselves was widespread, thanks to monastic educational techniques of rote memorization. One of the most influential appropriations was the term lawka neikban (“worldly nirvana”), a seemingly paradoxical concept that Burmese socialists used to refer to the system of political equality and economic prosperity they planned to create.

Taking a term that originally signified the possibility of reaching a state of enlightenment in the present life, rather than in the unspecified future, Burmese leftists of the 1930s and 1940s reinterpreted the concept through a Marxist lens to describe the egalitarian perfect society that they would build through socialism. After independence in 1947, the ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) government attempted to create lawka neikban through a set of policies collectively called the Pyidawtha (alternately translated as “pleasant country” or “happy land”) Plan. Many members of the AFPFL government used Buddhist imagery to describe the wonders of the future socialist paradise to the citizens of Burma; one common symbol was the padetha tree, a mythical tree of plenty described in Buddhist legends.

The padetha tree gave people food, clothing, furniture, ornaments, and many other things, resulting in a perfect society with no hunger, poverty, or theft. Burmese leftist politicians, such as U Nu, the country’s first prime minister, also employed this image to critique capitalism. Noting that the desire to have more and more initiated a descent into theft and violence that culminated in the disappearance of the tree, U Nu claimed in a 1948 speech that “The classes which practiced exploitation and caused the disappearance of the magic tree have been leading the world astray from the time that they arose” (U Nu 1949, 78). He also used this legendary idea to refute criticism of his land-nationalization policies, reasoning that “property has only a functional place, as means for the attainment of Nirvana … and that the class struggle has arisen our knowledge of the illusion about the inherent value of property, so that the overcoming of this illusion would open the road to Nirvana through a perfect society” (cited in Sarkisyanz 1965, 213). For U Nu and others, it was the Buddha’s teachings that would, after the establishment of a lawka neikban, lead human society back to the perfect state, in which every need was provided, either by the padetha tree or, in more modern interpretations, by a society organized for the equal and just distribution of labor and resources.

There were differences among leftists in Burma as to the nature of lawka neikban and the proper way to create this perfect welfare state. Some viewed socialist economic reforms as the solution to economic suffering and inequality that would provide the material prerequisites that would allow individuals to then focus on developing their spiritual practice; worldly progress would thus enable spiritual progress. However, a different causal perspective was represented by U Nu, who, like Ledi Sayadaw, saw individual moral practice as a necessary prerequisite to successful political and economic changes in society. This was his explanation for the lack of success of socialist economic policies throughout the 1950s. Lawka neikban was never created in Burma, but as a political concept it exemplified the creative amalgamation of traditional Burmese Buddhist ideas with foreign political concepts.

Monks and Politics

While the monastic vocation is generally one of renunciation and detachment, the practice of taking robes and vows varies widely across Buddhist communities. In contrast with Sri Lanka, a Theravāda Buddhist country where monks have played a direct and active role in politics—even to the degree of forming monastic political parties and running for Parliament—Burmese popular custom generally prohibits monastic political participation. However, monastic engagement in politics in some form or another has been a feature of Myanmar’s religio-political life since at least the early stages of the colonial period, albeit not uncontested. Monks have supported the state, used their moral authority to chastise political leaders, and even joined in protests opposing the state, such as those in 1988 and 2007.

Researchers studying the phenomenon of monks in politics must be careful not to undermine the moral authority that allows them to be effective social critics. The moral standing of monks comes from their detachment from worldly concerns (including politics) and a presumed lack of self-interested motivations. Anthropologist Juliane Schober has urged scholars and observers not to use the potentially pejorative term “political monks” (2011, 138ff). Originating during the colonial era as a “discourse intended to diminish the legitimacy of the anti-colonial struggle” of monks, Burmese military governments have perpetuated this discourse by denouncing monks involved in pro-democracy activities as “bogus monks” (ibid., 140). Nevertheless, the Burmese sangha (monkhood) has a long tradition of social and political engagement, with monks justifying their actions either with reference to their vocational role as defenders and propagators of Buddhism or their obligation to reduce suffering in the world (Walton 2015).

The seminal work on monks and politics in postindependence Burma is E. Michael Mendelson’s (1975) Sangha and State in Burma. This monumental work provided a detailed look inside the Burmese monastic world, in many ways humanizing the institution and the monks who inhabit it, while also alerting scholars to the political and social importance of sectarian differences in the sangha. Mendelson’s work provided a complement to the village-based ethnography of anthropologist Melford Spiro (1982) and to the political theoretical analysis of the Buddhist influences on the postindependence Burmese state found in E. Sarkisyanz’s (1965) analysis. Due to the restrictive policies of previous military governments, research on the sangha in the contemporary period has been more limited. But, given the central role of monks in Myanmar’s current political reforms, this will be an important topic for further study.

Buddhist Nationalism

One aspect of Burmese Buddhist politics that has appeared since 2012 is the resurgence of monk-led Buddhist nationalism, directed primarily against Muslims and resulting in riots and violence across the country. This is not a new phenomenon, with anti-Indian and anti-Muslim riots having taken place in the 1930s; the policies of successive military governments have also repressed non-Buddhist religious practice, especially in ethnic minority regions. Initial Buddhist nationalist activity in the contemporary period began in 2012 under the banner of the 969 movement, a loosely organized network of monks and laypeople seeking to promote Buddhism and institute a boycott against Muslim-owned businesses. By early 2014, a new lay-monastic organization had been formed, the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, MaBaTha in its Burmese acronym. In addition to promoting the religion by establishing a network of Buddhist “Sunday schools,” MaBaTha has organized large protests and allied with political parties to push for the passage of controversial laws that would restrict religious conversion and interfaith marriage. These groups spread nationalist and anti-Muslim ideas through books, journals, and pamphlets as well as through the preaching of prominent monks.

Burmese Buddhists justify this nationalist activity by claiming that they are acting in defense of the sāsana, the Buddhist religion. While the defense of the sāsana is certainly an integral part of the monastic vocation (and potentially a responsibility for any Buddhist), this “ends justifies the means” reasoning has been a source of great violence historically (Walton and Hayward 2014). Despite Buddhists being a large majority in Myanmar, their global minority status has engendered a “siege mentality” (similar to that of Buddhists in Sri Lanka), in which they envision themselves as the last line of defense preventing the total disappearance of the religion (Kyaw San Wai 2014). By framing their actions as a necessary response to the imminent threat of Islam’s expansion into the Buddhist community, nationalist leaders have claimed that any action can be justified (even if seemingly in violation of other core Buddhist principles) if undertaken in defense of the religion.

When groups such as MaBaTha and 969 present their actions as being necessary for the defense of the sāsana, it is difficult for Buddhists in Myanmar to criticize or oppose them (Walton and Hayward 2014). The social pressure to support or acquiesce to their arguments is enormous, especially when the person urging that support is a monk. Laypeople are loathe to disagree with a monk, and even other monks feel reluctant to do so, due to the Buddha’s injunction that monks must never cause a schism in the sangha. The nationalist argument is strengthened more by the fact that MaBaTha is not only associated with anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence; many people encounter the group as a pro-Buddhist organization, seeking to strengthen the religious and moral practice of Burmese Buddhists. Monks have argued that this type of activity is not only allowed, it is an obligation on them, effectively veiling the Buddhist nationalist movement with the covering of religious and moral legitimacy.

Monastic Political Methods

While at certain times monastic political engagement has appeared to be no different than that of laypeople, monks have also utilized methods in which their elevated spiritual position gives moral weight to their political message. Most prominent among these sangha-specific political methods is the thabeik hmauk, or “turning over the alms bowl,” in which monks refuse to take donations from certain individuals or groups, denying them the opportunity to make merit. This form of religious censure is so culturally meaningful that the word for the monastic “boycott” was coined in the 1920s by the nationalist writer and poet Thakin Kodaw Hmaing as the general term for any boycott. Monks have used thabeik hmauk during the 1988 protests and at other moments in Burmese history to express their deep dissatisfaction with political authorities.

The most recent example of monastic political involvement using methods specific to their vocation was the demonstrations in 2007, the so-called “Saffron Revolution.” Tens of thousands of monks marched in cities across the country, chanting the mettā (loving-kindness) sutta. Political scientist Hans-Bernd Zöllner argues that, by taking this private religious ritual into the public sphere, “the monks created a sacred space” and “thus laid claim to the city as a space ruled by the Buddha’s law” (2009, 72). In chanting the mettā sutta, the monks were also choosing a method of public action that was acceptably within their purview as members of the religious order, protecting themselves from charges of acting “politically.” Even though they had criticized the military government for its negligence toward the population and for its violent actions toward monks, the mettā chant was an indication of the ultimate, mediating position of the sangha as a moral authority oriented toward the well-being of the entire community.

Monastic involvement with political issues, whether supporting or challenging political authority, blurs the line between the mundane and the spiritual. Monks’ moral authority comes from their orientation toward religious practice and from the general respect that adheres to every member of the sangha as an institution, beyond individual accomplishment. They also have a corresponding obligation to protect the religion and reduce suffering, although monastic and lay opinions vary widely as to which methods and actions are appropriate to achieve these goals. Although monks do live apart from the laity, their liminal position and necessary proximity to lay society preserves them in an in-between space. The question of the appropriate degree of monastic engagement in society and politics will remain open, but it could be a productive debate, especially in a country where the institution demands so much respect and where monks could contribute to the country’s development.

Furthermore, monks do not need to engage directly in electoral politics or political movements in order to be influential. They “regularly reinforce the moral laws of Buddhism and connect them to political and social situations through their writings and video messages, public sermons, and daily interactions with lay people” (Walton 2014, 116). In the absence of other political figures explicitly discussing the role of Buddhist beliefs and values in the realm of politics, the actions and sermons of monks take on even more significance.

Buddhism and Democracy

The relationship between Buddhism and democracy has been a regular subject of political discussion in Myanmar, at least since the late 19th century. With the country’s current political transition and a Buddhist majority increasingly seeking to both protect itself and assert its dominance, the question will likely remain central in years to come. However, even though some common threads in the discourse can be identified, there is a range of ways in which Buddhists in Myanmar understand democracy.

Rights-based Democracy

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi usually discusses democracy in a way that is consistent with Western liberal democracy, where human rights, free and fair elections, and other freedoms figure prominently in her speeches. Seeking to contest the claim of former military governments that democracy was not appropriate for the Burmese population, she has insisted that Buddhism and democracy are compatible, since the former is an “integrated social and ideological system based on respect for the individual,” and the latter “places the greatest value on man” (Aung San Suu Kyi 1991, 173–74).

Similarly, some of the monks who participated in the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” have rejected not only the concern that democracy might pose a danger to traditional Burmese culture, but also the very notion that the idea of democracy is a Western import. One author in an underground journal that circulated in the country prior to the 2007 protests stated that, “Without exception, democracy includes people’s dignity, people’s worth, and purity of mind/spirit, things that are all included under the teachings of the Buddha” (Hti La Aung 2007, 40). According to another, the Buddha’s teachings already contain the essence of democracy. “Democracy is not something that only just appeared. The Buddha had already preached about it twenty-five hundred years ago. In the Buddha’s teachings, he thoroughly discussed human rights…. The Buddha’s doctrine is in accordance with democracy” (Sanda Shin 2009, 16).

Some commentators have argued that the Buddhist doctrine of kamma (cause and effect) leads Theravāda Buddhists to adopt a fatalistic view of the material world, where everything is predetermined by one’s past actions. While this is certainly one aspect of the doctrine of kamma, pro-democracy monks generally advocate for an understanding of cause and effect that emphasizes the possibility of change, rather than the inevitability of experiencing the effects of past actions. The author of one underground journal article explained that, “People are creatures who create their own conditions through their own actions, who want to be free, and who have a strong desire to be free. People have a nature and ability that opposes repression and control. That nature is democratic” (Hti La Aung 2007, 38). These sorts of perspectives have sought to situate democratic theory and practice within a Burmese Buddhist idiom.

Moral Democracy

In addition to the rights-based democratic notions within the Burmese discourse, I identify another category of “moral democracy” (Walton 2012). In some cases, political actors hold both conceptions simultaneously, with a resulting tension in their views on democratic practice. For example, drawing on a common logical thread in Theravāda Buddhist thought, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has emphasized the causal links between the conduct of the political authority and the prosperity of the nation, claiming that “The root of a nation’s misfortune has to be sought in the moral failings of the government” (Aung San Suu Kyi 1991, 171). A lack of moral purity in the political authority would set the tone for the conduct of the rest of the people.

Much like Ledi Sayadaw, however, she also envisioned a central moral role for citizens, albeit one that was dependent on the character and actions of the government. In a speech on March 13, 1989, she explained to listeners that as people gradually lost their rights, their moral conduct correspondingly declined. It was a damning critique of the broader moral effects of the repressive policies of the military government (Aung San Suu Kyi 1995, 155-6). This statement was reminiscent of the oft-quoted aphorism in Burmese politics, “One can only keep the precepts with a full stomach,” acknowledging the necessity of a stable political and economic environment for proper moral practice. It was also closely connected to her call for a “revolution of the spirit,” as an integral step in Burma’s struggle for democracy (1991). Aung San Suu Kyi’s conception of moral democracy is one that protects freedom yet still bounds it, not by arbitrary laws or authoritarian dictates, but by each individual’s commitment to correct moral practice.

Another representative iteration of moral democracy comes from the Burmese monk Ashin Eindaga, who preached about the concept in a public sermon in Yangon on January 31, 2011. In the sermon, Ashin Eindaga began by discussing the concept of taya, a word that carries several meanings, dependent on context. It can refer to fairness, justice, or equality; to moral principles or moral truth; to a natural law or the nature of things; or to the specific law of the Buddha, the dhamma. After asserting that democracy was consistent with the Buddha’s teaching, he went on to say, “If you have taya, you will have democracy…. Democracy means acting in accordance with taya, having laws. If society is fully endowed with morality, won’t it also be fully endowed with democracy?”

In my interpretation, this statement represents a particularly Buddhist interpretation of democracy. As a requirement for democracy, taya is also a quintessentially moral concept; it not only means truth, it refers to the specifically Buddhist truth of a particular understanding of cause and effect. By asserting that democracy means acting in accordance with taya, Ashin Eindaga reinforces the view that Buddhist moral teachings are not only relevant in the political realm, they are an essential element of a Burmese Buddhist understanding of democracy, promoting free choice, but a freedom that is constrained by its basis in moral practice. That is, democratic freedom also means acting in accordance with the moral truths of Buddhism, whether one is part of the government or simply a citizen.

There are, then, ways in which the logic that underpins Burmese views of moral democracy overlaps with other conceptions of democracy that limit citizen participation, such as that which guides Myanmar’s current transition, the military’s “discipline-flourishing democracy” (Walton 2012). The Theravāda Buddhist ambivalence toward the capacity of pu htu zin (ordinary people enslaved to desire) to participate in ruling themselves not only anchors military dismissals of Burmese citizens’ democratic abilities, it is also present in the moral rhetoric of those who have opposed the military. A Buddhist moral conception of democracy necessarily includes the circumscribing element of moral laws or discipline. An interpretation of human nature that focuses on the moral failings of human beings would be inclined (as in discipline-flourishing democracy) to prescribe a more authoritarian remedy to guide fallible individuals, whereas a view of human nature that emphasizes the ultimate capacity of humans to achieve moral perfection would see the value of democratic freedom in allowing people to achieve that self-perfection.

However, even interpreted in a more democratic way, the link between morality and governance poses challenges. In Ashin Eindaga’s formulation of democracy in accordance with taya (truth), how is one to understand the “truth” of Buddhism and its relevance for politics? Who has the authority to interpret whether the actions and policies of any given government are in accordance with taya? In a religiously plural state like Myanmar, can a Buddhist notion of moral conduct be effectively or fairly universalized or secularized to apply to people of other faiths? As a moral concept, taya might be more challenging to implement than other principles of justice, especially in the face of the persistent belief that most people are unable to consistently act in accordance with moral principles. While moral language and reasoning appear to be inseparable from Burmese notions of politics, the relationship between moral practice and democracy remains an area characterized by tension and will likely need to be addressed by Burmese political thinkers as part of Myanmar’s emerging democratic discourse.


Myanmar’s political transition has opened up more space since 2011 for research on Buddhism and politics. While some commentary remains entrenched in the model of dichotomous struggle between the authoritarianism of the military and the democratic inclinations of the opposition, newer research rejects this categorization in favor of analysis not based on political considerations. The emergence of an anti-Muslim and sometimes anti-liberal, monastic-led nationalist movement just a few years after tens of thousands of monks marched in cities across the country in support of democracy is evidence that Buddhism can inspire a range of different interpretations that reflect drastically different ideologies. Concurrent with more possibilities for research on Buddhism and politics is the opening up of space for Burmese political discourse itself. While this is likely to focus on various iterations of democratic politics, the previous section demonstrates how much diversity of thought there is even within that category.

Burmese political concepts are deeply influential in the country’s politics, yet remain generally unexplored and disconnected from the largely English-language body of literature. Future studies by Burmese or non-Burmese scholars with fluency in the language will reveal with more subtlety differences of interpretation in competing and overlapping streams of Burmese Buddhist political thought. Also ripe for further research are the Buddhist beliefs and practices of those ethnic groups outside of the Burman majority, especially inasmuch as they influence political ideas within those groups. Finally, the very notion of Buddhism itself in a Burmese context needs to be further disaggregated through critical studies of normative conceptions of Buddhism held by both Burmese and foreign scholars. Previous scholarship often artificially sectioned off as not Buddhist practices such as worshipping or propitiating local or ancestral spirits or wearing tattoos, amulets, or other protective devices. Challenging this imposed categorization, French anthropologist Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière offers a sorely needed correction that demonstrates the ways in which these practices, some of which predate Buddhism, complement Buddhist ones and have been incorporated into the wider Buddhist moral universe (2009).

Burmese Buddhists have creatively interpreted the concepts and practices that make up their religion, from its cosmology to its ethical injunctions to its overarching moral framework. In doing so, they have argued that Buddhism is compatible with a wide range of political and economic ideologies. Even without explicitly Buddhist rhetoric, this religio-cultural influence still affects ostensibly “secular” political discourses in the country. The Buddhist moral framework—and its relevance for politics—is particularly perpetuated by monks in their role as guardians of the religion. As Myanmar experiences an uncertain democratic opening, Theravāda Buddhism will continue to be a framework used by most of the population for making sense of and critically evaluating politics. A deeper understanding of these dynamics will be essential for anyone studying politics in Myanmar.


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(1) See, for example, Gravers 1999.

(2) The four agatis are desire (chanda), anger (dosa), fear (bhaya), and ignorance (moha).