The Burmese monkhood’s political power


Monks hit the streets of Rangoon in protest. Photo by ogglog.

I’ve been busy this past week with homework, studying (I have a midterm in a week-and-a-half, unfortunately) and other commitments. In my spare time, I’ve been going to the Young Research Library, which has a number of interesting Burmese books, written in both English and Burmese (although Burmese books have odd English romanizations, like Si Hmat Phvay Ra Praññ Mran Ma that are quite hard to decipher from the bookshelves.)

Anyway, in light of the recent marches led by Burmese monks, the government has called for monks to restrain from being politically active. The book Myanmar: Beyond Politics to Societal Imperatives is a very good book for those who want to gain insight from Burmese analysts as well as Burma studies scholars. The following excerpt is particularly noteworthy:

The king had been not only the head of state and commander of his empire but was also the fount of authority for the Buddhist monkhood or sangha. Without a king to maintain the monastic hierarchy, the monkhood was soon bereft of any national disciplining institution. This led eventually to indiscipline of the sangha, stimulating sectarianism, wayward behavior, and involvement in nationalist political affairs, all in violation of the traditional regulations and principles of the monkhood. Not until 1980 would the Myanmar state once more regain administrative control over the monkhood such as Thailand had established nearly eighty years earlier.

The book also states this:

Monastic indiscipline faced little or no sanction, and the behavior of the monkhood [during the colonial era] changed, allowing members of it to become involved in secular activities, especially politics, in violation of strict Buddhist teachings.

What happened in 1980 was this: The First Congregation for the Purification, Perpetuation and Propagation of Buddhism. In May of that year, over 1,000 monks gathered to write up a constitution that officially recognized 9 Buddhist sects in the country without allowing any more, created a national authority to control and regulate the monkhood, and required all monks and nuns to hold national identity cards. (“Burma in 1980: An Uncertain Balance Sheet”)

There is no doubt that the so-called Saffron Revolution was political in nature. It may have begun as a result of economic hardship but accelerated into something entirely different, call for overthrows and restoration of democracy.

So the question still lingers. Should monks be allowed to participate in politics? I have mixed feelings about this. In 1980, when regulations were made to restrict monks from participate in politics, many Burmese Buddhists supported this. They felt that some monks abused their religious power under the “guise” of a maroon robe. Currently, members of the sangha are not allowed to join the National League for Democracy.

I can’t judge for anyone else, but as the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. If anyone has any opinions, please comment. I’d be happy to hear your opinions.

5 thoughts on “The Burmese monkhood’s political power

  1. Editor says:

    It seems arbitrary to deny any individual the right to participate in politics based on their vocation, if every other individual in a nation enjoys those rights. Separation of ‘church’ and state is one thing, and I can see how this is rendered more complex given the nature of Buddhism in Burma, but, the result of such a ban would affect individuals, and not religious organizations. Many monks are only in the Sangha temporarily, but, many do choose to become monks because of economic pressures. Basically, to say monks can’t participate in politics is to say that they must choose between their rights as a citizen and their religion, education, or any number of other things that lead men to the monkhood. And this would surely affect certain segments of the population more than others.

    In a hypothetical democratic Burma, there should be no excuse to deny anyone the right to participate in politics, at least as far as taking a stand on an issue and marching in support of it. The people would have the recourse to decide on issues through fair processes, and to voice their own opinions. Churches in America face regulations on political activities, but individual priests are not barred from marching for or against an issue. Politics is unfortunately inseparable from life – government policies affect individual personally, and not just in Burma – so banning monks from politics seems like an impossible and arbitrary line to draw. Trying to alienate religion from politics like that could only serve the purpose of an authoritarian government.

  2. Kay says:

    It’s very clear for me that religion is surfaced and intertwinned with people desire( wish). So any form of religion organization should not blind what people suffered. Particularly in Buddhism, there is controversial like you reckoned that whether monks should relate to politics. Referring back to Buddha time, he himself intervened lots of social and political affairs ( but at this time, may be in the form of conflict and overpowerment). As a supreme person of Buddhism, he himself did not turn out to look for his own liberation. He did spread his teaching( Dhama) for the sake of betterment of layperson until his mature death. Even he did encountered lots of confrontations ( as Aung Ching Shit Par). So.. I strongly believe that main responsiblity of any religion leaders is to concern and find out the way for their follower’s plight.
    Otherwise , what else they should stand for their follower.

  3. Richard says:

    I’m going to have to agree with Editor. Daw Suu Kyi wrote a lot about how Monks do not become involved in politics in her book Freedom from Fear. In fact, I think, that was one reason Aung San, at a young age did not devote himself to the monestary.

    Also I will have to echo something Editor has heard me say before and that is how Daw Suu justified Monks becoming involved in politics. She essentially wrote how since Buddhism was a ‘religion’ of personal liberation, they could, and should elevate that to the next level and make it a belief process of political liberation as well.

    I suggest reading The Idea of Freedom in Burma and the Political Thought of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (pdf), which puts this perspective in excellent terms.

  4. Richard Davies says:

    The Sangha to all intents and purposes have been corrupted by the military anyway. Just as the military has no real business in getting involved in politics, neither have the monks. But that doesn’t reflect the reality in Burma today does it?

    It was interesting to note that during the protests several pro-government abbots went to great lengths to prevent novices in their charge from joining in the protests. I guess the yellow plated Landcruisers they drive around in would assist in understanding why they didn’t participate.

    Maybe it’s time for another “purification” of the Sangha.

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