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.