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Democratic values compete with Buddhist ones in Myanmar

Democracy is making inroads, but the tradition of karmic kingship persists.

FILE - In this May 6, 2016, file photo, Aung San Suu Kyi, left, Myanmar's foreign minister, walks with senior General Min Aung Hlaing, right, Myanmar military's commander-in-chief, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Myanmar military television said Monday, Feb. 1, 2021 that the military was taking control of the country for one year, while reports said many of the country’s senior politicians including Suu Kyi had been detained. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo, File)

(RNS) — The military coup in Myanmar has been difficult for many Westerners to comprehend. Why did the generals act when they had effectively been in control of the country since allowing elections in 2011? Why move against civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, when she had gone along with so much of their program, even defending their campaign against the Rohingya Muslims?

And what explains such a defense on the part of Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner celebrated for standing up for democracy and universal human rights? 

Our frame of reference is that military rule is autocratic and therefore bad and that those opposed to it are democratic and therefore good. That’s hopelessly simplistic when it comes to the country formerly known as Burma.


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What we fail to appreciate is the degree to which Burmese Buddhism has over many centuries nurtured a very different conception of good versus bad government. I’ve learned better from anthropologist Ingrid Jordt, an expert on religion and politics in Myanmar who teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

In brilliant articles on the 2007 revolt against military rule and the anti-Rohingya campaign of the 2010s, Jordt explains the dynamic interplay of religion and political power in traditional Burmese statecraft and how this has functioned in recent times.

Briefly, Burmese Buddhism understands political legitimacy as derived from a species of spiritual potency called hpoun. The source of hpoun is the monastic order, or sangha, which acquires it by renouncing power and forswearing worldly things.

A Buddhist devotee donates alms to a Buddhist monk, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)

A Buddhist devotee donates alms to a Buddhist monk, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)

Political leaders, like everyone else outside the sangha, obtain hpoun through their support of the sangha, emblemized by placing of food in the monks’ begging bowls. In this system of what Jordt calls “karmic kingship” (the title of her forthcoming book), hpoun is what differentiates a good (legitimate) ruler from a bad (illegitimate) one. 

Although monks are required to be apolitical, they do have the right to act in order to protect the teachings of the Buddha. They do this by refusing to accept food donations from those they believe have violated those teachings. By “turning over the bowl,” they withhold hpoun.

That is just what happened in 2007, during public protests over an unannounced removal of fuel subsidies by the military government.

After a brutal crackdown on several hundred monks who had joined the protests in the name of relieving human suffering (a core Buddhist teaching), tens of thousands of monks protested this assault on religion by marching through the streets holding their bowls upside down. In the end, junta leader Than Shwe earned the title “Monk Killer,” lost his legitimacy and in 2011 resigned the position of head of state he had held since 1992.

Not surprisingly, the military was anything but happy with this development. So they did what Burmese leaders in similar situations had always done: denounced those who denied them hpoun as false monks and found monks who would support them.

The campaign against the Rohingya was spearheaded by one of the latter, who sold the campaign to the Burmese public as all about preserving Buddhism against alien religious power and influence.

None of this is to say that Western ideas of democracy and human rights have been absent in Myanmar. In 2007, some younger Burmans, including monks, embraced them — but their standard-bearer, Aung San Suu Kyi, only up to a point.

The daughter of the martyred independence leader Aung San, Suu Kyi spent 15 years in house detention as head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party whose landslide electoral victory in 1990 the generals refused to accept. Despite the name, the party has been less pro-democracy than anti-dictator — in traditional Burmese terms, opposed to illegitimate kingship.

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2019, file photo, Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a joint press conference with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Reports says Monday, Feb. 1, 2021 a military coup has taken place in Myanmar and Suu Kyi has been detained under house arrest. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo, File)

FILE – In this Dec. 17, 2019, file photo, Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a joint press conference with Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. A military coup has taken place in Myanmar and Suu Kyi has been detained under house arrest. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo, File)

According to Jordt, the arrangement of shared civilian-military rule that has just been overthrown was a diarchy, an awkward shared rule that pitted Senior General Min Aung Hlaing against civilian leader Suu Kyi. The coup led by Min Aung Hlaing was grounded in his hope that, at age 75, her power was on the wane.

His own current effort has been to build up his hpoun by donating to monks and important pagodas and consulting with the monastic leadership. He is seeking to demonstrate that the entire country, supernatural as well as natural, is with him and that he is the legitimate ruler in the traditional way. It remains to be seen whether he can bring the sangha with him. 


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This time around, however, exposure to social media has made the Burmese people far more aware and supportive of democracy as such. Gen Z has been at the forefront of a civil disobedience movement far more inclusive than anything that occurred in the past.

The activists are doing investigative reporting, doxing those who support the military. Significantly, many of the protest messages on Twitter and in the streets are being written in English — to let the world know what has been going on in their previously shuttered society.

In the face of these massive protests, Min Aung Hlaing has been compelled to make his claim to power in terms of democracy. “Democratic practice allows people to have freedom of expression,” he said on Feb. 9. “Democracy can be destroyed if there is no discipline.”

So far, however, there’s no sign that the protesters consider this anything more than lip service. 

“What’s really changing is the idea of the location of power,” says Jordt. “The old system of personalized sovereignty is being challenged by the broader system, the rule of the many. There’s been a remarkable change in the landscape.

“We’re in a period in which there are two competing concepts of political authority. I don’t think we’re going to see an eclipse of traditional Buddhist ideas. But what the younger generation is trying to bring about is a future in which many identities — ethnic, religious, age- and gender-related — have a place in the Burmese state. Whether such a future will come about is an open question.”