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Protesting Monks

In today’s post, Arnout Couperus contributes to recent discussions on the democratisation of Myanmar. He argues that the role of Buddhism should not be underestimated in the analysis of the current situation.

In discussions about the democratisation of Myanmar, the role of Buddhism is hardly, if ever, named. However, the importance of taking Myanmar’s religious landscape into consideration when examining authority and political change should not be underestimated.

In 2007 Myanmar caught the world’s headlines when Buddhist monks participated en masse in widespread protests against the country’s military regime. Direct cause of the protests was the military government’s latest example of detrimental economic policy, added to the hardships that the Myanmarese were already facing. These protests were eventually quelled and did not bring the reforms or regime change that many had hoped for. Yet since late 2010 the country has introduced reforms with an increasing pace. With a new civilian government after decades of military rule, the release of many political prisoners and promising legislative changes, the way to social justice for its inhabitants certainly seems hopeful to many outsiders.[1]

In Myanmar itself many remain more cautious, critical or downright cynical. Are the reforms sincere and will they last? Will the new government seriously address the issues of widespread poverty, human rights abuse and ethnic strife? Or are these token moves to win over the international community? One core issue in the course the country has taken since independence is the legitimacy of the state’s authority over its citizens. It is this same issue that is making the country’s current situation much more complex.

In Myanmar authority and legitimacy are conceived of in culturally specific ways and within a Buddhist cosmology that operates on the logic of karma and religious merit. An idea that is very evocative within this cosmology is that of the ideal Buddhist king who, as promoter and protector of Buddhism, as primary patron of the monastic community, and by listening to the monks’ wise council, created good fortune for the entire country. More than a century after the last Burmese monarch, this idea still forms an important part of the framework through which political authority gains meaning and legitimacy in the eyes of many Buddhist laypeople.

Given the charisma of many Buddhist monks and the reverential authority they command in society, it is not surprising that all governments since independence have sought to appropriate the role of Buddhist ruler to gain the support of monks (or to place them under state control), thus trying to ensure Buddhist laypeople’s acceptance of state authority. Yet appropriating the role of Buddhist ruler also forces them into the associated frame of action and expectations and raises the question of sincerity. Is the ruler sincere in his patronage of Buddhism? This is all the more important because in the logic of karma it is the intention, the right mental state, that determines the merit of an act. If sincerity is doubted, then an important basis for the legitimacy of his authority is undermined. For this reason the former military regime donated lavishly and often to the monks and made sure the public was aware of this.

The more recent reforms would suggest that the state is seeking to bolster its legitimacy on grounds outside this Buddhist framework in order to not be solely dependent on their precarious relationship with monks. This might also grant them a certain authority in the eyes of that part of the population (roughly a third) that is not Buddhist and ethnically Burman or is more politically active and sceptical. Furthermore, it helps relieve the international pressure the country has had to endure for decades.

If this question of legitimate authority is indeed one of the core issues driving recent reforms then there is some reason for optimism regarding social justice in Myanmar, however cautious. In that case the move towards civilian democratic government, relaxing censorship laws, allowing protests and independent media, freeing political prisoners and other such moves might just be sincere and lasting developments.

However, there is still a large gap between reform in policy and ensuring the practice of those policies, and the government and military continue to face charges of human rights abuse. The appalling state of affairs concerning the Muslim Rohingya minority is a case in point. The country still faces many challenges, for the moment it pays to remain cautious and critical.

Arnout Couperus is a graduate of the MA Religious Studies at the Faculty of Theology and Religous Studies in Groningen. He specialised in Buddhism throughout his studies and wrote his master thesis on State-Sangha relations in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.


[1] There is serious criticism of the new regime for consisting mainly of former military leaders and others associated with the previous regime.

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