February 14, 2008
Thugs and Religion in Myanmar
— Jason A. Carbine
Four months ago, Myanmar was all over the headlines. For the first time since 1988, monks and lay people had staged major protests in the streets. The self-professed Buddhist military had beaten, shot, and killed Buddhist monks. After forty-five long years, the country again seemed poised on the brink of major political change. But where do things stand now? A military clampdown, phone lines cut, internet access reined in, the opposition terrorized into partial submission, a reassertion of military support for Buddhism, and not even page six in the newspapers. It was once suggested to me that much Buddhist history can be understood in terms of the relations between thugs (i.e. despotic rulers) and legitimators (i.e. monks). This dynamic certainly is at play in the Burmese situation: The Sasana, or the teaching of the Buddha, is deeply embedded in paradoxical ways in the current crisis of power that grips Myanmar, and a consideration of the Sasana illuminates the complexity of religion's role in Burmese society.
Traditional Sasana texts and rituals affirm the existence of a multi-tiered cosmos in which countless sentient beings are born, die, and are reborn. In this cosmos, Buddhists are supposed to undertake practices that are meant to help them move through the cycle of rebirth in positive ways. These same practices are also believed to help maintain the Sasana itself, without which people will lose the knowledge of how to escape rebirth. The junta adheres to a model of kingship from ancient India, whereby the lay government should play a significant role in sustaining activities that promote the persistence of the Sasana. The positive effects of the military's emphasis on the "affairs of the Sasana" include publication of Buddhist texts, renovation of numerous temples, funding for lay and monastic meditation centers, and large-scale Buddhist ceremonies.
Nevertheless, the military's excessive violence and repression, coupled with its effort to cloak that violence and repression under the guise of an ideal Buddhist political order, cross the threshold of acceptable behavior for a government performing its proper Sasana role. The massive amounts of money the military has poured into supporting the Sasana cannot undo the negative impact of its own violence. Moreover, by giving so much material support to the Sasana while pursuing so much violence against its monastic representatives, the military has contributed to the strengthening of a powerful enemy: the monkhood itself, motivated by compassion for the suffering of the Burmese people and by the perception that its way of life is under severe attack.
That being said, even if a large number of monks oppose military rule, monks themselves are aligned in a crucial way with the military, in that they serve as key transmitters of the very religious worldview that stands at the heart of the military's ideological effort to sustain its power. However much monks contest the current Burmese military junta, monastic transmissions of the Sasana provide a ready-made, latent system of legitimation for any government that sponsors monastic groups and the Sasana they transmit. To put the point as strongly as possible, monastic transmissions of the Sasana have been conducive to sustaining military rule in Myanmar, and hence to the violence the military perpetuates, precisely because those transmissions laud and often depend upon lay governments (even repressive juntas) that support them as representatives of the Sasana.
Even while they are very much divided over the use of threat, coercion, and repression, monks and members of the military are actually aligned on the general importance of the Sasana. This intermingling of disagreement and agreement seems to be sowing the seeds for that which the junta fears most: profound socio-political change. Is positive political change possible in a cultural setting where religion plays the kind of paradoxical role portrayed here – simultaneously as a basis for alliance between monks and the military, as a basis for monastic and other criticisms of the military, and as a basis of latent legitimation of the military? As the public protests demonstrate, dissident monks and their lay supporters willfully and openly rejected not only the military junta's claim that it is a good sponsor of the Sasana but also the latent legitimating roles of monastic transmissions of the Sasana. If these efforts can be sustained, even with continued repression by the military, and if they can help encourage massive defections from the armed forces, they may finally open the door to the change so many have sought.
Jason A. Carbine earned a Ph.D. from the Divinity School in 2004 and is Assistant Professor of Religion at Whittier College.
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