The relationship between the monks and the military in Burma or Myanmar have been marked by both coziness and quarrels. The Church and the State have been historically close since the Emperor Ashoka of India, the fervent spreader of Buddhism, sent two senior monks, Sona and Uttara, to preach his faith. Indeed, Burma became a country with more monks per capita than any other nation in South Asia. During the British colonial period, broadly coinciding with India’s (though Burma became independent in 1948, the year following India), the Sangha or the Church opposed the conversions to Christianity by zealous missionaries. It thereby helped create the firm belief, which was a slogan of the independence movement, that ‘’to be Burmese is to be Buddhist”.
The first Prime Minister of independent Burma, U Nu, was a devout Buddhist. His preferred political paradigm was the vague notion of “Buddhist Socialism” combining religion with some “do good” principles. But this was neither fish, flesh fowl nor good red herring to his successor, General Ne Win, who seized power motivated by ideals of more robust governance. This was to be achieved by the “Burmese Way to Socialism” which implied clipping the wings of the Sangha and cutting it down to size. By 1974 when a new Constitution was crafted, Buddhism was no longer the State Religion. The All-Burma Monks Alliance, unsurprisingly, placed itself on the side of the opposition to Ne Win’s reforms, which involved much penny wisdom and pound foolishness. These policies including nationalization exacerbated Burma’s poverty. They often tended to secure short-term economic gains but led to long- term failures, a common feature in the practice of socialism in that era. Siding with the distressed buttressed the Sangha’s popularity, though provoked government umbrage.
However, military governments that followed, assuming the name of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), who also changed Burma’s name to “Myanmar”, saw the benefits of having the clergy on their side, and started to mollify the monks with patronage, and privileges. By doing so they helped fan the flames of anti-Muslim sentiments that pervaded in some elements of the Sangha.
These found fruition in a movement among the monks, known as the ‘969’. The numbers represented the three sets of attributes that mark Buddhist theology: representing those of the Buddha (9), the Sangha (6) and the Dhamma or faith (9). According to Alex Bookbinder, an expert on Burma, the precepts of the movement were rooted in the traditional beliefs of the indigenous culture in numerology. Incidentally, it was also an intended cosmological opposite of ‘786’, numbers Muslims in south Asia often use in writing, as substitute for Bismillah’ (in the name of Allah) to avoid writing the holy words on ordinary paper.
By June 2013, another Buddhist ultra-nationalist clerical entity ‘Ma Ba Tha’, or the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion. Appeared on the scene. Its goal, as stated, was to defend the country against Islamic expansion, even though the Muslim population was less than 5 per cent. Its leader Ashnin Wiranthau said of the Muslims: “You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog”. TIME magazine described him as the “Face of Buddhist terror”, calling him the “Buddhist Ben Laden”. The copy of the journal was banned in Myanmar. The government denied that it was defending Wiranthu but emphasized that the action was taken to avoid creating problems. Wiranthu was instrumental in arousing fanatical public support for the brutal persecution of the Rohingyas in 2017 by the military, described as “genocide” by United Nations Investigators, that led to the exodus of a million of the victims to neighbouring Bangladesh.
It is true these extremist Buddhist organizations have been often banned by the authorities, but like the hydra-headed monster of the Greek legends they raised their heads again under different names. The rulers have turned a blind eye to this phenomenon when their own purposes were served. Just as now. When the military seized power in February this year scuttling the nascent democratic system, arresting civilian leaders including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and killing over 900 protesters some of these extremist monks sided with the authorities, as much of the rest of the world was treating as pariah. Paramaukkha, a monk with a significant following, who was once incarcerated for spreading hatred against Rohingya Muslim minorities, has come up with support for the generals. He has blamed the demonstrators for inciting violence, and has stated that keeping Suu Kyi in power would mean “an extinction of our religion, ethnicity, and the entire country”. Is there, then, a misalliance of the extremist monks and the military in Myanmar in the making? This is not a consummation devoutly to be wished.
In fairness to the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar, some have sought to speak truth to power. They have held marches holding banners identifying themselves as “Monks who don’t want a Military Dictatorship”. But the problem is there are those who do, like rotten apples in a basket that threaten all others. But there is also evidence of faith-inspired love and kindness in today’s Myanmar. The image of the Catholic nun Sister Ann Rose Nu Taung, kneeling before soldiers with outstretched arms begging them to spare the children and shoot her instead has recently gone viral. It stood out as an astounding mark of humanity in a milieu of hate and of courage in the face of extreme coercion. Most of all, it inspired a sliver of hope of survival in what appears otherwise to be a dismal and depressing sea of despair.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg