Breaking Bad in Burma

by Ingrid Jordt

In the global narrative of how democracy springs eternal and ultimately vanquishes the forces of oppression, the dissolution of the Burmese military junta in 2011 told of a people’s capacity to enshrine the principles of universal human rights and tolerance in a pluralistic nation.

The heroine of this romantic story was Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the martyred independence leader Aung San and herself a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose 15 years of house arrest personified Burma’s captivity to autocratic rule. Her non-violent strategy was, moreover, seen as perfectly mirroring the spiritual goals and political inclinations of the Buddhist monks who constitute the moral core of the nation.

Then, inexplicably to most international observers, those same monks changed direction, rallying by the hundreds in defense of Buddhism, using their newly won democratic freedoms to insert constitutional amendments restricting interfaith marriage, and demanding that Muslims be banished from the country.

A perplexing new landscape of communal aspirations, historic antipathies, and an enigmatic conceptualization of how religious and national identity ought to be conjoined, boiled over in the form of communal violence and extremist Buddhist chauvinism directed toward the Muslim minority.

Foreign media produced a spate of man-bites-dog stories expressing astonishment that those who had so recently marched in non-violent demonstrations using expressions of universal kindness and compassion towards all beings could now be inciting hate and advocating the withdrawal of human rights from another religious community. Writing for the BBC magazine on May 2 of last year, Oxford historian Alan Strathern asked, “But aren’t Buddhist monks meant to be the good guys of religion?”

To make sense of what is happening in Burma, it is necessary to understand the complex role monks play in the country’s political order.

For the past 800 years, the authority of the Burmese sovereign has been dependent upon the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic order whose forswearing of power and renunciation of worldly things is the source of spiritual potency, or hpoun.

Hpoun is generated through the accumulation of wholesome deeds leading to good karmic results in the future. It is the hpoun-gyii, the monk, who is best situated to accomplish this. In turn, the monk confers hpoun on those whose offerings he accepts, using his “merit field” to create a network of lay supporters.

At the top of the political food chain, the Sangha must supply hpoun to the ruler, who lacks legitimacy without it. In order to control the populace, the ruler must have access to the merit fields of the monks.

Historically, Burmese rulers have made this spiritual regime work for them by identifying and supporting monks sympathetic to their authority while discrediting individual monks or segments of the Sangha who interfere with their ambitions. Similarly, “pretenders to the throne”—as political aspirants are still referred to because of the ongoing symbolic connections to kingship—challenge existing authorities by mobilizing around monks whose spiritual authority challenges those elements of the Sangha made corrupt through association with ruling regimes.

For 60 years Burmese rulers have been trying to disentangle this spiritual-political dynamic and allow the government to function independent of the Sangha. After seizing power in a 1962 coup, the country’s military assured its economic and political supremacy by divide-and-rule politics and the perpetuation of a continuous war against minorities.

In 1990, when the military rank and file joined the rest of the public in electing Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) Party by a landslide, the generals refused to relinquish power. In the ensuing protests, several students and a monk were shot to death.

This triggered a “strike” by the Sangha in which thousands refused to accept the alms of the military and their families. (Because lay peoples’ merit depends upon supporting the Sangha, the Sangha can deny them merit by refusing to accept their alms.) Many military wives, their own merit fields jeopardized by the actions of their husbands, refused to cook for them. Respected monk elders demanded that the regime publicly repent its actions.

Thereafter, the generals embarked on a project to separate military personnel and their families and to dissolve the warm feelings between the army and the general populace. They also sought to divide the Sangha by cultivating a separate segment of monks loyal to the regime who would serve as the merit fields of the armed forces.

In the prolonged economic depression of the time, many Burmese joined the military for the special privileges it provided. The tradeoff was loyalty and subjugation to the patron-client ties that kept the military government functioning, including support of the military’s monks.

The junta also required that civil servants’ pay be skimmed for offerings to designated monks. So closely was the activity associated with the regime’s corruption that in the capital Yangon (Rangoon) the act of making such offerings was cynically referred to as “doing bribery.”

When the 2007 monk-led demonstrations erupted, the generals were ready. They imposed curfews on military compounds so that military families were confined to limited engagements with the outside, including monks. Battalions were brought in from the hill tribe areas (where the regime has fought ethnic insurgencies since 1948) to prevent loyalty conflicts among soldiers, monks, and citizens.

With uncompromising violence, the regime killed some monks (unofficial estimates put the number between 30 and 40) and rounded up many more, interring them in a Yangon soccer stadium. Patriarchs from the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee—installed by the military to adjudicate in the Sangha courts—were instructed to go to the stadium and disrobe the monks, thereby demonstrating that their monastic status was bogus and their protests, a political ruse. The patriarchs refused.

This refusal was a sign to the people that the Sangha had not been captured by the military and was not (entirely) corrupted. Within days, the junta filled the committee with more compliant patriarchs. But “Monk Killer Than Shwe,” as the senior general and junta leader became known, could not recover from this crisis of legitimacy.

On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Burma, struck the Irrawaddy Delta. The storm was interpreted by Burmese Buddhists as a sign of Than Shwe’s illegitimacy, its devastation as a karmic consequence of his violence against the monks.

In Burma, the weather is inseparably linked to the ruler, the people, and the sacred geography of the realm. It is, according to traditional Burmese Buddhist thinking, an index of the ruler’s legitimacy.

So in the world that most contemporary Burmese grew up in—where there was little news beyond what the government gave them—the weather report was itself a form of propaganda. The government-owned New Light of Myanmar always published the same forecast: “The weather will be fair throughout the land.”

Fearing that it would provide a cover for foreign military intervention, the generals blocked international humanitarian aid for the victims of Nargis for a month. All donations were to go through the military, thereby preserving the principle that the ruler is the chief donor of the land. The generals were also concerned lest incipient donation networks grow into political action parties that might contest their authority.

After Nargis, Than Shwe—probably in recognition of the fact that there could be no return to the status quo ante and reputedly on the advice of his personal astrologer—pushed through a sham referendum in support of the military’s draft constitution. “The time has now come to change from military rule to democratic civilian rule,” the state media reported.

With hundreds of millions of dollars of state resources secured in personal accounts in Dubai, Than Shwe had long since prepared his golden parachute. Now he distributed national assets to his loyal generals and cronies in the name of opening the country to democracy and free market capitalism.

Thus would the promised transition to democracy wipe the historical slate clean while dividing Burma’s rich resources as so much booty among the elite. Aung San Suu Kyi would be released from house arrest but constrained by a constitutional arrangement rigged in the generals’ favor by guaranteeing the military 25 percent of the parliamentary seats.

And the rest of the world poured in, ready to take advantage of one of the world’s last great economic development opportunities. Commercial greed and the possibility of reasserting some Western influence in the Asian region made it easy to overlook the warning signs.

Enter Ashin Wirathu, the monk whom Time’s July 1, 2013 cover dubbed “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”

Born in Mandalay in 1968, U Wirathu left school at 14 to become a monk and in 2001 joined the 969 Movement, a nationalist Buddhist organization known for hostility to Muslims. Two years later he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for giving incendiary sermons but in 2010 was released with many other political prisoners.

He came to prominence in September 2012, when he led a rally of monks in Mandalay on behalf of President Thein Sein’s controversial plan to deport the 800,000 Burmese Muslims known as Rohingya. “I call them troublemakers, because they are troublemakers,” he told New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller in June of last year. “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.” A month after his Mandalay rally, violence broke out in Rakhine State on the Bangladesh border, where most Rohingya live.

Instigating violence between Buddhists and Muslims is in fact well-rehearsed state theater—one of Burmese rulers’ favorite art forms. In the 1930s, riots drove out Indians who had emigrated during British colonial rule. Another expulsion took place at the start of Ne Win’s military rule in 1962.

Burmese Indians had at one time made up fully half of the population of Yangon, the country’s commercial as well as political capital. Their expulsions were explicitly meant to rectify economic disparities and Burman displacement by a more commercially successful community. Typical Indian physical features would become synonymous with Muslim identity, mirroring emergent national ideas of the unity of race, language, and religion for the Burman Buddhist majority.

Discrimination against Rohingyas has been a recurring phenomenon. In 1978 Ne Win launched Operation Naga Min (Dragon King), expelling 250,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. A year later, following an agreement with the Bangladeshi government, Operation Shwe Hintha (Golden Bird) returned an equal number to Burma.

Rohingyas were variously excluded by citizenship laws (1982), expulsions (1992, 1994), and restrictions on marriage and reproduction (2005). On each occasion, the flare-up against this population served national political purpose even as it reflected religious and economic tensions.

The 2010 elections again put the Rohingya issue into manipulative play when the Election Commission permitted “Guest Citizens” (Rohingyas holding White Identity cards) to be eligible to vote in exchange for casting ballots for the military’s own (formally civilian) Union Solidarity and Development Party.

For those who suffered through decades of corrupt military rule, U Wirathu’s speeches have considerable appeal. It is widely perceived that minorities with ties to other countries (China, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia) have been able to take advantage of the corrupt patron-client system to purchase citizenship cards, migrate into Burma from Bangladesh and China, build mosques, benefit from land grabs, and receive business concessions.

For many Burmese Buddhists, their displacement by immigrating ethnic groups makes it self-evident that the sasana (religion) is under threat. The threat has also been evident from the weakening of the Sangha, which relies on lay support.

By controlling the flow of lay donations, the military restricted the movement of monks, and imposed curfews and the requirement to seek governmental permission for every sermon made to gatherings of more than five people. Agents planted in significant monasteries operated openly, jotting down the names of laity who came to make offerings to monks. Big donors were then solicited to contribute to state construction projects.

Under the circumstances, many Burmese keenly felt the need for both Buddhist and Burmese revival. U Wirathu’s defense of the religion speaks to this common sentiment. In his talks, he links Muslim business activity to the slighting of Buddhist spheres of control. Secularization proceeds through private ownership, and this combination, which appears to favor Muslim businesses, is deeply troubling to Buddhists.

The fear is that secularism and private ownership will work together to destroy the Buddhist public sphere. Most Burmese Buddhists see the 969 boycott of Muslim businesses as a peaceful way to collectively sanction the economic advantages held by Muslim shopkeepers and businesses. Indeed, they view the 969 Movement not as a provocation but as a way of redressing the unfair advantages that secular politics and a privatized economic system have conferred upon those with the financial resources and political connections.

Time magazine’s 2013 cover story by Hannah Beech was itself widely considered an attack on Buddhism. Tying the attacks on Muslims to Islamic violence (“Now it’s Buddhism’s turn”), Beech wrote that U Wirathu had described himself as the “Burmese Bin Laden.” Although he seems only to have said that that was what his Muslim opponents called him, the international press repeated her allegation.

In fact, U Wirathu walks a tight line between protecting the religion and “doing politics”—which is forbidden to monks and a cause for disbarment from the monkhood. He has repeatedly stated that in his community, 969 campaigners do not use violence.  Nevertheless, the United Nations and international NGOs have tied the 969 movement and Buddhist monks to anti-Muslim violence.

The Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, which adjudicates monks’ orthodoxy and behavior, has declared it illegal to form monk networks based on the principles of the 969 Movement and bars linking its emblem to the religion. However, the Committee has not sought to defrock U Wirathu for alleged engagement in politics or inciting violence.  Rather, he is portrayed as speaking against violence.

For his part, President Thein Sein has said that the government would take action against those who exploit the religion for their own benefit—suggesting that he may not have full control of the situation on the ground. Tying the violent anti-Muslim riots to the religion and the monkhood surely benefits some persons, it is believed, while simultaneously discrediting the Sangha, weakening its capacity to confer legitimacy to the ruler.

That U Wirathu enjoys the backing of the regime is strongly suggested by the fact that he has been given freedom to travel the country and preach without any governmental constraints, as well as by evidence of the military’s involvement in the production and distribution of DVDs of his sermons. By contrast, monks who have protested land-grabbing—for example, by the Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine—have been immediately and violently put down and jailed by security forces.

Longtime Burma-watchers believe that elements in the military have deliberately orchestrated the anti-Muslim campaign in an attempt to foil the democracy movement and Aung San Suu Kyi’s popular support in advance of the 2015 elections. UN observers have pointed to the strategic efficiency and planning involved in the anti-Muslim riots, noting that government security forces have stood by and even participated in the violence against Muslims.

According to the new rules of Burmese politics, entrenching the military requires not only force of arms but also the will of the people. To achieve political legitimacy, the generals must demonstrate that Burma is still unfit for democracy and that the army is the only institution capable of holding the nation together.

To do this, they must discredit Suu Kyi’s vision. This is not so hard to do.

The Burmese democracy movement has always been first and foremost an anti-regime movement, and Suu Kyi has long been the best-positioned opponent of the regime. But she herself takes a secularist approach to Buddhism. Her presentation of the faith as a “revolution of the spirit” towards Western humanist principles has never been fully accepted by even her most ardent supporters inside Burma.

This secularized vision—a far cry from the Burmese ideal of a Buddhist state—was tolerated and overlooked by Burmans who recognized her ability to represent the cause of Burma to the international community. But now she is caught in a bind.

Standing up for human rights means siding with the Muslims and not supporting the place of Buddhism in the nation. Siding with the Buddhists undermines her credibility as a human rights superstar. She has chosen to remain silent—and drawn criticism from every corner.

Meanwhile, U Wirithu, as agent provocateur, seeks to reveal and exploit this contradiction to discredit Suu Kyi on both Buddhist and Burmese grounds. When a National League for Democracy office refused to allow a Buddhist ceremony in commemoration of the martyrdom of her father, he pointed out that the landlord was Muslim and had forbidden the ceremony from taking place in his building.

Depicting Suu Kyi as having been in this way “surrounded” and contained by Muslims, he cuts to the heart of Burmese Buddhist doubts about “The Lady’s” ability to rule.

“She doesn’t know about Burma and its nature,” he said in a statement endorsing Thein Sein as the presidential candidate most capable of defending the religion. “All she knows is to stage revolution and attack the government. If she became the president, the governance would be in chaos. Racial and religious conflict would deteriorate.”

His endorsement of Thein Sein in 2015 has won the approval of even such highly respected monks as Tipitakadhara U Indaçariya, who observed that Aung San Suu Kyi’s view of Buddhism was not in conformity with Burmese Buddhists’ and that she wants to internationalize Burma’s social and cultural life.

This is the crux of the struggle over what democracy and political legitimacy means for Burma two long years after the military dictatorship supposedly ended and President Obama declared the country “open for business.” The military and the nominally civilian government have given Burmese mobs a license to terrorize because their ultimate goal is to show that security is preferable to freedom and defense of the religion demands strong rulers capable of safeguarding the Buddhist realm.

As she seeks to change the constitution—which bars her, as the widow and mother of foreigners—from running for the presidency, Aung San Suu Kyi is feeling the political ground shifting under her feet. Her popularity is being overtaken by support for Thein Sein, whose legitimacy as defender of the sacred as well as the secular dimensions of the realm has been strengthened in the confusion of current events.

The history of Burma is replete with stories of heroes who overthrow unjust kings and reestablish Buddhist rule. Suu Kyi’s father is considered one of these and many Burmese see her as such a figure—a minlaung or challenger to the throne.

But at the moment, her “revolution of the spirit” does not look capable of achieving the genuine democratic transformation she had in mind. Rather, its notable success is being subsumed by the traditional Burmese tug-of-war over legitimacy between Sangha and state.

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