Outsiders often overlook the deep but obscure influence of Buddhism on the politics of countries like Myanmar and Thailand, writes Richard Cockett
If any westerner has heard of just one Buddhist monk, it’s likely to be Ashwin Wirathu. A Burman from the northern Myanmar city of Mandalay, he was splashed on the cover of Time magazine in 2013 as ‘The face of Buddhist terror’.
This probably bemused many readers in America and Europe; they had hitherto assumed that all Buddhists, and especially monks, were uniquely tolerant, peaceful and cheerful. But this issue of Time was considered to be so incendiary in Asia that it was banned in Myanmar and other largely Buddhist countries.
Wirathu made his name by inciting anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar in the wake of the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya from Sittwe, in western Rakhine state, in 2012. He has clearly enjoyed his notoriety, and doubtless came to feel that he had become untouchable. Closely linked to the Buddhist nationalist MaBaTha movement, however provocative and inflammatory Wirathu’s words, and especially his Facebook posts, he seemed to be able to say whatever he wanted and get away with it.
Other monks suspected that Wirathu must have had powerful backers and protectors among the military, and there is certainly some evidence to suggest that he was helped and financed by some of the more sinister, hardline figures in the old military regime – avowed enemies of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and now the de facto president of the country, whom the monk has branded a ‘woman dictator’.
In March, however, Wirathu’s luck ran out. He was given a one-year preaching ban by the Sangha Maha Nayaka, the government-appointed committee that oversees the Sangha, Myanmar’s communion of about half-a-million monks. The ministry of religion and culture backed this up by promising, in effect, to take legal action against him if he breaks this prohibition. The offence that ultimately persuaded the authorities to act was Wirathu’s Facebook postings praising the killers of Ko Ni, the NLD’s Muslim legal adviser, who was shot dead at point-blank range outside Yangon airport in February. Wirathu had thanked the alleged plotters, Kyi Lin, Aung Win Zaw and Zeya Phyo, and invited people to pray for their families. ‘Don’t blame the MaBaTha if many killers like Kyi Lin appear. Our country still needs the military representatives, even if other countries don’t need them,’ he posted. Even for the normally supine Sangha, this was a provocation too far.
Anti-Muslim sentiment among Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population has blighted the country’s otherwise hopeful journey from outright military dictatorship to flawed democracy in just seven years. Like tinder waiting for a light, it burst into flames with the sacking of Sittwe. Fanned by the likes of Wirathu, it subsequently spread like wildfire across the country. Politically, it has boxed in Suu Kyi; fearful, or unwilling, to confront this anti-Muslim sentiment among her own core supporters – Burman Buddhists – she has refused to speak out in support of the Rohingyas’ human or civil rights, thereby forfeiting sympathy in the West as well as Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia.
A recent interim report from a government-supported commission into the Rohingya crisis, chaired by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, has done little to appease Ms Suu Kyi’s critics: the question of giving all the Rohingya a path to citizenship was fudged. However, the banning of Wirathu must give some hope that the MaBaTha might have finally overreached itself. Hopefully, the Sangha is now prepared to push back against the sort of anti-Muslim hatred that has been allowed to poison Myanmar’s politics. And that, in turn, might help to change the dynamics of the Rohingya situation, freeing up NLD politicians to be more generous in their dealings with this persecuted minority without having to watch their political backs so much.
The moment is also a reminder of the vital but infinitely complex relationship between Theravada Buddhism and politics in countries like Myanmar, as well as other Asian countries with problematic contemporary politics, such as Thailand and Sri Lanka. Many monks and monastic heads in Mandalay told me in 2014 that they were strongly opposed to Wirathu’s views, but they were also unwilling to organise against the MaBaTha, or to speak out against it themselves. This silent majority had certainly not been so passive during the so-called Saffron Revolution of 2007, when thousands of monks took to the streets in Yangon and other big cities to protest against the former military regime, and more specifically the grim poverty that had been inflicted upon the Burmese people by the personal greed, corruption and economic mismanagement of the generals.
The slaughter of 40 or more of the protesting monks (as well as hundreds of others) by soldiers is usually seen as a significant marker in the regime’s cumulative decision to reform itself; even the thuggish dictator Than Shwe, so the argument goes, must have felt remorse at having to gun down monks in the streets, eroding the moral legitimacy of his rule. In the moral calculus of Buddhism, every evil act will provoke a reaction against the perpetrator of equal ferocity.
The very suggestion that Than Shwe might have regarded his regime as ‘morally legitimate’ in the first place might surprise many, yet that position is certainly supported by a new, detailed study of Buddhism and political thought in Myanmar – Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar (Cambridge University Press) – by Matthew Walton, the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at Oxford University. Although Walton argues that Buddhism allows of a wide range of interpretations as regards political action, he also shows how the generals could have been acting selflessly, by their own lights, to protect what they saw as the ‘moral universe’ in the name of the country. In other words, the endless photographs of Than Shwe and other senior generals at Myanmar’s monasteries offering gifts and prayers are not just for show.
The general’s emphasis on ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’, the clunky phrase that they attached to their seven-point plan to ready the country for the elections of 2010 and the gradual handover to nominally civilian rule, resonates strongly with Buddhist thought, writes Walton. A key Buddhist conception of politics is that ‘a strong political authority is a necessary component of a thriving sasana [roughly translated as the Buddhist community].’ The lack of any political authority can lead to destabilisation, and, worst of all, ‘disintegration’ of the county.
Disintegration remains the Burmese army’s favourite word, a constant reminder of the baleful consequences of any action that undermine the nation’s ‘unity’. This is still seen as the army’s basic raison d’être in the country, and the justification for its privileged position in the constitution; a quarter of seats in parliament are still reserved for the military, as well as three of the most important ministries. The military has to protect Myanmar from external enemies, for sure. But even more important is its duty is to preserve the ‘unity’ of the country, to prevent parts of it breaking off, whether that be the territories of the Kachin, Chin or any other of Myanmar’s ethnic groups. Western-style democracy, by contrast, sees politics as a competitive business of binary opposites, pitching different conceptions of the state against each other. It must therefore, on this reading of Buddhism, be deeply prejudicial to the unity of the state.
The military regime in Thailand must see politics through a very similar lens; the sort of political competition offered by Thaksin Shinawatra and his followers had threatened the unity of the moral universe, and can only be resisted by the legitimate guardians of that universe, namely the army as sanctioned (in Thailand’s case) by the monarch. In March Thailand’s junta unveiled a 20-year ‘masterplan’ that will apparently guide successive governments of any political complexion, effectively quashing any lingering hopes that it may be open to returning to Western-style elections and competitive politics.
In the case of Myanmar, the most intriguing question arising from Walton’s book concerns Suu Kyi. As the daughter of a general, how closely does the Nobel Peace prize winner align herself with the political/moral universe of the generals? Quite closely, seems to be the answer. The State Counsellor also uses the lexicon of ‘unity’ and ‘discipline’ as key components of democracy. She sees the exercise of correct moral practice in individuals as a prerequisite for the proper functioning of democracy. This is much less to do with individualism, as understood in the West, and much more to do with sharing a mutually supportive moral state, ensuring the unity of the group.
There is no doubt that Suu Kyi, as she often says, believes passionately in the basic tenets of liberal democracy and the rule of law, but very much in this local Buddhist context. As Walton reminds us, we should pay just as much attention to the nuances of the interplay between Buddhism and democracy as a guide to her politics as to any other factor, be it the American alliance or Chinese dams. The sagas of Wirathu, the Thai junta and Ms Suu Kyi are all bound together, even if Buddhism is seldom referred to or invoked directly. But, in the end, it is always there.