covering burma and southeast asia
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Silencing the Sangha


By ALEX ELLGEE NOVEMBER, 2010 - VOL.18, NO.11


Buddhist monks march in Rangoon during the 2007 Saffron Revolution. (Photo: www.dailymail.co.uk)
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Burma is an extremely religious country, and its Buddhist monks and other religious leaders have played major roles in elections past. But for the 2010 polls, the military regime has issued strict election laws that prohibit the use of religion for political means, making the role of the country’s monasteries, mosques and churches less clear.

At nearly all of Burma’s historical turning points, Buddhist monks have been at the forefront, including during the struggle for independence, when they mobilized the Burmese people against colonial rule, and the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” when they led thousands of civilians through the streets of Rangoon demanding an end to military rule. “As highly respected people in the community, Buddhist monks and particularly abbots are looked to for guidance on all affairs, including politics,” said Christina Fink, an anthropologist and author of the book Living Silence.

The monks also played a crucial role in the landslide victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 1990 elections, which the junta refused to acknowledge. Monks all across Burma helped bring villagers together in the monasteries so the NLD leaders could speak to them en masse and save time in the face of a restricted campaign period. “The terrain was terrible and we had little time to get around. We were often walking and climbing mountains to reach villages,” said U Chit Tin, who during the 1990 election was a candidate for the NLD in Min Hla Township, Magwe Division, and now lives in exile in Mae Sot. “We couldn’t have achieved [victory] without the help of the monks.” 

 “We supported the NLD because it was formed as a result of the 1988 uprising,” said U Zawana, a monk who played an active role helping the NLD. “The monks also wanted a new government and believed the NLD would improve our country.”

Nyo Ohn Myint, now the foreign minister of the NLD-Liberated Area, toured the country with Aung San Suu Kyi during the 1990 campaign, working closely with her to inform people about the opposition party and its “alternative to military rule.” He recalls her first speech at Shwedagon Pagoda, when monks from across Rangoon came to “voluntarily control the crowd and keep everyone silent and peaceful.” Nyo Ohn Myint said this was the first time that monks were actively involved in the NLD’s political movement and their participation continued throughout the election campaign. “Without the help of the monks we would only have secured 6o percent of the seats, not 82 percent,” he said.

Although the 1989 election law prohibited religious leaders from voting in the 1990 elections—a rule actually introduced by senior monks in the 1947 Constitution—Nyo Ohn Myint said this didn’t keep religious leaders from getting involved in politics. However, fearing the strong relationship that had developed between the two, since 1990, “the regime has sought to limit contacts between pro-democracy parties and monks,” said Fink.

This culminated in the issuance of 2010 election laws that can be interpreted to completely prohibit monks or any other religious person or organization from political activity. Article 12 (A4) of the Political Parties Registration Law states that if a political party does not abstain from the abuse of religion for political ends it shall not have the right to exist. Although vague, this law has left many smaller political parties concerned that any contact with religious leaders and institutions could put them at risk of being disbanded.

“This is a great shame for Burmese politics, where the monks have always played a major role,” said Nyo Ohn Myint.

Fink pointed out, however, that at the same time the generals are limiting the role of the monasteries in politics, they are highlighting their own devotion to Buddhism in the form of donations to monks and temple building projects.  “The support and protection of Buddhist institutions and the Sangha [the Buddhist monastic community] is a very important part of Burmese Buddhist identity,” Fink said. ”It is linked to the prosperity and well-being of the country as a whole.”

Since the 1990 election and the Saffron Revolution, the Sangha has fallen partially under the control of the military regime, which has attempted to flush out the “pro-democracy monks.” State media has repeatedly declared that monks should not be involved in politics and those who are should be considered “fake monks.” U Zawana said that after spending 16 years in prison for his activist work, he was released to a completely different Sangha.



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