The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
EDITORIAL
Editorial_December Issue
DECEMBER, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.11

The Political Face of Burmese Buddhism

 

Religion is an important medium in the formulation of political strategies and identities in Burma. No political practice is possible without involving Buddhism—and Buddhism has been politicized to a degree where no religious act is apolitical.

 

The recent Buddhist summit held in Rangoon is a case in point. The three-day meeting, attended by more than 1,000 monks from around the world, ended on December 11 with promises to strive harder to spread Buddhism’s central doctrine of harmony and goodwill.

 

In his address to the opening session, Sr-Gen Than Shwe declared: “The world is witnessing numerous conflicts and crimes. All those evils result from greed (lobha), anger (dosa) and delusion (moha). We should rid the world of the roots of all evils and sow the seeds of goodwill, tolerance, kindness and altruism for the sake of peace and prosperity.”

 

In Burma, the morality (Sila) element of Buddhist teaching is regarded as the most important foundation of social and spiritual peace. The importance of observing moral precepts is compared metaphorically to the necessity of keeping one’s longyi (sarong) tied tightly around the waist, as failure to maintain one or the other brings serious disgrace and impedes spiritual progress.

 

One can recite, extol and spread the best of Lord Buddha’s teachings with magnificent rhetoric, but if one does not maintain fundamental morality, one is seen in the public eye as wearing the most elegant (Burmese) turban without having a sarong tied around the waist.

 

The metaphor suits the present situation in Burma. The Burmese generals are singing Buddhism’s praises while at the same time committing gross human rights violations, corruption, sexual abuses in ethnic areas, ordering media blackouts and harboring the world’s top drugs industry.

 

The irony is that if basic Buddhist teaching of the five precepts—against killing, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, lying, and using drugs—were observed, as religious devotees recommend, these regime-sponsored afflictions would not have befallen Burma.

 

The reality proves that Burma’s cherished title of “The Golden Land” (because of its glittering pagodas and temples) is nothing more than words.

 

Burmese Buddhists have a political as well as spiritual duty to save Buddhism’s grace from the exploitation of hypocritical and shameless generals.

 

 

Ceasefire Groups Must Play their Card—or be Endplayed

 

It is now more than a decade since ethnic ceasefire groups in Burma reached agreement with the ruling junta. Most of those 20 or so groups were hoping for political reform, not only for the country’s sake but also on behalf of their own people. How far have those hopes been realized?

 

Politically, they attained what was called a “National Convention”, proclaimed by the military regime as the first step of its seven-step “road map” aimed at drafting a new constitution. When the convention resumed in May 2004, after an eight-year suspension, the ceasefire groups were invited and they attended.

 

The main opposition parties, the National League for Democracy, or NLD, and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy decided, however, to stay away from the convention, complaining that the junta had rejected their demands to change the convention’s undemocratic proceedings. In July, the convention stalled again.

 

When the junta announced recently that it would resume the convention next February, the ceasefire groups seemed ready to attend again.

 

In reality, the convention was a failure from the start, even though opposition parties participated at the first sessions in 1993. Two years later, in 1995, the NLD walked out of the convention, complaining that participants were not allowed to talk freely. The following year the convention stalled again, proving that it couldn’t work without the participation of the NLD, which had won a landslide victory in the 1990 general election.

 

For the junta, the convention represents a political way out. That’s why the generals have consistently tried to stage the convention under their full control and guidance.

 

This time, the ceasefire groups are indispensable if the junta is to show that even without the main opposition parties the convention is a valid, inclusive forum.

 

With this in mind, Lt-Gen Thein Sein, chairman of the National Convention Committee and the junta’s Secretary-1, has had several meetings with ceasefire groups in an effort to seal their participation.

 

In fact, the junta has used ceasefire groups as a playing card in its political game. Now the ceasefire groups should show they have cards of at least equal strength, developing a winning strategy to employ within the convention. Otherwise, this is a game they’ll surely lose.

 

One important move would be to urge the generals to invite the opposition parties, including the NLD, to participate in the convention. That really is a necessity—in the interests not only of the country but also of their own people. It’s a card that must be played to avoid being endplayed.

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