The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Silencing the Sangha

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. He told The Irrawaddy that the government-supported monk union, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, “has gained more control, and it is impossible for a monk like me to register again as a monk.”

Ashin Issariya, whose pen name is “King Zero” and who was a monk leader during the Saffron Revolution, said sinister tactics are employed to monitor the monasteries. Government-sponsored monks who are equivalent to spies have been placed in monasteries associated with pro-democracy activities and the regime has given gifts such as cars, televisions and mobile phones to senior monks in order to win their support.

“It is not the monks’ fault; they don’t have enough education and are exploited by the generals,” said Ashin Issariya.

Along with the strict election laws and regime infiltration of the monasteries, the role of monks in the 2010 election is limited by the fact that many leading monks are not available to participate. Following the Saffron Revolution, many of the monk leaders fled to Thailand, where they either remain in refugee camps or have been resettled in third countries. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma reports that more than 250 monks continue to serve lengthy prison sentences. And in recent months, a handful of monks have been arrested for being in possession of anti-election material—which has undoubtedly had a chilling effect on the Sangha.

In addition, Ashin Issariya said that more than 18 monasteries that were linked to the Saffron Revolution have been closed in the run up to this year’s election. Monks also require permission from the junta to go abroad and their travel between cities has been restricted.

Although the 2010 election laws strictly prohibit the use of religion as a political tool, it appears that the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has been doing so with impunity. One monk based in Rangoon, who chose to speak to The Irrawaddy over the phone rather than meet, said the USDP had visited his monastery several times and pressured monks to tell people to vote for their party. “We did not want them to enter, but they did and insulted Buddhism with their behavior. We are not political puppets,” he said.

The USDP has reportedly used similar tactics in monasteries throughout Burma, but some monks have resisted the pressure to be used as the junta’s political tool. Narinjara, an exile Arakanese news agency based in Bangladesh, recently reported that monks at a monastery in Sittwe had denied access to USDP candidates wishing to hold a rally in their monastery. “The Election Commission has not allowed other political parties to use religious buildings for rallies. This is the reason the abbot opposed the USDP using his monastery for the rally,” a senior monk was quoted as saying. Monks in other regions have also stopped the USDP from entering their monasteries, sources say.

Dr. Than Nyein, a leader of the National Democratic Force (NDF), a party made up of former NLD members, said his party was being particularly careful not to use the monasteries for political purposes. However, he said, the USDP has frequently visited religious monasteries across the country. “If the USDP are traveling and they pass a monastery and go in, they can’t claim that is for personal purposes. It seems like it is for the party’s benefit. Someone should be looking at these cases,” Dr Than Nyein said.

The USDP has attempted to garner the use of other religious organizations for political gain as well. In Kachin State, the USDP reportedly has donated to churches to win the votes of members and has entered several churches without permission to hold rallies. “Although the church does not want the USDP there, we are too afraid to tell them to leave,” said a Christian clergyman who asked not to be named. “We can see that they are using our churches to persuade the people to vote for them, but the EC [Election Commission] should be stopping this, not us.”

Cheery Zahau, an ethnic Chin activist, said she had received reports of the USDP targeting Baptist churches in Chin state. “The USDP has forced respected members of church groups to run as candidates for their party, so members of their church will probably vote for them,” said Zahau. “Chin people are too honest and will just vote for the people they like.”

On the other hand, a leading member of the Chin Progressive Party said his party has avoided churches because they are concerned they would run afoul of the election laws. The USDP’s ability to use churches in their campaign is just one of many advantages it has over the small Chin parties, he said.

The USDP has also been keen to win the support of Burma’s Muslims, who make up more than 4 percent of Burma’s population. Rangoon’s mayor, Aung Thein Lin, a USDP candidate for parliament, recently promised to complete construction of a mosque in return for 2,000 USDP votes from the local community. However, the Buddhist community complained and the local authorities retracted the proposal.

According to Tin Soe, the editor of Kaladan Press, an ethnic Rohingya news agencey, similar cases are rampant in northern Arakan State, home to the Rohingya population, which has long been a victim of human rights abuses and persecution. He said local leaders have been told by USDP candidates that mosques will be built if they vote for the USDP, which has also been trying to win the votes of the state’s Muslim population with promises of identity papers and improved travel. “The USDP knows that if the religious leaders tell the people to support the USDP, most of the people from rural areas will follow the order,” said Tin Soe.

With respect to the role of religion and religious institutions in the 2010 election, the military regime appears to have closed tight any loopholes that assisted the NLD victory in 1990. And while going to great lengths to ensure that the opposition is severely restricted by the election laws pertaining to religion, it has allowed its proxy party, the USDP, to act illegally without repercussion.

This has left the opposition severely hampered in its ability to openly utilize the Sangha and other religious institutions to help it win this year’s election—either by winning seats in parliament or by discrediting the election through a boycott. But history has shown that the Buddhist monks and other religious leaders inside Burma are strong and resilient, and they are already finding ways to circumvent the election laws, such as by quietly supporting a boycott and by encouraging people who are forced to vote to cast their ballots for smaller democratic parties.

“We believe religion will still have a large role in the 2010 election,” said Nyo Ohn Myint. “Despite the regime’s best efforts, religion will always define Burmese politics.” 

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