February 14, 2021


Democratic values compete with Buddhist ones in Myanmar (Mark Silk, Feb. 13th, 2021, RNS)

Briefly, Burmese Buddhism understands political legitimacy as derived from a species of spiritual potency called hpoun. The source of hpoun is the monastic order, or Sangha, which acquires it by renouncing power and forswearing worldly things.

Political leaders, like everyone else outside the Sangha, obtain hpoun through their support of the Sangha, emblemized by placing of food in the monks' begging bowls. In this system of what Jordt calls "karmic kingship" (the title of her forthcoming book), hpoun is what differentiates a good (legitimate) ruler from a bad (illegitimate) one. 

Although monks are required to be apolitical, they do have the right to act in order to protect the teachings of the Buddha. They do this by refusing accept food donations from those they believe have violated those teachings. By "turning over the bowl," they withhold hpoun.

That is just what happened in 2007, during public protests over an unannounced removal of fuel subsidies by the military government.

After a brutal crackdown on several hundred monks who had joined the protests in the name of relieving human suffering (a core Buddhist teaching), tens of thousands of monks protested this assault on religion by marching through the streets holding their bowls upside down. In the end, junta leader Than Shwe earned the title "Monk Killer," lost his legitimacy, and in 2011 resigned the position of head of state he had held since 1992.

Not surprisingly, the military was anything but happy with this development. So they did what Burmese leaders in similar situations had always done: denounced those who denied them hpoun as false monks and found monks who would support them.

The campaign against the Rohingya was spearheaded by one of the latter, who sold the campaign to the Burmese public as all about preserving Buddhism against alien religious power and influence.

None of this is to say that Western ideas of democracy and human rights have been absent in Myanmar. In 2007, some younger Burmans, including monks, embraced them -- but their standard-bearer, Aung San Suu Kyi, only up to a point.

The daughter of the martyred independence leader Aung San, Suu Kyi spent 15 years in house detention as head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party whose landslide electoral victory in 1990 the generals refused to accept. Despite the name, the party has been less pro-democracy than anti-dictator -- in traditional Burmese terms, opposed to illegitimate kingship.

According to Jordt, the arrangement of shared civilian-military rule that has just been overthrown was a diarchy, an awkward shared rule that pitted Senior General Min Aung Hlaing against civilian leader Suu Kyi. The coup led by Min Aung Hlaing was grounded in his hope that, at age 75, her power was on the wane.

His own current effort has been to build up his hpoun by donating to monks and important pagodas, and consulting with the monastic leadership. He is seeking to demonstrate that the entire country, supernatural as well as natural, is with him and that he is the legitimate ruler in the traditional way. It remains to be seen whether he can bring the Sangha with him. 

This time around, however, exposure to social media has made the Burmese people far more aware and supportive of democracy as such. Gen Z has been at the forefront of a civil disobedience movement far more inclusive than anything that occurred in the past.

As Ike put it: 

And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: 'we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator...' not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but 'all men are endowed by their Creator'. In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.

Posted by at February 14, 2021 12:00 AM