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Will Buddhism lose its “special position” in democratic Myanmar? December 17, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : Kumar, Vikas, South Asia - General , trackback

Vikas Kumar

The British disestablished Buddhism in Myanmar after abolishing the monarchy and the Burmese nationalists in turn projected the British rule, among other things, as a threat to Buddhism. After decolonization, Buddhism slowly reclaimed the public space. To begin with the Union of Burma’s Constitution (1947) recognized the “special position of Buddhism” (Art 21). The Sixth (Theravada) Buddhist Council (1954-56), which concluded on the 2500th Anniversary of Buddha’s nirvana, was organized in Myanmar under the patronage of Prime Minister U Nu. Then in 1961 Buddhism was formally adopted as the state religion. This, however, did little to secure U Nu’s political position. He was deposed soon after in 1962. The nominal changes introduced by the subsequent governments did not alter the relationship between Buddhism and the state, which marginalizes Christian tribes and Muslims.

Post-colonial Myanmar dominated by the Burmese Buddhists has, in fact, been fighting insurgent ethno-linguistic and religious minorities right from the day of its inauguration. However, a number of developments in the last few months have generated optimism about the long impending democratization of Myanmar, which in turn is expected to lead to secularization and de-ethnicization of the state. A comparative survey of histories and constitutions of countries closely related to Myanmar – Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand – where Theravada Buddhism is the dominant faith would help deciphering the future of the “special position” of Buddhism in Myanmar.

The Theravada countries can be classified into three categories depending on the extent to which they were affected by colonialism and communism/socialism. In Thailand, which was never directly colonized by the West and remained largely immune to communism, both monarchy and state religion survived into the 21st Century. According to the Thai Constitution (2007), “the King is a Buddhist and Upholder of religions” (Sec 9) and “the State shall patronize and protect Buddhism as the religion observed by most Thais for a long period of time” (Sec 79). In Laos and Cambodia, erstwhile French colonies, the communist wave was strong. In Laos both state religion and monarchy succumbed to the communist onslaught unlike Cambodia where both survived. The Cambodian Constitution (1993) proclaims “Nation, Religion, and King” as the country’s motto (Art 4), declares Buddhism to be the state religion (Art 43), and commits itself to promote Pali language and Buddhist schools (Art 68). But even the Laotian Constitution (1991) singles out Buddhism for special mention: “The state respects and protects all lawful activities of the Buddhists and of other religious followers; mobilises and encourages the Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in the activities which are beneficial to the country and people” (Art 9). Socialism had considerable appeal in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, erstwhile British colonies, where both monarchy and state religion were abolished. But only the state religion revived after decolonization. The Myanmarese Constitution (2008) “recognizes special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union” (Art 361). In Sri Lanka, the only part of the world where Theravada Buddhism has flourished continuously since the antiquity, the Constitution (1978) gives “to Buddhism the foremost place” and binds the state “to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana” (Art 9). (Interestingly, at present Bhutan is the only non-Theravada Buddhist country that has a state religion.) In three of these countries – Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand – minorities are in conflict with the majorities. The future of state religion and monarchy are interlinked in Thailand. It was hoped that the end of insurgency will lead to genuine reconciliation in Sri Lanka. But contrary to expectations, the government shows no sign of reversing its longstanding policy of privileging the Sinhalese people and their language and religion.

So, the broad trends in the Theravada world seem to suggest that Buddhism will continue to enjoy a special status in Myanmar. Even otherwise one could argue that within Myanmar the military regime is not alone in invoking Buddhism as a source of legitimacy. For instance, Aung San Suu Kyi, a major opponent of the regime, is deeply Buddhist. Her political baptism took place at the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is also associated with important political addresses given by her late father. Fortunately, Suu Kyi does not view Buddhism as a tool of domination and has been genuinely interested in reconciliation between the Burmese and other communities.

But there are important differences between Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which among the Theravada countries is closest to Myanmar in terms of colonial and post-colonial experience. In the latter, the state militarily defeated an ethnic insurgency and then refused to abide by its commitment to reconciliation. Yet the current Sri Lankan regime is secure because the Sinhalese majority continues to view it as the guardian of the majority’s overall interests. The Sinhalese are, in fact, indulging in triumphalism insofar as they are tempted to see the military defeat of Tamil insurgents as an exclusively Sinhala rather than a Sri Lankan victory. On the other hand, the democratization of Myanmar, whenever that happens, will be a people’s victory against an authoritarian state. At the moment, it seems that the process of democratization of Myanmar is entirely controlled by the military regime. But we should not ignore the fact that the regime feels compelled to introduce reforms only because it is increasingly unable to sustain itself on its own in absence of popular support of some kind and its legitimacy as the sole guardian of the majority’s interests seems increasingly moot.

There are, in fact, a number of structural reasons why the Buddhist majority in a democratic Myanmar is unlikely to behave like its Sinhalese counterpart. Unlike Sri Lanka, Myanmar’s population is not divided into two antagonistic ethnic groups. Here it bears noting that to begin with Sri Lanka was not bipolar. But the Tamil insurgents’ control over the northern and eastern parts of the country rendered superfluous the role other Tamil groups and smaller minorities could have played in mitigating the conflict. In contrast, the insurgent camp in Myanmar is itself divided along ethnic lines and none of the groups has managed to establish its monopoly over the rest. Also, unlike Sri Lanka the ranks of the minority insurgent groups in Myanmar are not devoid of members from the majority community. In other words, religious, ethnic, and linguistic divides are not yet co-extensive in Myanmar. This has two major consequences. First, it is highly unlikely that one political party will emerge as the sole representative of all the major tribes like Karen, Rakhine, and Shan. So, the tribes are unlikely to pose a unified political threat to the Burmese Buddhists. Second, one political party is unlikely to repeatedly obtain majority solely with the help of Burmese Buddhists votes. So, parties representing the majority community would need the support of tribal parties. But given the divisions among the tribes it is highly unlikely that one Burmese Buddhist-dominated party will receive support from all the major tribal parties. So, the losing Burmese Buddhist party will not be able to blame the minorities for its political defeat because it would have its own tribal political allies. In short, political contests are unlikely to divide the polity into two clearly demarcated camps.

In addition, unlike the stronghold of the Sri Lankan Tamils, which is resource poor and lies in one corner of the country, the tribal strongholds are distributed along the entire periphery of Myanmar. The tribal strongholds are not only resource rich regions that are likely to attract major international investments in the aftermath of democratization, but also control Myanmar’s access to key neighbours like China, India, and Thailand. It is unlikely that the Burmese Buddhists will overlook this fact given the economic stagnation during the last few decades.

So, Myanmar’s demography and geography are more likely than not to check the majority’s capacity to disenfranchise the minorities, which in turn will check political and ethnic polarization. One could argue that demography and geography failed to play a restraining role immediately after independence and there is no reason to believe that they would play a different role in a democratic Myanmar. However, even a cursory acquaintance with Myanmar’s post-colonial history will convince the Burmese Buddhists of the impossibility and futility of any attempt to subjugate the tribal communities. In other words, things are likely to be different this time because history will buttress the restraining effects of demography and geography. And, we can hope that democratization will pave the road to secularization as well as de-ethnicization of the Myanmarese state, at least, in the nominal sense.


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