Human Rights Watch (2009): The Resistance of the Monks | Buddhism and Activism in Burma | II – Burma: A Long Tradition of Buddhist Activism

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Burma: A Long Tradition of Buddhist Activism

In contrast with the popular image of Buddhist monks as men aloof from worldly affairs who devote themselves almost entirely to tranquil meditation in monasteries, Burma’s monks have come to play a decisive role in the country’s pro-democracy movement. But this is not a new phenomenon. Burma’s politicized, and sometimes even militant, form of Buddhism dates back to the end of the 19th century. Following the British conquest of upper Burma, and the removal of King Thibaw from his palace in Mandalay in 1885, Buddhist monks dressed in their yellow and crimson robes led bands of armed rebels against the colonial power. As Donald Eugene Smith wrote in his study Religion and Politics in Burma: “In the anti-colonial struggle, the pongyis (monks) were the first nationalists.”[1]

Smith described how in pre-colonial Burma, the king was the promoter and protector of the Buddhist faith, the Burmese language was strongly influenced by Pali, the canonic language of Buddhism, and the monks were the teachers of the youth in virtually every Burmese village. The Buddhist monastery was the center of not only religious but also social activities in rural Burma. Education, the yearly cycle of festivals, merit-making,[2] the monks’ retreat during the rainy season, the ordination of young boys to become novices—and any other communal activity in the village—circled around the monastery.[3]

But the central role of the Buddhist Sangha (order of monks) was eroded under colonial rule, which was established in stages through three Anglo-Burmese Wars. During the first, from 1824-1826, the British conquered the western Arakan (Rakhine) region and the southeastern Tenasserim area.  In the second, in 1852, the British established hegemony over southern Burma, including the new capital Rangoon. During the third, in 1885, northern Burma and the then royal capital of Mandalay came under British rule. There was no place for the old-style pongyi in the new, western-oriented social hierarchy. According to Smith:

His [the monks] educational function were assumed by other agencies, an unknown foreign language prevented him from understanding what was going on, and westernized Burmese laymen increasingly regarded him as irrelevant to modern life. Of all sections of Burmese society, the pongyis had the strongest reason for hating the British and became almost uncompromising nationalists.[4]

Although the colonial power made no deliberate effort to disrupt the Buddhist religion in Burma, political and religious authority was separated. As scholar Jan Becka writes: “The British government departed from the cosmic prototypes with which the traditional Burmese government, the king and the court, had linked the social order and the state.”[5] Many Burmese perceived this as the beginning of the decline of Buddhism as a religion in their country. According to Becka:

Initially, the antipathy towards the British administration stemmed from the fact that it was a non-Buddhist authority and this argument was even more important than foreign domination. It was within this context that Buddhism began to play an important role as a symbol of subject Burmese nationality and as a factor in the nationalist movement in Burma, particularly in the period prior to the 1930s.[6]

At the same time, many Western-educated Burmese realized that it would be futile to oppose the colonial power with the ‘traditional’ response to the new order that the British had brought in and that there was no way the old Buddhist, Burmese kingdom would be revived.[7] But even to these “modern Burmese,” Buddhism was important and, in 1906, a group of laymen organized the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA). It was modeled on the YMBA in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which had been set up in 1898 by C.S. Dissanayake, a convert from Roman Catholicism, who, in turn, had modeled his organization on the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).

The Burmese YMBA strived to preserve the country’s Buddhist heritage in the modern world. In the beginning, it was not a political organization, although it fought issues such as the segregation of the railways, which provided compartments only for Europeans. Its members concentrated mainly on religious, social, and cultural issues and activities. All that, however, changed when many ordinary Burmese began to show their anger at the practice of Westerners in Burma wearing their shoes inside pagoda premises. Buddhists always remove their footwear before entering a pagoda or other holy place, but the British apparently thought they were above such taboos. To Buddhist Burmese, it seemed their traditional values were under attack.

People turned to the YMBA—still the only nationalist organization at the time—and, in 1916, a meeting was held in the Jubilee Hall in the capital Rangoon. A statement was sent to the colonial authorities demanding that the customary rule against the use of footwear in the pagodas should be made into law. The British ignored the request, and the “shoe issue” became the first major source of public anger that galvanized almost the entire Burmese nation against the British colonial rulers. In 1919, a group of Europeans wearing shoes at the Eindawya Pagoda in Mandalay was attacked by angry monks. Four monks were arrested and brought to court for the assault. Their leader, U Kettaya, was convicted of “attempted murder” and sentenced to life imprisonment.[8]

The “shoe issue” became a point of convergence for both modernists and traditionalists to challenge British rule, and to do so in a way that supported the dignity of Buddhism and recognized its central importance to Burmese life.[9] The movement gradually gained momentum. The next challenge to the colonial authorities came in December 1920 when hundreds of young urban intellectuals launched a strike against a proposed law that would provide Burma with its first resident university, replacing the two colleges that had previously been subordinate to the University of Calcutta.[10] Students and other nationalists had reservations about the bill, including matriculation requirements and tuition costs, but British lieutenant-governor Sir Reginald Craddock turned a deaf ear to the protests. Five hundred out of a total of six hundred students in Rangoon began to strike against the colonial authorities. This was followed by strikes by high school students in Rangoon, Mandalay, and other towns.

The students camped at the foot of the Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s holiest shrine, showing the importance of Buddhism to political movements, even one addressing an issue such as education reform. Much later, one of the student activists, U Le Pe Win, reminisced:

These propaganda campaigns as well as constant contacts made by our comrade boycotters with members of the Buddhist Bhikkhu Sangha everywhere throughout the length and breadth of our country brought about peculiarly prompt political awakening amongst the monks of both upper and lower Burma and even in the Mon area, Arakan, and Shan States. Very soon afterwards, by the beginning of the year 1922, a little over two years after we had launched our University Boycott, pongyi political parties, known in Pali and also popularly, as Sangha Sammeggi, sprang up, sprayingly, like mushrooms.[11]

Out of the YMBA grew the General Council of Buddhist Associations, a broader nationalist organization. In 1920, it became the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA), which sought to widen support for the movement even further beyond the relatively Westernized leadership of previous organizations. The GCBA cooperated closely with the General Council of Sangha Sammeggi (GCSS), which brought together radical monks, subsequently known as “political pongyis.”[12]

At the same time, a prominent monk from the Arakan (Rakhine) region of western Burma had returned from India. He was born as Paw Tun Aung, but became known under his monastic name, U Ottama. In India, he had been close to the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi, and he had also visited France and Egypt. In a Gandhian way, he transformed a basically political issue—nationalism and independence for Burma—into a religious one which appealed even to those who had not received a British education. A fiery speaker and agitator, U Ottama attracted a large following of mainly Buddhist monks, who organized demonstrations and meetings. The British government responded fiercely, bringing in the military police to break up these gatherings.

U Ottama’s activities led to the emergence of a militant, anti-colonial movement that propagated a combination of nationalism, Buddhism and, in its later stages, socialism. This mix of political and religious beliefs was adhered to in varying degrees by most nationalist politicians in colonial Burma—and little changed in this regard after the country’s independence in 1948. U Ottama, faithful to his Gandhian ideals, did not advocate the use of violence in the anti-colonial struggle. Nevertheless, during the 1920s, there were several violent incidents involving militant monks agitating against colonial rule.[13]

U Ottama was arrested in 1921 for one of his nationalist speeches—the first monk in British Burma to be imprisoned specifically for speaking out against the colonial authorities. His offense was to call upon Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, the lieutenant-governor, to return to Britain. From 1921 to 1927, U Ottama spent more time in prison than outside. In the 1930s, he was imprisoned again and, to protest his detention, went on a hunger strike. The British ignored U Ottama’s non-violent protest against colonial rule, and he died in prison in 1939.

U Ottama was the first of many monks in Burma who stood up against British colonial rule. He is considered by many to be the father of the country’s independence movement. His old monastery in Sittwe in what is now Arakan State, the Shwe Zedi, continues to be an important focal point for political and anti-government activities. The monks’ movement of August and September 2007 began with a march by monks from the Shwe Zedi monastery to the prison in Sittwe demanding the release of an imprisoned activist.

The second most important nationalist monk in the 1920s was U Wisara, who also was imprisoned several times for delivering anti-colonial speeches. He died in jail in 1929 after being on hunger strike for 163 days. The Irrawaddy magazine noted in its October 2007 cover story about the most recent monk-led demonstrations in Burma: “Both monks [U Ottama and U Wisara] became an inspiration to activists and student activists involved in the independence movement. Scholar Michael Mendelson wrote in his Sangha and State in Burma, ‘that all politically active monks tended to be labeled by the colonial authorities as political agitators in the yellow robes. Interestingly, a similar term is used by Burma’s current leaders to describe protesting monks.’”[14]

In the 1930s, an ex-monk and former member of the GCBA called Saya San deviated from the non-violent struggle of the 1920s and staged an armed rebellion against colonial rule. His followers, known as galons, after a powerful bird in Hindu mythology (garuda in Sanskrit), believed that their tattoos and amulets would make them invulnerable to British bullets. The rebellion was eventually crushed, though its impact was tremendous. Saya San was the traditional minlaung (pretender) to the throne—a figure that often emerges in Burma in times of crisis. He wanted a return to the old Buddhist kingdom of pre-British days, but the young nationalists—who by then were organizing themselves at Rangoon University—did not miss the point that most of his followers were young monks and impoverished farmers, and the Saya San rebellion had clearly demonstrated their political potential.[15]

In the early 1930s, the Burmese nationalists led by the charismatic Aung San, a young student leader in Rangoon (and the father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi), formed the Dohbama Asiayone, or “We Burmans Society,” which became the vanguard of the struggle for independence. Its ideology was basically secular Marxism and Aung San emphasized its secular orientation, repeatedly stating that the movement was “the only non-racial, non-religious, and impersonal movement that has ever existed in Burma.”[16] But, even so, Buddhism was always close to the hearts of many Burmese nationalists, before and after independence. U Ba Swe, the leader of the Burma Socialist Party in the early 1950s, wrote in his pamphlet The Burmese Revolution that “Marxist theory is not antagonistic to Buddhist philosophy. The two are, frankly speaking, not merely similar. In fact, they are the same in concept.”[17] In another pamphlet, Ba Yin, an education minister in independent Burma, took this theme a step further: “Marx must directly or indirectly have been influenced by Buddha.”[18] And some members of the Dohbama, despite the supposedly secular policies of the organization, asserted that socialism would free people from poverty, thus enabling them to build monasteries and do charitable work.

Nonetheless, some of the young nationalists did not hesitate to criticize the Sangha. In 1935, a satirical novel called Tet Pongyi (“The Modern Monk”) by Thein Pe Myint, a leftist intellectual, criticized the traditional monastic hierarchy in Burma and even attacked breaches of discipline and highlighted acts of immorality among the Buddhist clergy, including sexual misconduct.[19] The book shocked many devout Burmese Buddhists, and Thein Pe Myint received death threats. Tet Pongyi was eventually banned by the government and the author was forced to make a public apology to the Sangha.

During the period of the Japanese occupation of Burma, 1942-45, Aung San’s ideal of a secular state gained the support of most Burmese nationalists. Although they were Marxists, they had sided with the Japanese in the hope of being able to establish an independent Burmese republic. When the Burmese nationalists began to turn against the Japanese in 1944, secular ideals became even stronger. In August 1945, Aung San and his comrades formed the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), which stated in its first manifesto: “Freedom of conscience should be established. The state should remain neutral in religious questions. Religion should not be used as a means to exploit the masses.”[20]

But even Aung San could not ignore the importance of Buddhism in Burmese life and society, albeit with some reservations. In an address delivered at the opening of the AFPFL’s first congress on January 20, 1946, Aung San stated:

Speaking of Buddhism particularly, which is the religion professed by the bulk of our people, I can say without prejudice to other religions that it is more than a religion itself and has several indications of its becoming possibly the greatest philosophy in the world, if we can help remove the trash and travesties which antiquity must have doubtless imposed on this religion. I wish, therefore, to address a special appeal to the Buddhist priesthood and say to them: Reverend Sanghas! You are the inheritors of a great religion in the world. Purify it and broadcast it to all the world so that all mankind might be able to listen to its timeless message of Love and Brotherhood till eternity…go amongst our people, preach the doctrine of unity and love…freedom to religious worship, freedom to preach…freedom from fear, ignorance [and] superstition.[21]

Buddhism in Independent Burma During the Parliamentary Period

During World War Two, Burma was occupied by Japan with the active cooperation of the Burmese nationalists. But in March 1945, the nationalists allied themselves with the United Kingdom and took up arms against Japan. British rule was restored in August 1945. The nationalists, led by Aung San, pressed for independence. In January 1947, Aung San and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee agreed on independence for Burma. The plan was for a secular state, which was opposed by many traditionalists within the AFPFL, a broad front that included rightists, centrists as well as communists. They pressed for the constitutional recognition of Buddhism as the state religion of an independent Burma.

On July 19, 1947, before Burma gained independence, Aung San was assassinated. Five other members of pre-independent Burma’s interim government, a Shan leader, a government official and a bodyguard were also killed. Burma was thrown into turmoil even before it had become independent. The alliance with the powerful Communist Party of Burma broke down and the fragile alliance that Aung San had managed to form with some of Burma’s ethnic minorities at a meeting in Panglong, Shan State, in February 1947 was in jeopardy. The ethnic Karen, whose leaders were predominantly Christian and staunchly pro-British, did not take part in the preparations for Burma’s independence. During the Japanese occupation, they had sided with the British and staged guerilla warfare against the Japanese. The Karen wanted their own independent state, as did representatives of some of the smaller minorities such as the Karenni (Kayah) and the Mon.

Aung San and the others had been assassinated by gunmen sent by U Saw, a conservative politician who was subsequently arrested and hanged. The AFPFL’s vice president, U Nu, a former student leader, took over as prime minister and, on January 4, 1948, declared Burma’s independence. While he led the republic’s first government, the presidency was given to Sao Shwe Thaike, the Shan sawbwa, or prince, of Yawnghwe and one of the most prominent leaders of Burma’s many ethnic minorities. But such attempts at forging national unity did not prevent the Karen and some other minority peoples from taking up arms against the government of the new republic—even though it was federal in character and included provisions for autonomy for the various nationalities of the Union.

The Communist Party of Burma also went underground, and for a while it seemed that the government in Rangoon controlled little more than the capital and surrounding areas. But help came from U Nu’s close Indian counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru, and, by the mid-1950s, the insurgents had been driven into remote and hilly areas surrounding Burma proper, and in pockets in the Irrawaddy delta region, the Pegu Yoma mountains north of Rangoon, and a few other places.

If Buddhism had been made the state religion, its ethnic problems would most probably have been exacerbated, as Christian missionaries during the colonial period had converted many of the hill peoples. The Kachin and the Chin were predominantly Christian, as were many—although not a majority— of the Karen. The first Constitution of the Union of Burma did nonetheless give recognition that most Burmans, the majority ethnic group in the country, were Buddhists:

All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health… [but] The State recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union…The State also recognizes Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Animism as some of the religions existing in the Union.[22]

U Nu remained prime minister for most of the years preceding the military takeover in March 1962, and many Western scholars have attributed his efforts to promote Buddhism to his deep religious conviction. But, as Burma scholar Becka has pointed out, “U Nu’s main speeches of the 1940s made little mention of religion and the initial policy of his government was not dominated by religious issues.”[23]

Under U Nu, the Sangha was given its pre-British prominence in society. The establishment of a Ministry of Religious Affairs in 1950 marked the beginning of a new era of Sangha reform. The government also tried to introduce a system of registration of Buddhist monks, but it failed as the monks at a meeting in Rangoon declared that the Lord Buddha had laid down 227 rules of discipline, to which none more could be added. The monks said that the government had no right to introduce new rules for the Sangha.

In May 1954, U Nu managed to raise his Buddhist profile in the region by convening the Sixth Buddhist Synod in Rangoon, which was attended by 2,500 Burmese and foreign monks and scholars.[24] The sessions lasted for two years and resulted in the establishment of the International Institute for Advanced Buddhist Studies, which was located on the premises of the Kaba Aye (World Peace) Pagoda in Rangoon.

During this period, Buddhism became an ideological and moral barrier against communism, which, at that time, was strong in the country and the entire region. In 1950 U Nu expressed the view that the Buddhist Sasana Council—a national body of monks—should counteract “Marxist materialism.”[25] The Burmese monk and philosopher U Kelatha emphasized that Marxism, with its materialistic contempt for the overcoming of Impermanence, was a continuous threat to Buddhism.[26]

In the late 1950s, the Psychological Warfare Department of Burma’s Armed Forces produced a booklet entitled Dhammantaraya, or “Buddhism in Danger,” in which communism was portrayed as the gravest threat against Buddhism.[27] Overall, nearly one million copies of the booklet were distributed. Issues were also published in Mon, Shan, and Pa-O—the languages of the largest non-Burman Buddhist ethnic groups in the country. Meetings were also held all over the country to denounce communism as anti-religious.

Political turmoil in the country in 1958 forced U Nu to hand over power to a military caretaker government headed by the army chief, General Ne Win, who even more vigorously tried to establish government control over the Sangha. His Sasana Purification Association supported the move to have the monks registered and the general was determined to push it through. According to Smith:

An appeal was made for the cooperation of the monks, and the pongyis of the Yahanpyu Aphwe (Young Monks’ Association) complied in a few districts. When 250 monks of Myaungmya registered, this event was considered a newsworthy item. But protest meetings were staged by the Central Committee Against the Registration of Sanghas, and the attempt finally had to be abandoned.[28]

The Yahanpyu monks drew their strongest support from monasteries in Mandalay. They were staunchly anti-communist and, at least until the mid-1950s, their organization was allegedly subsidized by the US-government funded Asia Foundation.[29] One of its most outspoken leaders, U Kethaya, was even nicknamed the “American pongyi.”[30]

One of the demands of the Yahanpyu Aphwe was to make Buddhism the state religion of Burma. As a result of the pressure from the Yahanpyu Aphwe and other Buddhist groups—and perhaps because U Nu himself supported the idea—two bills dealing with Buddhism as the state religion were published in the Burmese press on August 1, 1961. U Nu had returned to power after a general election in February-March 1960, and was eager to consolidate his new grip on the nation in a political landscape that was becoming increasingly fragmented with new parties and factions breaking the previous near-monopoly on power by the AFPFL. According to Smith, “U Nu now appeared before the electorate as the personification of certain traditional values—the devout Buddhist ruler, the Defender of the Faith.”[31]

One of the bills that were published in 1961 said that Buddhism, being the religion of the majority of the people of Burma, “shall be the state religion,” while the other described the government’s duties in the field of religion. The government shall, “promote and maintain Buddhism for its welfare and advancement in three aspects, namely…study of the teachings of the Buddha…practice of the teachings, and…enlightenment.”[32]

The bills met with stiff opposition from Christian groups, and the issue of a state religion was one of the reasons why the predominantly Christian Kachin rose in rebellion in 1961. Led by three brothers, Zau Seng, Zau Tu and Zau Dan, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) quickly wrested control over Kachin-inhabited areas of northeastern Shan State as well as territory within Kachin State itself.

The possibility of violent clashes between Buddhists and non-Buddhists in Rangoon prompted the government to mobilize 1,500 armed police officers when the bills were going to be discussed in the Chamber of Deputies in August 1961. A group of Christians and Muslims appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the move violated the spirit of the constitution. They argued that while the national flag, the national anthem and the state bank belonged to all the citizens of the Union, Buddhism, if made the state religion, would not belong to, at that time, some five million people.[33]

The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal. The bills were passed, but before they could be implemented, the military stepped in and seized power. On March 2, 1962, General Ne Win staged a coup d’etat, ousted U Nu, and abolished the constitution. The issue of a state religion was not the reason for the coup—introducing an entirely new political and economic system was—but it meant that the effort to make Buddhism the state religion failed to become a reality.

Buddhism and the State After the 1962 Military Takeover

On April 30, 1962, Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council announced its new policies in a statement titled “The Burmese Way to Socialism.” The 10-page document mentioned religion in only one sentence: “The Revolutionary Council recognizes the right of everyone freely to profess and practice his religion.”[34] This document was followed by a longer policy declaration, The System of Correlation of Man and His Environment, which was meant to provide philosophical underpinnings for the new military government. The party formed by the military, the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), became the only legally permitted political organization in the country.

On the one hand, Ne Win’s government reasserted the principle of separation of religion from politics and the state. On the other, The System of Correlation of Man and His Environment was a hodgepodge of Marxism, Buddhist thinking, and humanism which reflected an attempt by the military government to be seen as belonging to Burma’s specific political traditions. But more importantly, with all political parties banned except for the BSPP, Ne Win and the military realized that the Sangha could pose a threat to the new order and, therefore, had to be brought under state control.

And it was not only the mainstream Burman Sangha that posed a threat to the government in Rangoon. The monks of the Arakan region of western Burma had a long tradition of militancy and, as a separatist movement among the Shan began to emerge in the late 1950s, young Shan students met secretly at the Rangoon monastery of U Na King, a revered Shan monk from Möng Nawng who had been in the capital for a number of years. The Shan had organized their own movement to revive their distinct identity and U Na King was the undisputed leader of monks as well as students from that ethnic minority.

One night shortly after Ne Win’s 1962 coup d’etat, 40 young Shan met at U Na King’s monastery to swear an oath. They cut their wrists, dripped the blood into a glass, mixed it with rice liquor and drank it. The young Shan pledged to fight for an independent Shan State and declared themselves ready to sacrifice their lives if necessary. U Na King bestowed on the young radicals noms de guerre, all beginning with hsö—“tiger” in Shan—to demonstrate their bravery and determination. The tiger was also a Shan national symbol.

The fledgling Shan rebellion was especially worrisome for the government as the Shan are more closely related to the Thais than to the mainly Tibeto-Burman peoples of Burma. Thailand, Burma’s historical enemy, shares a long border. For ethnic and historical reasons, the Shan monkshave also always been closer to the Thai Sangha than the Burmese monastic order.[35]

Ne Win was not wrong in assuming that the monks would oppose his military government. In October 1963, the “American pongyi,” U Kethaya, launched a one-man campaign against Ne Win’s government. U Kethaya was no longer young—he was then 83—but was still a fiery speaker who attracted tens of thousands of people whenever he addressed the public in Mandalay. He predicted that Ne Win, just like Aung San, would be assassinated. However, despite speeches like those, U Kethaya was not arrested. Ne Win probably realized that sending an old revered sayadaw to jail would crystallize opposition to the military regime, which was not yet firmly entrenched in power.[36]

It was not until General Sein Lwin—later known as the “Butcher of Rangoon” for his role in suppressing the 1988 pro-democracy uprising—became chief of Mandalay Division in the late 1960s that the Yahanpyu movement was suppressed. By then, it appears that it no longer received any US-government support; it was simply an anti-military force that posed a threat to Ne Win’s new order.

Intermittent labor and student unrest shook Burma in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But it was not until 1974 that the monks came out in force again. U Thant, the secretary-general of the United Nations, had died in New York on November 25. He was internationally the best-known and most respected Burmese citizen. Because of the long-standing animosity between the statesman U Thant and the general who ruled at home, Ne Win, the Burmese government sent no official delegation to receive the coffin. When U Thant’s body was flown back to Rangoon, the authorities planned to bury it in an obscure cemetery on the outskirts of the capital. The students, almost inevitably, seized the opportunity to launch large-scale anti-government demonstrations.

The students snatched the coffin and carried it away to the campus of Rangoon University. Buddhist monks joined in and gave U Thant the rites for someone who had achieved distinction, and the students buried him on the old site of the Rangoon University Students’ Union building—which the military had blown up months after it had seized power in 1962, demonstrations in which an estimated 130 student protesters were killed.

Andrew Selth, a former Australian diplomat and Burma scholar, witnessed the events in Rangoon in 1974:

Despite official travel restrictions, thousands of Burmese arrived from places as far away as Mergui in the south and Mandalay in the north. They were of all ages and included a large number of pongyis. Sometimes queuing up for 15 minutes to go through the student security checkpoints, the crowds moved slowly through the main gates, down Chancellor Road past the new mausoleum, the new central quadrangle. There, on the steps of the Convocation Hall and often surrounded by pongyis, speakers addressed the throngs on the lawns below them.[37]

The military government’s response was predictable. It sent in troops to recover U Thant’s remains, which were reburied near the Shwedagon Pagoda. The military’s violence and subsequent arrests of students provoked more demonstrations all over Rangoon. Martial law was declared on December 11, and the troops opened fire on the students and the monks. The official casualty toll was ludicrously low: 9 killed, 74 wounded and 1,800 arrested. Students who participated in the demonstrations claim that 300-400 of their comrades were gunned down that day in Rangoon. According to Burma scholar Gustaaf Houtman; “During the arrangement for U Thant’s funeral in 1974, several monks were bayoneted and 600 were arrested.”[38]

The outburst of anti-government sentiments in the mid-1970s was not only because the public admired personalities such as U Thant. A decade of military rule had devastated the Burmese economy. The “Burmese Way to Socialism” basically meant that everything in sight was nationalized and handed over to a number of military-run state corporations. These were not competent to run the economy, and the outcome was an acute shortage of goods, high unemployment, and falling living standards.

Resentment with the military regime ran high, and the monks had shown during the events of December 1974 that they were a force to be reckoned with. Consequently, they had to be brought under state control. The idea of making Buddhism the state religion had been abandoned by the post-1962 military government, and the new constitution that was promulgated in 1974, following a sham referendum, simply said: “The national races shall enjoy the freedom to profess their religion, use and develop their language, literature and culture, follow their cherished traditions and customs, provided that the enjoyment of any such freedom does not offend the laws or the public interest.”[39] Buddhism was no longer granted “the special positions” of the 1947 constitution, but the authorities nevertheless paid more attention to Buddhists than to practitioners of other faiths.

In 1980-81, Burmese army general Sein Lwin—feared for his leading role in the Rangoon University Student Union massacre in July 1962—served as the Minister of Home and Religious Affairs, and was responsible for reining in the Sangha. In May 1980, he convened in Rangoon the First Congregation of All Orders for the Purification, Perpetuation and Propagation of Sasana. A number of monks were purged and forced to disrobe from the monkhood. To control the rest, the 47-member State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee was formed, a governing body for all Buddhist monks in the country, and monks were finally forced to register and get their own ID cards.[40]

A constitution for the Sangha was drawn up, resembling that of a state. According to Burma scholar Robert Taylor:

Committees of leading monks are organized from the village-tract and ward level upwards to a state central working committee which manages the sects in its area and which, through its executive committee, ensures that monks behave according to the Vinaya, the Buddhist code of behavior. Failure to do so results in the relevant executive committee of the monkhood reporting violations to the township People’s Council, which is empowered to take action against an individual or entire monastery found to be misbehaving.[41]

From the ruling military’s point of view, “misbehaving,” or not following the Vinaya, naturally meant being involved in politics or refusing to cooperate fully with the authorities. Burma scholar Houtman wrote in his study, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics:

In 1976, the regime sought to discredit La Ba, a monk critical of the regime who it accused of murder and cannibalism. In 1978, more monks and novices were arrested, disrobed, and imprisoned. Monasteries were closed and their property seized. Also in that year a senior monk, Sayadaw U Nayaka, died in jail after being tortured.[42]

Even the well-respected and internationally renowned teacher of Vipassana meditation, Mahasi Sayadaw, was targeted in the campaign. The regime distributed leaflets accusing him of talking to nat (spirits).[43] The Tipitaka Mingun Sayadaw, Burma’s top Buddhist scholar, was accused of having been involved in some unsavory incident after entering the monkhood.

Both sayadaws had shown reluctance to cooperate with the newly established State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the official Sangha organization controlled and directed by the military government, and which is the object of widespread suspicion among many monks Human Rights Watch interviewed.[44] The 47-member Committee body consists of a chairman, six vice chairmen, one secretary general, six joint general secretaries and 33 other members. In the beginning, appointments were organized every five years—1980, 1985, and 1995—but in more recent years a quarter of the positions change every three years, rotating among senior monks.[45] The committee occasionally issues decrees and orders that have to be obeyed by all monks in the country. These decrees and orders are sent to senior monks on state/divisional level as well as township and ward level, and then announced locally. Monks who fail to abide by these decrees and orders are expelled from the monasteries and disrobed.

The monastic census of 1984-85 counted over 300,000 monks in Burma: 125,000 fully ordained pongyi and 185,000 novices in 47,980 registered monasteries.[46] (During interviews with monks during 2007-2008, Human Rights Watch was told by various monks that there were approximately 400,000 monks in Burma).[47] By the late 1980s, the state thought it had brought the Sangha under its control and quelled all dissent within the ranks of the monks. But the events of 1988 were to show that dissent was still strong in monastic circles, and that the government and the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee—despite the new, draconian rules which had been introduced in 1980—were unable to completely control the country’s hundreds of thousands of monks.


[1]  Donald Eugene Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 85.
[2]  Merit-making is the act of making offerings to monks that will improve the layperson’s karma and thus his or her standing in this and future lives.
[3]  For an overview of Buddhist religious practice in Burma, see Roger Bischoff, Buddhism in Myanmar, A Short History, (Kandy, Buddhist Publication Society, 1995); Ingrid Jordt, Burma’s Mass Lay Meditation Movement. Buddhism and the Cultural Construction of Power, Ohio University Center for International Studies, 2008; and Winston King, A Thousand Lives Away. Buddhism in Contemporary Burma, Harvard University Press, 1964.
[4]  Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma, p. 93.
[5] an Becka, “Buddhist Revival in Post-Independence Burma: A Study of Interaction of Religion and Politics,” in Stanislava Vavrouskova (ed.); Religion and Society inIndia and Burma, (Prague: The Oriental Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, 1991), pp. 10-11.
[6]  Ibid., p. 11.
[7]  C.B. Tipton, “Monks, Monasteries and Western Education in Colonial Burma, 1865-1930,” Journal of Educational Administration and History, vol.37, no.2, November 2005.
[8]  Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma, p. 88.
[9] F.S.V. Donnison, Burma, (London: Ernst Benn Limited, 1970), p.104.
[10]  Aye Kyaw, The Voice of Young Burma, Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1993, pp. 20-30.
[11]  U Le Pe Win, History of the 1920 University Boycott, (Rangoon: Student Press, 1970), pp. 29-30.
[12]  Jan Becka, Historical Dictionary of Myanmar, (Metuchen, N.J. & London: The Scarecrow Press, 1995), pp. 90-91, 163.
[13]  Guenter Lewy, “Militant Buddhist Nationalism. The Case of Burma,” Journal of Church and State, vol.14, no.1, Winter, 1972, pp.27-34.
[14]  Aung Zaw, “The Power Behind the Robe,” The Irrawaddy, vol.15, no.10, October 2007, p. 25.
[15]  Patricia Herbert, The Hsaya San Rebellion in Burma (1930-1932) reappraised, (Monash University, Center for Asian Studies, 1981); Maitrii Aung-Thwin, “Structuring revolt: Communities of interpretation in the historiography of the Saya San rebellion,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol.39, no.2, June 2008, pp.297-319.
[16]  Donald Eugene Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 115.
[17]  U Ba Swe, The Burmese Revolution, Rangoon: Information Department, Union of Burma, 1952, p. 7.
[18]  Bertil Lintner, “An Army of Monks,” FarEastern Economic Review, September 29, 1988.
[19]  Thein Pe Myint, Tet Pongyi (The Modern Monk), (Rangoon: New Light of Burma Press, 1935 and 1937); See also Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma, p. 208.
[20]  Jan Becka, “Buddhist Revival in Post-Independence Burma: A Study of Interaction of Religion and Politics,” in Stanislava Vavrouskova (ed.); Religion and Society inIndia and Burma, (Prague: The Oriental Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, 1991), p. 13.
[21]  Aung San, Burma’s Challenge, (Rangoon: Tathetta Sarpay Taik, second printing 1968 (first in 1947)), pp. 64-65. It is noteworthy that his reference to “freedom from fear” later became a main theme in speeches and writings by his daughter; Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom From Fear And Other Writings, (London: Penguin Books, 1991).
[22] The Constitution of the Union of Burma, Rangoon: Government. Printing and Stationery, Burma, 1947, p. 4.
[23] an Becka, “Buddhist Revival in Post-Independence Burma: A Study of Interaction of Religion and Politics,” in Stanislava Vavrouskova (ed.); Religion and Society inIndia and Burma, (Prague: The Oriental Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, 1991), p. 15.
[24]  The Fifth “Great Buddhist Council” was convened in 1871 in Mandalay and presided over by King Mindon.
[25]  E. Sarkisyanz, Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution, (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1965), p. 220.
[26]  Ibid., p. 202.
[27]  Fred Von Der Mehden, “Burma’s Religious Campaign Against Communism,” in Pacific Affairs, 33:3, September 1960, p. 291. Similar booklets were also published identifying Communism as the gravest threats against Islam and Christianity. The latter was published in in Sgaw-Karen, Pwo-Karen, Chin, Kachin, and English, the main languages of Burma’s Christian minorities.
[28]  Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma, p. 217.
[29]  Becka, Buddhist Revival, p. 24, quoting Melford E. Spiro; Buddhism and Society: AGreat Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, London 1970 (second edition: Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 387.
[30]  Ibid., p. 24.
[31]  Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma, p. 236.
[32]  Ibid., p. 253.
[33]  Ibid., p. 262.
[34]  In The System of Correlation of Man and His Environment, (Rangoon: Burma Socialist Program Party, 1964), p. 50.
[35]  U Na King eventually went into exile in Thailand, where he died in the 1990s. He was interviewed several times by the author in Bangkok in the late 1980s. See Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt. Opium and Insurgency since 1948, (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2003), p.187.
[36]  Donald Eugene Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1965), pp. 301-302.
[37]  Andrew Selth, Death of a Hero: The U Thant Disturbances in Burma, December1974, (Nathan, Queensland: Griffith University, 1989), p. 15; See also the recollections from U Thant’s grandson, Thant Myint U, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, (New York, Faber and Faber, 2007).
[38]  Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, (Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University, 1999), p. 220.
[39] The Constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, Rangoon: Printing and Publishing Corporation, 1974, p. 6 (Article 21).
[40]  See Appendix I.
[41]  Robert Taylor, The State in Burma, (London: Hurst & Company, 1987), p. 358.
[42]  Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, (Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University, 1999), p. 220.
[43] Nat is Burmese for spirit, and nat worship stems from old, pre-Buddhist animistic beliefs. Worship of 37 famous nats continues to be an important part of folk Buddhism in Burma.
[44]  Aung Zaw, “The Power Behind the Robe,” The Irrawaddy, vol.15, no.10, October 2007.
[45]  For a background of official government attempts to control the Sangha, see Tin Maung Maung Than, “Sangha Reforms and Renewal of Sasana in Myanmar: Historical Trends and Contemporary Practice,” in Trevor Ling (ed), Buddhist Trends in Southeast Asia, (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993).
[46]  Bruce Matthews, “Buddhism Under a Military Regime: The Iron Heel in Burma,” Asian Survey, vol.33, no.4, April 1993, p. 410.
[47]  Human Rights Watch interviews with Buddhist monks, Burma and Thailand, October 2007-November 2008.

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