Human Rights Watch (2009): The Resistance of the Monks | Buddhism and Activism in Burma | IV – Aung San Suu Kyi and Buddhism

My first concern is to abide by Buddhist principles in my worldly dealings. Of course, I do meditate. That’s because I believe that all of us, as human beings, have a spiritual dimension which cannot be neglected. – Aung San Suu Kyi, Conversations with Aung San Suu Kyi BY ALAN CLEMENTS| SEPTEMBER 1, 1997


After crushing the 1990 monks’ movement, the SLORC—which in November 1997 renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)—became even more firmly entrenched in power than it had been at any time since 1988. General Saw Maung was replaced by his deputy, General Than Shwe, in April 1992, and Than Shwe turned out to be even more of a hardliner than his predecessor.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in July 1995 and began touring the country again, propagating for democracy. During her six years under house arrest she had become a devout Buddhist; perhaps like U Nu before her, she also saw Buddhism as a powerful political tool to unite the people.

One of the few senior monks who had successfully resisted being coopted by the military after the 1990 crackdown was the Thamanya Sayadaw, one of Burma’s most revered monks. Formally known as Bhaddanta Vinaya, the venerable teacher or sayadaw, he had been meditating and leading the life of a hermit monk for dozens of years in central Karen State, east of Hpa-an, at a mountain called Thamanya.[1] His national reputation and widespread veneration made him extremely influential.[2] He repeatedly declined invitations to come to Rangoon to accept a new prestigious religious title that the junta wanted to give him, causing the authorities to finally come to his temple in eastern Burma to present the award.[3]

Although the Thamanya Sayadaw passed away in November 2003 at the age of 93, he remains revered. The hundreds of families that live around the monastery must still obey the rules of non-violence and vegetarianism that he had introduced. There are also two schools in the vicinity where 375 children are taught by 13 teachers, without books and other basic resources.[4] Thamanya Sayadaw’s body was mysteriously stolen from its tomb at the monastery in April 2008, in what many people believe was a gruesome exercise in a yadaya chae (reversing ill fortune) ritual.[5]

Suu Kyi expressed her admiration for the Thamanya Sayadaw in several of her “Letters from Burma,” which were published in the Mainichi Daily in 1995-96. She wrote:

Whenever the Sayadaw himself goes through his domain people sink down on their knees in obeisance, their faces bright with joy. Young and old alike run out of their homes as soon as they spot his car coming, anxious not to miss the opportunity of receiving his blessing.[6]

She saw in Thamana Sayadaw and religious belief a source of strength for her political activity:

Some have questioned the appropriateness of talking about such matters as metta (loving-kindness) and thissa (truth) in the political context. But politics is about people and what we have seen in Thamanya proved that love and truth can move people more strongly than any form of coercion.[7]

In another of her “Letters from Burma,” she elaborated on the correlation of religion and politics:

In another of her “Letters from Burma,” she elaborated on the correlation of religion and politics:
In my political work I have been helped and strengthened by the teachings of members of the Sangha. During my very first campaign trip across Burma, I received invaluable advice from monks in different parts of the country. In Prome a Sayadaw told me to keep in mind the hermit Sumedha, who sacrificed the possibility of early liberation for himself alone and underwent many lives of striving that he might save others from suffering. So must you be prepared to strive for as long as might be necessary to achieve good and justice, exhorted the venerable Sayadaw…Of the words of wisdom I gathered during that journey across Burma, those of a ninety-one-year old Sayadaw of Sagaing are particularly memorable He sketched out for me tersely how it would be to work for democracy in Burma. “You will be attacked and reviled for engaging in honest politics,” pronounced the Sayadaw, “but you must persevere. Lay down an investment in dukkha [suffering] and you will gain sukha [bliss].”[8]

This highly spiritual approach to politics and social development marked a major departure from her earlier writings, which had been far more down-to-earth and worldly. Before 1988 the main theme of her studies had been Burma’s unfinished renaissance, how Burma—unlike India—had fallen short of achieving an East-West, new-old synthesis at the intellectual level. Now, she never mentioned the immaturity of Burma’s political system and the shortcomings and weaknesses of Burmese social and intellectual structures. On the contrary, she began to use ancient Buddhist concepts and practices—“byama-so taya, metta, karuna, parami, sati, vipassana, nibbana, yahanda,bodhi”—in the fight for democracy.[9]

According to Houtman, whose studies of Suu Kyi and Burma’s “mental culture” stand out as some of the most valuable contributions to the understanding of Burmese life, society, and politics that have been produced in recent years:

[These practices] inevitably lead to a personality cult from which she finds it difficult to extract herself. As the gap increasingly widens between the dirt and corruption represented by a repressive military regime and the purity and power of the heroic democracy fighters, so also the impersonal continuity of political organizations demanded by a truly democratic system is increasingly at risk.[10]

Houtman also argues that it was the many informal—and mostly mythical—stories of Suu Kyi’s meetings with the Thamanya Sayadaw that played a role in her gaining heroic, even saint-like qualities among many Burmese. According to one such story, which is widely believed in Burma, intelligence chief Khin Nyunt visited the Sayadaw, but when he tried to start his car as he was leaving, he could not. He had to go back to the Sayadaw and ask for help. The revered monk told the intelligence chief that when he stopped “being angry,” his car would start. Finally, he was able to start his car. No such incident occurred when Suu Kyi visited the Sayadaw.[11]

Suu Kyi has perhaps unwittingly risked becoming a conservative cultural force, the “female Bodhisattva” (a woman on the path to enlightenment) that the people believe is going to deliver them from evil. This has no doubt made Suu Kyi even more popular with the public at large—or, rather, revered by them, as she is perceived by some as somebody divine and sacred, a person who is much more than an ordinary human being. But some critics in pro-democracy circles fear that her religious turn will not help Burma modernize and become a nation with rights-respecting democratic institutions, which is what her father had propagated in his address before the AFPFL’s congress in 1946.

Suu Kyi denies that she has any non-worldly qualities or that she is an “extraordinary person” or, for that matter, a “female Bodhisattva:”

Do not think that I will be able to give you democracy. I will tell you frankly, I am not a magician. I do not possess any special power that will allow me to bring you democracy. I can say frankly that democracy will be achieved only by you, by all of you. By the will, perseverance, discipline, and courage of the people. As long as you possess these qualities, democracy will be achieved by you. I can only show you the path to democracy. That I can explain to you, from my experience learned from abroad and through research of my father’s works done during his day.[12]

Although Suu Kyi has often referred to her father, for many observers her policies and methods—especially after her release from house arrest in 1995—have differed considerably from those of Aung San, a student radical, one-time Marxist, and the Bogyoke (or general) who founded the Burmese army. Suu Kyi’s quest appears to have become mainly spiritual. By contrast, the father she never knew was a practical man, an orator and a statesman who never mixed politics and religion. Suu Kyi has actually not carried his policies forward; instead, her speeches, writings and teachings have been filled with Buddhist philosophy and Burmese popular beliefs. On the other hand, Suu Kyi has managed to mobilize the people of Burma against the military government, and through her many speeches across the country, she has taught them about freedom and democracy. But her devotion to spiritualism is harder for many to reconcile with.

This is a very different Suu Kyi from the person who in her 1987 study Burma and India—Some Aspects of Intellectual Life under Colonialism, described the limitations of Buddhist influence on life and society in Burma:

Traditional Burmese education did not encourage speculation. This was largely due to the view, so universally accepted that it appears to be part of the racial psyche of the Burmese, that Buddhism represents the perfected philosophy. It therefore follows that there was no need either to develop it further or to consider other philosophies…In India, besides the presence of a large minority of Muslims, Hinduism presented a far more diversified picture than Buddhism in Burma…the Hindu world with all its rigid taboos was strangely flexible. It was in part this heritage of flexibility, which enabled the Indian Renaissance thinkers to meet the challenge of British rule in intellectual and philosophical terms.[13]

In the late 1990s and down to the present Suu Kyi’s Buddhist beliefs would continue to influence her approach, and that of her party, the NLD, in their continuing political struggle with military rule.[14]


[1]  Thamanya is a mountain in Karen State, some 150 kilometers east of Rangoon and “the Thamanya sayadaw” thus means the abbot of the monastery on Thamanya mountain.
[2]  Guillaume Rozenberg, “How Living Sanctifies: The Birthday of the Thamanya Hsayadaw in Burma,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol.10, no.3, 2004, pp.495-515.
[3]  Aung Zaw, “Suu Kyi’s Pilgrimage,” Irrawaddy Online, June 18, 2002.
[4]  Gustaaf Houtman, “Sacralizing or Demonizing Democracy? Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘Personality Cult,’” in Monique Skidmore (ed.); Burma at the Turn of the 21st Century, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005), p. 148.
[5]  Amy Gold May, “Will Thamanya Sayadaw’s Body Ever Rest in Peace?” The Irrawaddy, vol.16, no.6, June 2008.
[6]  Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma, (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 13.
[7]  Ibid., p. 17.
[8]  Ibid., pp. 160-161.
[9] Houtman, Mental Culture, p. 282. In many ways, Suu Kyi’s “new” message came to resemble the philosophy of the former king of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, whose private tutor her late husband Michael Aris had been in the 1970s. Rather than using the growth of his country’s Gross National Product to measure progress, he introduced the concept of “Gross National Happiness,” thus stating that spirituality is more important than economic growth. It is an open question to what extent this unusual approach to a nation’s development has inspired Suu Kyi to preach similar concepts, but it is not inconceivable given the fact that also she spent several years in Bhutan in the 1970s.
[10]  Ibid., p. 282.
[11]  Houtman, “Sacralizing or Demonizing Democracy,” p. 149. Many taxi drivers in Burma have photographs of the Thamanya Sayadaw in their cabs for protection against accidents. Suu Kyi has done, or said, nothing to enlighten the taxi drivers and others who believe in the supernatural powers of the sayadaw and, by extension, to her as well. While this has made people rally behind her—and prove to the public that she is truly Burmese and not a “Mother of the West,” because of her marriage to an Englishman, as the junta has claimed—it has hardly led to a more modern approach to politics in a country where superstition has always played a central role among leaders no less than among the general population.
[12]  Aung San Suu Kyi, The Voice of Hope: Conversations With Alan Clements, (London: Penguin Books, 1997), pp. 212-213.
[13]  Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma and India—Some Aspects of Intellectual Life underColonialism, (New Delhi: Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1990), p. 27.
[14] Stephen McCarthy, “The Buddhist Political Rhetoric of Aung San Suu Kyi,” Contemporary Buddhism, vol.5, no.2, 2004, pp. 67-81; Juliane Schober, “Buddhist Visions of Moral Authority and Modernity in Burma,” in Monique Skidmore (ed.); Burma at the Turn of the 21st Century, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005), pp.113-32.

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