The ruling State Peace and Development Council was fearful of the social influence of monks and the power of Buddhism when the country’s long-awaited new constitution was put to a referendum in May 2008. Monks have traditionally been excluded from the formal political process in Burma, denied the right to vote, and prohibited from joining political parties, including from the 1947 constitution. The 1974 constitution made no special reference to Buddhism, but in the SPDC’s new charter, the wording of the 1947 constitution—which did include such a reference, was revived. Chapter VIII on “Citizenship, Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens” states:
The Union recognizes special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.
The Union also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.
The Union may assist and protect the religions it recognizes to its utmost.
The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.
The full text of the constitution—which had taken a military-appointed assembly more than 10 years to draft—was released to the public just a month before the referendum was held on May 10, 2008. Despite international criticism, the government went ahead with the vote even though Cyclone Nargis had hit only eight days earlier, huge areas in the Irrawaddy Delta were still underwater, and more than 130,000 people were dead or missing; the referendum was postponed only in the worst-affected areas of Irrawaddy and Rangoon Divisions. On May 15, the government announced that the turnout had been 99 percent and that 92.4 per cent of voters had approved the constitution. A second round of voting was held in the cyclone-devastated areas on May 24, giving a total approval rate of 92.48 percent.
Apart from renewing constitutionally the importance of Buddhism, the new charter was designed to ensure the perpetuation of military rule. Chapter I, “Basic Principles of the Union,” states that the Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, will continue its central role in national politics: “enabling the Defense Services to be able to participate in the National political leadership role of the State.”
The new constitution grants the military the right to appoint personnel from its ranks at all levels of the government and reserves one quarter of parliamentary seats for serving military officers. It grants the chief of the defense services sweeping emergency powers:
If there arises or if there is sufficient reason for a state of emergency to arise that may disintegrate the Union or disintegrate national solidarity or that may cause the loss of sovereignty, due to acts or attempts to take over the sovereignty of the Union by insurgency, violence and wrongful forcible means, the President may, after co-coordinating with the National Defense and Security Council, promulgate an ordinance and declare a state of emergency. In the said ordinance, it shall be stated that the area where the state of emergency in operation is the entire Nation and the specified duration is one year from the day of promulgation.
Such overbroad and ambiguous provisions for declaring a state of emergency provide the military an easy avenue for reasserting “lawful” control over any government of which it disapproves, effectively allowing coups.
It is unclear how the monks will react in the future to continued repression. The crackdown on the 2007 protests, massive prison sentences for many monks and nuns, the exile of others, and the constant surveillance of still others suggests that political activism by monks could be sharply curtailed. But given Burma’s history, it is unlikely that the challenge from the Sangha is over.
In the wake of political upheavals and natural disasters, a new breed of monk has emerged, represented by people like Ashin Nyanissara, better known as the Sitagu Sayadaw. In May 2008, the Sitagu International Buddhist Missionary Center, which he founded in 1980, began sending in emergency supplies to the affected areas in the delta by truck and on boats. Aid was also delivered to 1,344 monasteries in the delta to help them repair and rebuild what had been destroyed during the cyclone. The Wall Street Journal described him as someone who has eschewed “traditional asceticism in favor of tactics more familiar to televangelism. Wherever he goes, a camera crew follows, recording video material of him that is available on the streets of major cities.” The New York Times quoted the sayadaw as saying: “Meditation cannot remove this disaster. Material support is very important now. In our country, spiritual and material support are very unbalanced.
The Sitagu Sayadaw took part in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and openly criticized the military government. After the uprising was crushed, he fled to Nashville, Tennessee, where he studied world religions. He returned to Burma in the mid-1990s to set up a Buddhist academy in Sagaing. Since then, he has navigated a careful path between the pro-democracy movement and the military government. He has also reached out to Christian communities in Burma. The Wall Street Journal quoted a Burmese academic living in Thailand as saying: “If he ran for an election today, he would win.”
Even if he is not political, the Sitagu Sayadaw has sought to deprive the junta of its self-professed monopoly on moral authority—and that is a serious challenge in military-ruled Burma. The military can control the activities of the NLD and similar political organizations. But the monks are likely to remain the most serious challenge to military rule in Burma because no government has ever been able to fully control them—as has been demonstrated time and again since independence in 1948. According to Kyaw Yin Hlaing, a native of Burma and Assistant Professor of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong:
The political behavior of Buddhist monks has been fundamentally shaped by the socio-political character of the dajaka, or lay disciples, with whom they are associated. That a monk might support the current military regime does not mean that he does not understand the intensity of the nation’s discontent. A monk is likely to be an opponent of the state if most of his disciples are individuals with strong anti-state sentiments or citizens who are politically and economically worse off under the existing political system. Similarly, if a monk has senior government officials and supporters of the government as his lay disciples, he is more likely to act like a supporter of the state. The monk who has major dajaka both in the state and non-state sectors tries to appease both sides by participating in state-sponsored religious ceremonies and by expressing his support for democracy through private interaction with dajakas from the non-state sector.
Even if the 2007 movement was crushed, U Kosalla believes that it had an impact on how many people think, and how the rest of the world perceives Burma:
The whole world got to know what the junta is prepared to do. And I think the protests have created a new generation of activists, both monks and laypeople. New political activists are needed, not just the 88-generation [students group]. We need a young generation that’s brave and politically conscious. Only then can there be a regime change. But I don’t know how! How should we continue our struggle? Now everything is quiet, but I think something is bound to happen before 2010.
To the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)
- Respect freedom of religion for all religious communities in Burma.
- Ensure that Buddhist monks and nuns have all the rights due to citizens of Burma, and do not punish them for asserting those rights.
- Immediately exonerate and release all monks and nuns arbitrarily detained or sentenced to prison for engaging in peaceful political activities, including those arrested for their involvement in the 2007 pro-democracy demonstrations.
- Investigate allegations of torture, mistreatment of detainees, and excessive use of force against protesters by security forces during September 2007 and afterwards.
- Rescind the ban on independent monastic organizations such as the ABMA and other social welfare and education associations organized by the Sangha.
- Ensure freedom of movement, assembly, and expression for members of religious orders throughout Burma.
- Do not repeat efforts made after the crackdown to discourage monastery-based palliative care and health services for people living with HIV/AIDS and other medical conditions, particularly at the Maggin monastery closed in 2007.
- Grant voting rights to members of religious orders before the 2010 elections.
To the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee
- Provide assistance to members of the monastic orders who face politically motivated actions from state officials, including threats, violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trials, and mistreatment in custody.
- End government controlled appointments to the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee.
- Permit religious orders to choose their own leaders.
- Encourage monks and monasteries to participate freely in social work such as education, health, and local development initiatives outside the control of local and national authorities.
- Permit free discussions in monasteries about the Sangha’s social and political role in Burmese society.
- Call on the SPDC to investigate allegations of raids and arrests of monks and nuns in monasteries and religious institutions, and end the use of household registration laws to monitor monks’ movements.
To Key International Actors, including the United States, China, India, Japan, the European Union (and its member states), ASEAN (and its member states), and the United Nations (and its agencies)
- Make the release of all political prisoners, including monks, a core priority of engagement in all dealings with Burma.
- Ensure that conditions of Buddhist monks and other political prisoners in prison are a core concern. Demand access to prisons and prisoners.
- Press for the 2010 elections to be fair and inclusive, including the participation of Buddhist monks and members of religious orders if they wish to participate.
- Press for an investigation, either in the UN Human Rights Council or the UN Security Council for a full inquiry into the 2007 crackdown on peaceful protests led by the monks.
- Grant full opportunities to local Buddhist monks and monastic orders to participate in relief and humanitarian work, either as aid recipients or local partner organizations. UN and other humanitarian agencies should also recognize that partnering with local Buddhist groups can provide a measure of protection from arbitrary harassment from local Burmese officials towards ‘private’ Burmese relief operations.
- Provide political asylum to members of the Sangha escaping persecution in Burma.
This report was written by Bertil Lintner, consultant with the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. It was edited by David Mathieson, Burma researcher in the Asia division; Brad Adams, Asia director; James Ross, Legal and Policy director; and Joseph Saunders, deputy director in the Program office of Human Rights Watch.
Production assistance was provided by Dominique Chambless, consultant in the Asia division; Grace Choi, publications director; Fitzroy Hepkins, production manager; Rafael Jiménez, graphic design; and Anna Lopriore, creative manager, assisted with the design.
Human Rights Watch would like to thank all the Buddhist monks from Burma we interviewed who made this report possible, as well as all others who took risks to make information available.
Appendix I: Terminology and Abbreviations
|AAPP||Assistance Association for Political Prisoners|
|ABMA||All-Burma Monks Alliance|
|ABSDF||All-Burma Students Democratic Front|
|AFPL||Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League|
|ASEAN||Association of Southeast Asian Nations|
|Bhikkhu||Pali term for Buddhist monk|
|Bhikkhuni||Pali term for an ordained Buddhist nun|
|BSPP||Burma Socialist Program Party|
|CPB||Communist Party of Burma|
|DKBA||Democratic Karen Buddhist Army|
|GCBA||General Council of Buddhist Associations (later General Council of Burmese Associations)|
|GCSS||General Council of Sangha Sammeggi|
|IBMO||International Burmese Monks Organization (also referred to by its Burmese name, Sasana Moli)|
|KIA||Kachin Independence Army|
|KNU||Karen National Union|
|Lon Htein||Burmese riot police|
|Nat||spirit, the belief in which is common in Burmese popular Buddhism|
|NLD||National League for Democracy|
|Pali||the canonical language of Buddhism, derived from Sanskrit, an older language|
|Patta nikkujjana kamma||excommunication, “overturning of the arms bowls.”|
|Pongyi||Buddhist monk (see also bhikkhu)|
|Sangha||the Buddhist order of monks|
|Sayadaw||“great teacher,” an honorific for senior Buddhist monks|
|Singang woot||imposter monk|
|SLORC||State Law and Order Restoration Council|
|SPDC||State Peace and Development Council|
|Swan Arr Shin||People’s Masters of Force, a paramilitary group associated with the USDA, and raised and controlled by local officials to intimidate|
|Tatmadaw||Burma’s armed forces|
|USDA||Union Solidarity and Development Association|
|Yahanpyu Aphwe||Young Monks’ Association|
|YMBA||Young Men’s Buddhist Association|
|RBMUF||Radical Buddhist Monks United Front|
Appendix II: Letter to the Penang Sayadaw U Bhaddantapannyavamsa from the Burmese Foreign Ministry, October 27, 2007
With respect we address you Penang Sayadaw,
First, we would like to ask your permission to talk to you as we respect your morals, dignity, and knowledge.
You are extremely famous for your missionary work inside the country as well as abroad, and you are also a Sayadaw that we have to rely on for the perpetuation of the religion. The monks and the people in Myanmar (Burma) are endlessly proud of you since a Theravada Buddhist monk can do exceptional missionary work in the world like this. Your work such as establishing Myanmar (Burmese) Buddhist monasteries in the big cities of the world and teaching dhamma to foreigners in foreign languages will last forever in the history of religion.
Please allow us to talk about the recent uprising in Myanmar (Burma). Politicians tried to stir up the monks, who were practicing Ganta Dhura and Vipassana Dhura, to participate in the demonstrations, the act which is not in accordance with their code of conduct. That was their attempt to use the monks to create a situation like the one in 1988 for their political interest. We are just telling the Myanmar (Burmese) monks abroad not to misunderstand the actions of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee. The perpetuation and propagation of the religion depends upon the monks’ conduct. Politics and religion have basically different goals and different ways of doing things and, therefore, should not be mixed together. Through various eras, monks who have participated in politics have not been accepted by governments and people. The State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, born out of a convention of various Sangha sects in 1980, is based on the unity of various sects of the Sangha, and is not involved in politics but solely carries out religious affairs. That is why the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee still exists today and will continue to exist in the future. The activities of the Sangha organization have been delayed due to the uprising in September, but now the teaching monasteries and meditating monasteries are operating as usual and are now peacefully teaching and meditating. The government and the people who respect Buddhism are still charitably donating four things such as monasteries, robes, food, and medicines and still carrying out religious affairs.
On September 28, 2007, we heard the sad news that the Myanmar (Burmese) monks in the United States have formed a Sangha Regency. We understand that the motto—Unity of the Sangha—is for peace and prosperity. Now, forming a parallel Sangha organization abroad is likely to create divisions in the Sangha and the religion will decline. We would like to request powerful Sayadaws to prevent creation of various sects among the Sangha. The Sayadaws from the State Sangha Maha Nayaka have been elected from among the Sangha, and that is why they are able to carry out religious duties in this manner, and they are also moral and dignified Sayadaws. It is only appropriate to take care of the religion through dhamma. We would like to request the monks to continue to take care of religion only through dhamma without any involvement in politics or the economy of the country.
Ministry of Religion
Appendix III: Statement by Sasana Moli, the International Burmese Monks Organization, May 2008
Burmese monks from all around the world established the International Burmese Monks Organization (IBMO) in October 2007 under the leadership of two prominent Burmese Buddhist monks, the late Venerable U Kovida and Venerable U Pannya Vamsa. Following the September 2007 street protests in Burma, many Buddhist monks were arrested, disappeared, beaten and even killed. During the crackdown, monks and nuns inside Burma asked monks living outside of the country to continue to their struggle. They asked the IBMO to raise international awareness about Burma’s political struggles. Inside Burma, there is no freedom of speech. To speak out against human rights abuses, to speak out against dictatorship, or to speak out for common human decency, as the Buddhist faith demands, is to invite attack at the hands of the military junta. The IBMO travels the globe in order to provide a voice for our monks and nuns inside Burma who are denied this right. We try to teach others about both the beauty and the harsh realities of military control inside the closed country.
Monks are not politicians but is their duty to help relieve the suffering of all the people of Burma. The Buddha gave ten rules for kings to ensure that kings did not harm their subjects. Burma’s generals violate all of these rules every day. According to IBMO Chairman, the Venerable U Pannya Vamsa, the roots of Burma’s crisis are in the military’s refusal to hand over power in 1990 to leaders elected in general elections. The IBMO works alongside the Burma democracy movement to lobby international governments to pressure the junta to commence a real dialogue with democratic opposition leaders including the Nobel Peace Laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Additionally, IBMO partners with the Burmese Diaspora, grassroots advocacy groups, and ecumenical and peace organizations to support direct advocacy efforts on behalf of the Burmese people, such as media interviews, lectures, and testifying before legislators.
The IBMO also supports the courageous work of monks and nuns inside Burma. Throughout Burmese history, monks have played a significant role in maintaining peace in our society. The Burmese military dictatorship has total disregard for the welfare of its people. The junta provides no proper education, health care or other public services. People are forced to turn to the monasteries for help. Monks witness the desperate needs of the people every day and in September, they rose up together to answer these needs. Today, monks inside Burma are working desperately to feed and clothe Cyclone Nargis victims taking shelter in monasteries throughout Southern Burma. The IBMO raises funds to send directly to these monks inside Burma to buy rice, medicine, and other much-needed relief supplies.
Throughout this year, the monks will continue their global tour meeting with the public, testifying before members of Parliament and ministers, and garnering global support for the cause of the Burmese people.
“If a country has peace, all the neighbors will have peace. This is not just Burma’s problem; you must look at it as a human problem.”
—Venerable U Uttara, Irrawaddy Magazine, January 16, 2008.
“So long as the junta is in power, the Burmese people will never be liberated from suppression.”
—Venerable U Pyinya Zawta, Irrawaddy Magazine, March 18, 2008.
 Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Ministry of Information, Naypyidaw, September 2008, arts. 361-64. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch. For an analysis of the constitution see International Crisis Group, Myanmar: Towards the Elections, Asia Report no.174, August 20, 2009.
 Human Rights Watch, Vote to Nowhere. The May 2008 Constitutional Referendum in Burma, April 30, 2008 (http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/04/30/vote-nowhere-0).
 “Myanmar ratifies and promulgates Constitution,” State Peace and Development Council Announcement No.7/2008, May 30, 2008.
 Constitution of Myanmar 2008, paragraph 6(f), p.3.
 Constitution of Myanmar 2008, paras. 109(b) and 141(b), pp.39 and 52.
 Constitution of Myanmar 2008, Chapter XI Provisions on State of Emergency, para 417, pp.167-68.
 “A New Breed of Monk Rises in Myanmar,” Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2008.
 “Monks Succeed in Cyclone Relief as Junta Falters,” The New York Times, May 31, 2008.
 “A New Breed of Monk Rises in Myanmar,” Wall Street Journal, 2008.
 Kyaw Yin Hlaing, “Challenging the Authoritarian State: Buddhist monks and Peaceful Protests in Burma,” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, vol. 32, no.1, Winter 2008.
 Human Rights Watch interview with “U Kosalla,” Burma, July 2008.
 Copy of the letter on file with Human Rights Watch.