“Who Set the Parameters of Monastic Politics in Myanmar?” by Nyi Nyi Kyaw

2019/13, 31 January 2019

Monastic politics — Theravada Buddhist monks’ and by extension nuns’ participation in the electoral realm as voters, founders and members of political parties, or professional politicians — has been banned in Myanmar since the country’s independence in 1948. Each of its three constitutions has prohibited monks and nuns from voting and being elected to political office. The same restrictions also apply in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Sri Lanka is the only Theravada-majority country in the world that is an exception, by allowing these activities.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Buddhist monks in Myanmar were deeply involved in anti-colonial, anti-communist, and anti-military politics. The Burmese word for “strike” is derived from a term used to connote refusing alms from, and thus refusing to accord a chance for merit to, undeserving laypersons. And the Vinaya or monastic code of conduct does not explicitly prohibit monastic politics, perhaps because modern politics with voting and running for election was not known at the time of Gautama Buddha in the late sixth century BCE. However, it is now a long-held custom in all four Theravada-majority countries in Southeast Asia that monks and nuns do not participate in elections. Demands for the monastic franchise on the part of some monks and lay Buddhists both in the 1930s and on the eve of Burma’s independence in the mid-1940s met with failure.
Ma Ha Na or the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee is the highest monastic administrative body in Myanmar. Established since 1980, it is a highly orthodox and hierarchical body. Because of a collective fear of disorder and schism within the country’s monastic order, Ma Ha Na has issued several directives against monastic politics. It instructs monks to engage in studying the Buddhist teachings in the Dhamma by learning the scriptures, or practicing those teachings through meditation, or both. Despite these instructions from their superiors and state backing for those superiors, monks in Myanmar have participated in politics as campaigners for and supporters of politicians, dissidents, and political parties. The Yahan Pyo or Young Monks of Mandalay had an active role in politics in the 1950s. Their name has come to connote a certain understanding of the political advocacy that monks may undertake in times of public suffering. The 2007 Saffron Revolution was a prominent recent example of monks’ assuming such a role.

In their political pursuits, monks have acted both as individuals and in groups, and usually in close cooperation with lay Buddhists including politicians, activists, and officers of government agencies. Despite this record of cooperation, those politicians and other laymen have not offered the franchise to their monastic colleagues; nor have the latter consistently demanded it.

Most recently, during the post-transition years of 2012-15 in Myanmar, hundreds, if not thousands, of monks were active in anti-Muslim, anti-pluralist politics. Some leading monks in the controversial Ma Ba Tha, the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, expressed disappointment in 2013–14 over the lack of a monastic political party in the parliament that would have fulfilled their desire to draft and pass four laws on race and religion against alleged Islamization of Myanmar.

The slow response of President Thein Sein and of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)-dominated parliament to the campaign to pass the four bills apparently dismayed Ma Ba Tha. While there might have been a tacit agreement between U Thein Sein and Ma Ba Tha from the time of the organization’s establishment in 2013, the president seemed to have been waiting for the right time to push for adoption of the bills, in the context of the interreligious violence onwards across Myanmar that began in 2012 and the rise of largely anti-Muslim hate speech offline and online.

However, even the president and the USDP, each believed to be sympathetic to the Ma Ba Tha, did not seem to want to support the introduction of monastic electoral politics. By using monastic influence, the president and by extension the party only wanted to have a political edge over Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy (NLD). They apparently did not want to violate the long-held custom of monks’ and nuns’ non-participation in elections, whether as voters or as candidates. Finally, they moved in 2014 to draft the four bills and to secure their passage by August of the following year. These laws impose strict restrictions on interfaith marriage, birth spacing, bigamy and polygamy, and religious conversion.

Following passage of these laws, Ma Ba Tha started lavishly praising President Thein Sein for his assistance to the campaign for them, especially in the months and weeks prior to the November 2015 general election. Ma Ba Tha’s praise did not win much electoral support for the president. Myanmar’s chief is elected indirectly by the parliament. What Ma Ba Tha could only aim to do was to help Thein Sein improve his public persona as the Defender of Race and Religion or Buddhism. Ma Ba Tha’s political activities in support of the president faced criticism from many lay Buddhists. Those critics asserted that there were limits to what monks could and should do in the political realm and asked that those who wanted to enter that realm leave the monastic order first.

The NLD government in power since 2016 also seems to court the Ma Ha Na and other prominent monks. However, it does not appear to support monastic franchise, let alone allowing monks and nuns to establish and join political parties. In fact, the NLD government has cracked down on Ma Ba Tha because the organization did not heed its warnings in 2016 and 2017 to stop disrupting interreligious peace and harmony. Ma Ba Tha was declared an illegal organisation in May 2017, but it has re-emerged as a religious charity foundation under the name of Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation.

Neither Myanmar state and society, which set the parameters of monastic politics, nor Ma Ha Na will allow the monks to vote or to run for elective office in the near future. They seem to firmly believe that the Sangha must not participate in electoral politics, even as they will continue to tolerate the other forms of monastic politics that they have tolerated in the past several decades.

Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.