Saturday, November 17, 2007
Nov 16, 2007
Chants of change gaining resonance
By Ooi Keat Gin, For The Straits Times
HUNDREDS of saffron-robed Buddhist monks once again meandered through the streets of Myanmar a few weeks ago in a silent demonstration against the country's repressive military government. It was a peaceful protest and, thankfully, the authorities this time did not wield their iron fist, as they did during the September protests. The monks returned to their temples without incident.
The monks' protests must be understood in their proper historical context, which will allow us to better appreciate their effect on the future of the regime.
Monks, or pongyis (meaning 'great glory') as they are referred to in Myanmar, are revered figures in this deeply religious heartland of Buddhism. Every village and district has its own wat, or temple, with communities of monks who serve the spiritual needs of the people.
Buddhist monks, by virtue of their spirituality, spartan lifestyle and role as transmitters of Buddha's teachings, are highly regarded figures. As a result, they are immensely influential among the people, particularly in the rural areas. For a long time now, the secular authorities have been wary of the power and influence over society of the sangha, or community of monks, and have attempted to put them under surveillance and control.
Thus, the sangha has not had a comfortable relationship with the military. The uneasy ties began at the outset of military rule. General Ne Win, who in 1962 seized power from civilian prime minister U Nu, also repealed the State Religion Act of 1961. That law had established Myanmar, or Burma as it was then known, as a Buddhist nation. He also dismissed the Buddha Sasana Council, in effect taking the pongyis out of politics.
Thus, the monks' recent protest marches are not so much an unusual turn of events as a return to politics, where they had been entrenched until Gen Ne Win seized power.
Indeed, the monks also have a tradition of opposing existing power. During British colonial rule, they played a pivotal role in the anti-colonial, nationalist struggle.
The practice of removing one's shoes when entering a temple or private home and at a royal audience became a sensitive issue during the British colonial period. In fact, the 'Shoe Issue' became a factor in the war between Britain and the Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885).
The refusal of British representatives to remove their shoes at an audience with the Burmese monarch led to the cessation of ties between the two sides. In the absence of diplomatic interaction, the battlefield was the alternative forum for settling differences. After the final clash in 1885, Burma became part of British India.
Shoes were the cause of conflict again in 1919 when Buddhist monks attacked Europeans who insisted on keeping their shoes on when entering the Eindawya Pagoda in Mandalay. This followed the publication of a Burmese-language book, On The Impropriety Of Wearing Shoes On Pagoda Platforms, by the revered monk Ledi Sayadaw, and an appeal to the colonial government to respect this customary practice.
In December 1930, monks again made news when they organised and led the Saya San Rebellion that attempted to overthrow British rule. Although the uprising was suppressed, it marked an important milestone in the development of Burmese nationalism. In particular, the rebellion was responsible for the rise of a new generation of political leaders who would resist British rule.
Ever since the inception of military rule in 1962, however, the sangha has been forced out of any role in politics. This makes the recent events especially significant. The re-entry of monks into the political arena - taking part and leading street protests - is a crucial indication of the level of crisis in the country, marked in particular by the military's mishandling of the economy, which has severely impoverished ordinary citizens.
Indeed, the generals' poor management of the economy could well cause their demise as rulers.
Given these precedents, the defiance of the monks against the military regime could usher in a progressive development in Myanmar. The military regime would be well advised to re-think how to come to terms with Myanmar's traditional agents of influence and power - namely the sangha - and with pro-democracy elements.
For the future of Myanmar and its multi-ethnic population, a healthy coalition and working relationship must be created between all three parties, each having its own prudent role.
The writer is an associate professor and coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Research Unit in the School of Humanities at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang.
Given these precedents, the defiance of the monks against the military regime could usher in a progressive development.