A Discussion with Somboon Chungprampree (Moo), Executive Secretary, International Network of Engaged Buddhists

With: Somboon Chungprampree Berkley Center Profile

January 27, 2019

Background: During discussions in Bangkok in January 2019, Somboon Chungprampree (Khun Moo) and Katherine Marshall explored contemporary developments in the Southeast Asia region, notably those that involve religious and ethnic conflicts. Moo, as he is known, has worked for more than two decades across the region, notably among Buddhist communities. His direct involvement includes Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Lao, as well as other countries in the region. His approach and work focus on building the capacity of civil society organizations and advancing processes that enhance understanding and amplify the voices of grassroots Buddhist communities. The discussion highlighted his finely tuned understanding of power dynamics in the region and the complexities of religious roles and changes that are taking place, which range from very local community attitudes and perspectives to senior policy levels. WFDD’s current work in Myanmar/Burma also provided context, as we drew on his more than two decades of experience there. He also describes his Chinese heritage and the varying ways in which Chinese diaspora communities are part of Southeast Asian national identities, starting from the “Thai-ness” efforts that have marked Thailand, which stands in marked contrast to the experience of Chinese ethnic minorities in, for example, Myanmar and Indonesia.

You have been active in Burma/Myanmar for at least two decades. How did that begin?

I began to work in Burma more than 20 years ago. We have held grassroots leadership training sessions (our specialty through the Spirit in Education Movement - SEM), most in Bangkok, over the years, and now have over 1,000 alumni and partners working in many different parts of Burma. Many of the individuals, NGOs, and civil society groups we have worked with are linked to religious organizations and they have often worked from temples and churches.

In 1994, Sulak Sivaraksa sent a colleague, Pracha Hutanawatra, to Burma, going to Kachin state to assess the post cease-fire situation and ask what was needed. The prominent leader of the Kachin Baptist Convention requested us to assist with training future leaders. Then, we began to provide grassroots leadership training with a global perspective and understanding sustainable development as well as to gain skills for grassroots organizing initiatives. Training took place in Thailand and in the Philippines where participants came from different religious and ethnic groups. Our work in Burma began in minority ethnic areas, and training was initiated in Kachin state with Baptists, and later extended to Catholics and Anglicans and other ethnic groups. 

One of the Christian leaders advised that we should start to work with the majority Buddhists in Burma. The Christians have support from the churches, he argued, but the Buddhists at that time basically had nothing similar. There were no Buddhist NGOs at the time, only Christian organizations which were very strategic in their work. With this in mind and urging from the Christian leadership we began to work with Buddhists in the country’s central areas. Eventually Buddhists and others took on leadership roles. From there we began to organize, slowly. Since 2000, we have worked to set up 70-80 organizations, all local development organizations. Some worked from churches, some outside. Women have always been very much involved.

At that time we had a team of more than 20 working on Myanmar to provide grassroots leadership training and follow-up activities. The training was the springboard from which local organizations were formed and also strengthened existing organizations. These efforts were very localized and supported the alumni in some areas to set up their own organizations and local projects. 

Looking at the post 2012 period, more local organizations have been set up with our support, for example GSMI (Gaia Sustainable Management Institute), Kalyana Mitta Foundation - KMF. 

The situation of Burma (Myanmar) is troubled, and many have difficulty understanding the position and role of Aung San Suu Kyi. What is your understanding of the situation?

ASSK’s vision is for Burma to catch up, as quickly as possible, which is causing them to repeat the problems Thailand and other countries faced in the past. This is the result of fifty years of isolation. She is also convinced that she is the best one to lead her country at this time, but does this without developing critical friendships and consulting with local communities.

But there are traps which include following conventional development as opposed to being open to sustainable development driven by concepts of inclusivity and participation. It is important to learn from other countries’ lessons which could help to avoid these traps. There are positive and negative things to absorb in countries that have grown fast and in the technology that changes our lives. It is important not to repeat the same patterns and problems.

What do you see as possible solutions for these situations, that is, where there are significant ethnic or religious differences and long histories of tension and discrimination?

What may work best is forming something like semi-autonomous regions. Burma can learn from models used by many countries including in China. The key is obviously resources, and how power and taxes and other revenues are divided. These situations reflect real problems in creating nation states. And, as you were noting in a discussion earlier, dealing with residual issues that arise where boundaries were drawn at particular historical moments. 

How do you see solutions along the lines of voluntary or involuntary separation or warring communities? There are instances of various formulas: Indonesia, Northern Ireland and Bosnia Herzogovina, for example which have mixed results: bloodshed stops but it seems that differing identities become still more entrenched.

The idea may work in theory but probably not in practice. And it’s important not to forget the wider context, which includes the global arms trade. There are interests that favor the continuation of tensions, including Western Europe, Israel, and generally military forces.

You highlight the importance of visions that explicitly or implicitly drive leaders and other actors. How does that play out in Myanmar?

Aung San Suu Kyi is driven by a vision of ‘catching up’ after 50 years of isolation when Burma fell far behind and she is striving to make up for that time. But, she is not looking deep enough (in my view) to avoiding the mistakes and pitfalls many countries have made. There are tired outdated models and she is looking too much to them. She is also driven by the politics of power which were embedded in the former military government and its successor. Her heart is for the nation, but politics are about negotiations and that has captured her.

There are some parallels to Thailand in the 1980s, which when it began was driven both by new sources of resources such as oil, mining, and other investments. But cheap products flooded the markets and much was lost. 

A question that should be asked is: What does Burma offer the world? The world badly needs spiritual direction and Burma has excellent resources. Satya Narayan Goenka (who died in 2013 in India) was born in Burma and based in India. The goal is to improve the quality of life: to draw what is good from the land and the people.

How do you explain what is happening with extremist Buddhists in Burma? It is so alien to common understandings of Buddhist values.

My estimate is that the extremist views that we are hearing about represent about 10 percent of monks (there were about 500,000 monks in Burma, though that number has declined). About 90 percent of the monks do not hold extremist views. One factor is that Buddhism in Burma is very decentralized. The Sangha does not have the same control and influence over the different communities of monks that they do in Thailand, where the Sangha is appointed by the King. In Burma, the Sangha council is elected, so that the Buddhist organizations are more democratic. Still, 40,000-50,000 extremist monks is a lot. Similar forms of extremist views and shares of religious leadership can be found in Christian and Muslim communities. A feature of the Buddhist organizations is their link to the military. Individual personalities, and their mindsets, play a large role in fomenting extremism.

How to engage with “difficult groups”?

Some of our alumni are former monks who are familiar with the different communities. The work over time has slowly formed relationships built on trust, shared views, understanding, and knowledge. There is a recognition of the need for improving children’s education, so some contacts are built through teaching in schools.

What is the position of nuns in Burma?

After the 2010 elections the country opened up and the number of nuns increased as did their roles to some degree. The numbers are not clear but I estimate that there are now more than 30,000 and there may be as many as 150,000. There is some similarity to Cambodia, where older women become nuns and often serve the monks. A difference is that in Burma the many nuns are young and have their own nunneries where they live separately.

What is the core work of the different organizations you work with, beginning with INEB (International Network of Engaged Buddhists)? 

The Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation (SNF) was founded in 1968 by Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa and recently celebrated the 50th anniversary. Its main focus is on supporting the development of civil society organizations and is the organization that is responsible for the reporting to donors and partners. 

Several organizations are under the SNF umbrella including INEB. INEB is essentially a network with many members across many different countries (http://inebnetwork.org/).

The Spirit in Education Movement (SEM) is also under SNF. Its objective is to build an informal alternative education network. Originally its work was focused in Burma and Thailand, and now the team is working in other countries. Participants come from all over the world, not just Asia. 

SEM offers a six-part core curriculum which includes (1) to understand one self, (2) society, (3) nature, (4) beauty, (5) interpersonal, and (6) to search for knowledge and understanding. A central focus is on deep listening. In Thailand, it reaches businesses, doctors, and immigration officials, among others. We have local teams and also work with NGOs from the region, for example Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Other initiatives under INEB include:

  • the INEB Institute for Transformative Learning​➢    the International Forum on Buddhist Muslim Relations (BMF) 
  • the Inter-Religious Climate and Ecology Network (ICE) 
  • Buddhist Chaplaincy Training
  • Community Buddhist Leaders
  • Transformative Leadership for Social Change and Empowerment of the Bhikkhuni Sanga
  • Capacity-building for Marginalized Buddhists
  • Asian Network of Buddhists for Child Projection
  • Economics for a Sustainable Planet
  • Eco-Temple Community Development Project
  • Young Bodhisattva Project
  • Study tours to various countries such as South Korea and China

How do you approach the problems of conflict resolution?

We focus on building trust, forming relationships, developing positive leadership, and understanding. We have brought a number of approaches from elsewhere in the world. One example is from an Anglican priest, Father Michael Lapsley. He was born in New Zealand and worked intensively on South Africa in the fight against Apartheid (https://www.healing-memories.org/about/staff.html/fr-michael-lapsley-ssm.html) His focus is on healing of memories or trauma. He visited Myanmar and Bangkok last year where he conducted workshops and spoke about detoxifying politics, http://www.khaosodenglish.com/opinion/2018/02/10/detoxifying-political-past/.

What is Sulak’s role now? He is the founder and inspiration.

Sulak will celebrate his 85th birthday on March 27. He stepped down from most direct management ten years ago, when I took on the main management role as INEB’s executive secretary. Now, Ajarn Sulak serves as an advisor and a connector. 

Sulak has played a pivotal role in building civil society institutions in Thailand. He complains about failures, like canals in Bangkok that have been covered up despite his protests and the lack of trees in the city, but he has many achievements. He propounds a radical conservatism. His approach is that not everything about the past is bad, and we should conserve what is good alongside radical progress. But what he says can be quite sensitive, especially when it touches on the Thai monarchy. 

What does the leadership training that SEM/INEB offers involve?

One initiative under SEM is called Awakening Leadership Training (ALT) and the core curriculum focuses on designing new paradigms for holistic sustainable development. The ALT takes place over six months; other programs we run are normally three months long and include a variety of modules. We try to open them to people with diverse experiences and ways of looking at the world. Often, we take participants on exposure visits to different sites in Thailand and other countries. We juxtapose theoretical training with visits to people affected by dam construction and learn how they are organized, for example, people who are involved in human rights issues, who live in slums, etc. We took a group of Christians from Burma to the Philippines, which helped them to understand that others faced serious problems also, that their situation was not unique, that in some ways Burma was better off than countries seen as more “developed.” Such experiences as these, combined with theoretical discussions and education, can help to change mindsets which is most important. 

People come with fixed ideas about what is progress. They have been brainwashed by media and peers. A major area where we focus is on trust: who and what you can trust that helps to be more open and share concerns. We also introduce concepts and skills like the project cycle management, writing proposals, and follow up. 

Are you involved in Bangladesh?

Not much. INEB has members, notably from the Chittagong and Chittagong Hill Tracts, especially the Chakma and Barua people. They attended our recent meeting in Nepal. An open letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations is being prepared, seeking an independent investigation of abuses in that area, but essentially the situation there (as in too many other places) is stuck. Worse, it seems that no one cares. The media is primarily interested these days in Islamophobia, with much less focus on situations that do not involve Muslims. (Documentation regarding atrocities committed against the Jumma people - Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization; Chittagong Hill Tracks Peace Accord 1997 – Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame )

It is important, however, that the Rakhine State situation, horrible as it is, not be seen in isolation. There were half a million Burmese refugees in Thailand, and at least 100,000 have not been able to return. Problems with land seizures affect many parts of the country, as does insecurity and overt violence. There are many disputes over construction of dams. It is hard to construct dams these days in Thailand, and many are being planned and constructed in Burma. That includes construction by Thailand in Laos, Cambodia, and Burma, to supply electricity for Thailand.

What roles is social media playing for religious organizations? For your work?

They are very important. Of the top ten social media sites in Thailand, two are run by monks, and one of them has six million followers. It appeals mainly to the upper and middle class, to celebrities and other prominent people. The talk is about primarily engagement and responsibility. But it is not really directed to the lower classes which highlights the need for them to develop their own social media outlets. The challenge is how to reach the broader society and address issues of structural violence.

What about your own background? How did you come to be doing what you are doing today?

I was born in a rural area in northeast Thailand, near the Cambodia border. I studied finance in Bangkok. While I was a student at a private university I learned about environmental issues and set up an environment club and met Sulak in that context. We were involved in various protests, notably against dam construction that was harming local communities in northern Thailand and all along the Mekong river system. He urged us to get more involved in social activities, to focus on poor people and marginalized communities. I remember staying in a community when we were involved in a protest and meeting an older woman whose house was threatened by dam construction. She said simply “if the dam is built, I will die here.” The lesson was about people’s deep connection to the land and their heritage.

I was born a Buddhist, but when I was a university student I was an atheist, searching for social justice. I joined many protests in pursuit of social justice but something was missing. When I was 21, I read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, the remarkable Vietnamese Buddhist leader, The Miracle of Mindfulness. It changed my life. I realized that spiritual things and activism can go together. So, I came to work with Sulak where my view transformed to include spiritual practice with actions for social justice. 

You’ve mentioned that your family was of Chinese origin. How did that affect your path?

I am from a family that is third generation Chinese/Thai. Thailand’s population is about 20 percent Chinese. The Chinese are very much integrated in the population. Indeed, in Asia this is one of the most successful examples of integration and modernization. In other countries, most keep their Chinese names. That is not the case in Thailand, where most of Chinese origins have Thai names (as you can see from mine!). It is different in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia, for example, where the Chinese ethnicity remains quite distinct, down to the names. And that encourages prejudice – the Vietnamese, for example, have a thousand year history of hostility toward the Chinese, including those who have lived there for generations. It is true that some of the cultural heritage is lost or muted but there are strengths in the integration.

Why did that happen?

It was about 70-80 years ago, when the Prime Minister advanced a program called “Thainess.” It was designed to promote integration. The advantage is obviously that it takes away some of the disadvantages of differentiation in identities. On the other hand, some can lose their cultural heritage.

Many Chinese who immigrated to Thailand were men, and many married Thai women, thus integrating families. Thai provided the flexibility for this cultural integration to take place! 

Do you speak Chinese?

No. There were even prohibitions against speaking Chinese at various times which created a disconnect from our Chinese homeland. However, the times and thinking have changed because today Mandarin is included in the curriculum of various Thai schools and universities. 

The Sons of the Yellow Emperor (Lynn Pyan) is an excellent book about the Chinese diaspora.

What about the Chinese in Burma?

In Burma, 5 percent of the population is ethnically Chinese, and they are far less integrated than in Thailand, although there have been changes over the years. This is also true of Burma’s various ethnic groups. Patterns of social mixing and integration differ by generation. The student uprising of 1988 and Tienamen Square 1989 events brought Burma and China closer together. Many came to control businesses and land, especially in Mandalay. Relations with China are now close, but there are resentments and fears that these could explode into violence. The foundation of conflicts inside Burma are inter-religious and inter-ethnic which are ongoing. The increasing Chinese population fuels these areas. The current resentment among Buddhists against Muslims could turn towards Chinese. 

So far Aung San Suu Kyi and others in the government favor the Chinese which brings large financial benefits, but that could change.

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