Historically speaking, Buddhism provided most of the idioms in politics and political thinking in Myanmar. In the context of the coup, two are especially important: the personalization of power and the importance of unity.

The former comes from the tradition of finite power. If power is infinite, like in the West, then it can be shared and balanced (albeit not without problems); if it is finite, like in Burma, then sharing power may (and often does) mean losing power. In such circumstances, checks and balances are at best an imported whim, at worst a dangerous self-defeating mechanism. That is why in Myanmar the concepts of authority have been personal—not institutional or legal—which degrades institutions and laws vis-à-vis individuals. Loyalty, the backbone of the patron-client relationship, has also been personal. 

In the case of the coup, this seems to explain Min Aung Hlaing’s motives for securing personal power. He has often been accused, by Burmese and foreigners alike, of staging the coup in order to seize power for himself. This interpretation is not necessarily wrong, yet when we read such statements without knowing the cultural background, Min Aung Hlaing may appear as a grotesque, power-hungry Third World dictator worthy of a Sasha Baron Cohen comedy. 

Without knowing the cultural background, Min Aung Hlaing may appear as a grotesque, power-hungry Third World dictator worthy of a Sasha Baron Cohen comedy. 

But when we bear in mind that Min Aung Hlaing stands at the apex of a pyramidal patron-client network based on personalized loyalty and held together by economic interests and the unaccountability of former crimes, then we may see that his scheduled retirement from the position of commander-in-chief in mid-2021 could have undermined the whole system. Seen from this angle, his motives are not necessarily more justified, let alone acceptable, but certainly more rational and understandable. All the more so when we remind ourselves that in countries like Myanmar, losing power can mean not only surrendering the means to acquire and maintain wealth, influence, and privileges, as it can also result in the loss of liberty. In such circumstances one needs to “hold the tiger’s tail” come what may; this is a Burmese version of the tragedy of power. 

Hand in hand with personalization of power comes the importance of unity. This, too, has a religious, personalized background, stemming from monastic conduct: It is associated with harmony and peace, within the sangha and beyond. Being united with others means sacrificing one’s ambitions for the greater good of all, a sort of rejecting the self. In politics the ability to move beyond one’s interests becomes a moral virtue. And conversely, the inability to do so is strongly condemned as selfish, unethical, and just plain bad. 

In politics the ability to move beyond one’s interests becomes a moral virtue. And conversely, the inability to do so is strongly condemned as selfish, unethical, and just plain bad. 

This moral underpinning gives political leaders an easy textbook to follow: If a party member, let alone a political rival, disagrees with them, he or she must be immoral. This explains why reaching compromise is so challenging and why there has historically been little place for opposition. The latter has been associated with confrontation, rebellion and—most importantly—with being “wrong viewed” in the Buddhist sense. Consequently, those in opposition transgress morally, with loyal opposition becoming an impossibility: Either one is loyal and morally good or is in opposition. This grasp offers insight as to why the Tatmadaw-NLD cohabitation was undermined by distrust and tension, and ultimately ended up in disaster. 

Buddhism and Political Violence 

Violence in Buddhism is not central, but neither is it non-existent. In some Jatakas (stories of the former lives of the Buddha) there is a justification for violence. This includes Harita-jataka (“in certain cases a Bodhisatta may destroy life”) and Suvannakakkata-jataka, which tells the story of a crab who killed an evil snake just to make sure it would not do harm in the future. Alongside other post-canonical texts (for example, one part of Mahavaṃsa claims that defending Buddhism sometimes overrides the need to follow its ethical precepts), these have been an invitation to bypass inconvenient Buddhist morality in politics. There have been more practical means, too: Burmese leaders often worked on the assumption that their merit acquired via moral acts (temporary ordination as monks, protecting the sangha, building pagodas, for example) would outweigh their immoral deeds. Many followed the “Ashokan” model: First, ends justify the means—later piety. 

Burmese leaders often worked on the assumption that their merit acquired via moral acts would outweigh their immoral deeds.

Applying this intellectual heritage to the Rohingya conflict—or to many other, less recognized ethnic-cum-religious conflicts within the country—helps to understand much. Since the Rohingya are perceived as a threat to Buddhism—as previously Christian Karens, Chins, Kachins, and other ethnic minorities, though none to such an extent as the Rohingya— a defense of Buddhism overrides following Buddhist moral precepts. Indeed, Sitagu Sayadaw, a famous monk, stated this explicitly to soldiers involved in massacring the Rohingya. In order to achieve a greater good—saving Buddhism—one may, the logic goes, in extraordinary circumstances conduct policy inconsistent with Buddhism’s ethics. In the setting of the failed post-colonial nation-building project in Myanmar, where religion is tied to ethnicity and identity, this morally challenging and politically expedient interpretation has proved to be particularly toxic.

Ethnic and Religious Minorities after the Coup

The coup means different things to different actors. Some disillusioned with the NLD ethnic leaders see it as a chance to ease negotiations and to score some political points. Previously, there were three sides: two different Bamar factions vis-à-vis ethnic communities. Now things are simpler: They can deal with the real powerholder—the Tatmadaw—without wasting time on face-saving events like the Twenty-First Century Panglong Conference. Perhaps the dynamics of the cease-fire process will be reversed (it has nosedived since 2015), though a breakthrough in the center-periphery conflict is unlikely. Most of the ethnic minorities, however, fear the situation following the coup will worsen for them, and given what the Tatmadaw has done to them in the last 73 years, they have good reason for that. 

As far as the Rohingya are concerned, their case is somewhat different than that of other ethnic minorities as the Rohingya are not recognized (not only by Bamars, but also by many ethnic minorities) as tainyintha, or indigenous inhabitants of Myanmar. Politically speaking, their tragedy is much more important internationally than domestically. After what happened to the Rohingya in 2017 it is hard to imagine what worse could possibly be inflicted upon them; now things can only be either better or the same. I expect the latter. 

The Bamar-Buddhist majority is too strong and too unwilling to share power and privileges with the ethnic minorities, and yet it is too weak to enforce its vision of society completely.

Politically and historically speaking, the Bamar-Buddhist majority is too strong and too unwilling to share power and privileges with the ethnic minorities, and yet it is too weak to enforce its vision of society completely. No nation-building project beyond Bamar-Buddhist dominance had ever arisen: Sorry, no Myanmar-style “unity in diversity” here. While there are many praiseworthy traditions in Myanmar’s religions, the political practice within the country over the last 73 years has made religion a part of the problem, not the solution.

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