Finding a Buddhist Middle Way in Post-Coup Myanmar: Ethnocentric Nationalism or Democratic Reform?

By: Paul Fuller

March 8, 2021

Buddhism, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Myanmar Coup

In this article I would like to suggest ways in which Buddhists in Myanmar could both inhibit and promote democratic reform in post-coup Myanmar. I will do so by suggesting two strategies that could be followed by Buddhist groups. The first option would be for Buddhists to continue on a trajectory of religiopolitical nationalism. The second option would be for Buddhist groups to embrace a rhetoric of compassion based upon an acceptance of the multifaith nature of Burma. I do not think it is certain that Buddhism supports democratic reform and that the best outcome might be Buddhist groups supporting anti-coup activists. They could possibly incorporate the idea that Buddhists should strive to alleviate all types of suffering, including that caused by an undemocratic political system.

I will use the lens of engaged Buddhism to explain these ideas. The term engaged Buddhism is used to describe Buddhist movements which locate suffering and its causes in, among other things, political and social repression. Buddhist ideas are used to eradicate inequalities. Engaged Buddhism has primarily been used as a moral category, to indicate the means by which Buddhists have acted to institute ethically sound social transformation. I argue that the vocabulary of engaged Buddhism should be widened to include Buddhists with an ethnocentric message of cultural supremacy.

The term engaged Buddhism is used to describe Buddhist movements which locate suffering and its causes in, among other things, political and social repression.

This latter phenomenon has been well documented over the past several years in Myanmar. Buddhist groups have used a rhetoric of discrimination to argue for the protection and defense of Burmese Buddhist culture. Groups like the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, often known by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, preach an aggressive message aligned to ideas of Buddhist fundamentalism. This had led to the prominence of a politically volatile Buddhist narrative which has found expression in Buddhist nationalism. There is the possibility in Myanmar that Buddhists will continue on the trajectory. I have termed this form of Buddhism as ethnocentric engaged Buddhism

Although some of these modern Burmese Buddhist groups use the language of religious extremism, the point could be made that Buddhism has often been culturally conservative. The neoliberal Buddhism favored by Western adherents has never been prominent in Buddhist history. In post-coup Myanmar, one option is that the military might align itself with ethnocentric engaged Buddhism. A strident Burmese Buddhist nationalism will become standard.

An alternative Buddhist response would be one which supports human rights and condemns such atrocities as the Rohingya genocide. This might be termed democratic engaged Buddhism. There is evidence that is beginning to emerge, though is too early to document. Some anti-coup protestors are from established Buddhist centers like the famous Mahagandayone Monastery in Mandalay, but it remains to be seen if their concerns are the establishment of Buddhist nationalism or if they have more genuine democratic concerns. 

Some anti-coup protestors are from established Buddhist centers, but it remains to be seen if their concerns are the establishment of Buddhist nationalism or if they have more genuine democratic concerns.

There is a long history of analyzing Buddhism and politics. There is a legacy which regards Buddhism as apolitical, originating partly in its ascetic, other-worldly ideas. There is also a political or democratic disenfranchisement imposed on Buddhist monastics in some countries, including Myanmar. It is possible that this is to protect the sanctity of the monastic vocation. For the monastics, known collectively as the sangha, spiritual potency is based in part upon the merit they accumulate, and in some senses share. This establishes the good fortune of society. This would be polluted by participation in worldly affairs. 

However, there are engaged Buddhist movements with notable political agendas. While many of these movements are often led by lay Buddhists, such as the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka, Buddhist monastics such as Buddhadasa (1906–1993) in Thailand and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, have had strong political messages based upon Buddhist ideas. Rather the ethnocentric engaged Buddhist ideas amplifying discrimination, intolerance, and protectionism, democratic engaged Buddhism is based upon key Buddhist ideas such as loving kindness and compassion. There are also more philosophical ideas such as interdependence, which lend themselves to more democratic and liberal principles. 

It might seem obvious which form of Buddhism would be the most attractive and beneficial to the Burmese population. However, I do not think our general observations are completely aligned with local Burmese concerns or the reality of Buddhism and its interactions with society.

It has often been argued that Buddhism promotes tolerance between religions. From this it follows that Buddhism is inclusivist and accepting of other religious truth claims. However, there is a danger that we make Buddhism in our own image, reflecting how we want it to be. In the Pali canon, the key textual tradition where foundational ideas of Buddhism in Myanmar are found, the idea of tolerance is surprisingly allusive. While the central motifs of compassion and loving-kindness are found in abundance, the Buddhist attitude to the religious other is marked by exclusivism, in which Buddhism is understood to be a superior religious and philosophical tradition. 

In the Pali canon, the key textual tradition where foundational ideas of Buddhism in Myanmar are found, the idea of tolerance is surprisingly allusive.

Given this setting, the idea of the sanctity and uniqueness of Buddhism informs ideas of Buddhist identity. Arguably, the superiority of Buddhists over other religious groups is established in the textual traditions of Buddhism. Whether we can draw from these ideas the shaping of modern political agendas is, admittedly, problematic, but in considering post-coup narratives, I think these ideas are important. 

Buddhist groups in Myanmar might mirror liberal sentiments and voice democratic concerns, and Buddhism could be used as a vehicle of political reform. To do so it would need to utilize Buddhist ideas of equality and human rights, which could be drawn from Buddhist doctrinal narratives. However, in a more nuanced understanding, one which is sensitive to local concerns, Buddhist groups will naturally filter democratic concerns with native patterns of Buddhist practice. Central to this is the idea that Buddhism primarily protects individuals who confess a Buddhist allegiance. It is most prominent in ritual practices where it acts as a vessel of auspiciousness. It bestows merit, assuring good fortune in this life and the next. Buddhism is a source of protective power.

There are then three options. The first is the ethnocentric Buddhism of intolerance and racism. The second would be based upon finding democratic ideas and principles in Buddhist teachings. While not absent, I am not clear that these ideas can easily be found in Buddhism. Perhaps the most natural idea of governance in the Pali tradition is a form of kingship, in which the virtue of the ruler shapes the conduct of the populace: what might be termed enlightened leadership. The third option would be for post-coup protestors and activists to be aligned to Buddhist monastic orders, thus giving them wider cultural authenticity. This would add sanctity to their protests, while not necessarily using Buddhist ideas. Of course, the rhetoric of democratic engaged Buddhism is not absent, and ideas related to loving-kindness for all sentient beings are important. However, I am not entirely clear how democratic reform can be based around Buddhist agendas and doctrinal ideas. 

Buddhist movements should embrace democratic concerns in order to eradicate the suffering of the Buddhist and non-Buddhist population of Myanmar.

I think a less nationalistic and chauvinistic Buddhist message is needed. I would suggest that Buddhist movements should embrace democratic concerns in order to eradicate the suffering of the Buddhist and non-Buddhist population of Myanmar, which is a key Buddhist idea. Buddhist leaders should act to eradicate suffering within Buddhist and non-Buddhist communities. This is the key Buddhist mechanism, a middle way between ethnocentric and democratic engaged Buddhism, from which social and political reform becomes viable. Of course, in the Burmese context, the sangha brings legitimacy to the rulers. Therefore, the monks need to be on the side of democratic reform in order for it to be successful.

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