Alicia Turner is associate professor of religious studies and humanities at York University in Toronto. She is the author of Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma (2014) and co-author of The Irish Buddhist: The Forgotten Monk Who Faced Down the British Empire (2020).
The people are building a community self-defense movement in the streets across Myanmar, and in doing so, they are defining community and belonging in new ways. From Rohingya to Hindus and Buddhist monks to transgender and gender queer young people, the view of who belongs is defined in terms of inclusion and solidarity. As they expand the Milk Tea Alliance, they are drawing on long historical roots of protest and community self-defense in Burma.
Unlike the last two massive popular mobilizations, the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and the 969 and Ma Ba Tha Buddhist mobilizations in the lead up to 2015, at first glance this movement does not appear to be specifically about Buddhism. But understanding something about the intellectual frameworks of those movements puts the work of these protests into a new light.
Buddhism in the Saffron Revolution and Ma Ba Tha Movement
The Saffron Revolution in which monks took to the streets to protest military rule was a movement in defense of the Buddha’s sasana (the life of the Buddha’s teachings in the world). While Western journalists wanted to interpret it as a political uprising done by religious actors or a political uprising done in the guise of a Buddhist movement, in fact the symbolism and mobilization revolved around an understanding that the military had failed in its position as a proxy for the king as a defender of the sasana and had become instead a threat to Buddhism. The most iconic images of the protests were of laypeople surrounding monks in human chains to protect them, as symbols of the Buddha’s teachings, from the military.
The Saffron Revolution in which monks took to the streets to protest military rule was a movement in defense of the sasana, the life of the Buddha’s teachings in the world.
The 969/Ma Ba Tha movement that arose between the beginning of the transition period and the 2015 elections, dubbed in Western journalism as Buddhist nationalism, was equally a movement that understood itself to be defending the Buddha’s sasana. The key goal of the movement was passage of the “laws for the protection of race and religion (sasana).” But now the threats to the sasana were understood to originate not from inside of the nation, but from “outside” others—Muslims and, in particular, the Rohingya. Thus, the genocidal campaigns against the Rohingya were justified in the populist rhetoric as necessary to defend Buddhism.
The Buddhist project of defending the sasana is a key collective moral project in Myanmar, one that can operate in a number of registers and toward a variety of ends. I have written about a period at the turn of the twentieth century under British colonialism in which Buddhists sensed a threat to the sasana and organized a massive mobilization in response. However, in that case, the threat was identified not as the external threat of the British that one might assume, but as an internal threat due to Buddhists’ own laxity in morals, knowledge, and dedication, brought about by changing conditions of colonialism. In that movement, Burmese Buddhists turned their attentions toward reforming their own community.
The Buddhist project of defending the sasana is a key collective moral project in Myanmar, one that can operate in a number of registers and toward a variety of ends.
We need to be attentive to the ways in which what is understood as a threat in each of these movements, and who is empowered to address that threat, come to inflect and redefine the meaning of sasana and community in each generation. The idea of a moral reform at the turn of the twentieth century defined sasana and community in novel ways, distinct from how they were understood by earlier generations during Buddhist reforms under the kings and distinct from how they were understood a few decades later. The Saffron Revolution and Ma Ba Tha each offered their own new inflections of Buddhism and community, ones that drew upon older understandings but forwarded new emphases.
The images of the Saffron Revolution turned attention toward the Buddhist community of monks, the sangha, as under threat, but the interpretation of what caused the threat—the rapid increase in prices that threatened widespread poverty—demonstrated an interpretation of sasana and community that emphasized the material and economic welfare of the whole population as integral to both the sangha and the sasana. Ma Ba Tha instead interpreted the threat as external others who would overtake the community and destroy a culture and its values. Its emphasis was on individual monastic leaders and a community connected by more rigid and doctrinaire concepts of culture, Buddhism, and nation.
Interreligious Solidarity in the Anti-Coup Protests
The movement resisting the current military coup has its own ways of defining both the threat and the community. Sasana is not explicitly part of what is being defended here—but the structure of the earlier movements offers some insights. From the symbolism in the streets in February, it seems clear that what was threatened was not simply a political party or even the idea of democracy but a way of life that included substantial freedom of expression and potentials for self-determination and a new idea of community.
Whereas the dominant images in 2007 and 2015 were images of the Buddha, the Metta Sutta, and monastic robes, now memes, humor, satire, and art dominate; poets, artists, and young laypeople take the place of monks. While red, the color of the National League for Democracy (NLD) is common, just as common is the expression of multiple specific group identities: images of Gen Z in jeans and tee-shirts, drag queens and transgender people, young couples in wedding attire, and every type of identity affiliation conceivable—representing ethnicity, workers, farmers, neighborhoods, villages, and even obscure hobbies like the Electronic Golfers’ Association. In urban areas, the protests in mid-February began to resemble a pride parade representing and celebrating a diversity of identity groups. In this outpouring, it seems to be the particularity and diversity of identity that was being defended—that a return to military rule would threaten the well-being of all groups of people to be who they are.
Religion is clearly present, but it is in the form of explicit interreligious solidarity—the dominant image is not of the Buddha, but of Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, and Hindu women working hand in hand.
Religion is clearly present, but it is in the form of explicit interreligious solidarity—the dominant image is not of the Buddha, but of Buddhist, Muslim, Catholic, and Hindu women working hand in hand, or a Catholic nun appealing directly to the police and soldiers. Buddhist nuns and monks are present, but they are one voice in a religious cacophony demanding change. Religious minorities that had previously sought to assimilate or recede for safety now come out to assert their religious and ethnic identity in solidary with the resistance to the military. A movingly brave group of Rohingya youth, whose parents and grandparents would have hidden their identity, came onto the streets of Yangon proclaiming themselves as Rohingya and part of the movement.
The movement defies the idea of secular liberalism as well—with the explicit deployment of supernatural forces, like the women’s htameins (wrap cloths) used to steal the male military’s power. Whereas the symbolism of earlier movements was explicitly national, tying sasana to Myanmar/Burmese nation, this movement is explicitly transnational, with the three-finger salute demonstrating affiliation across the Milk Tea Alliance uniting Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Burma.
A Community of Belonging
The broad community of belonging demonstrated in the streets across the country seems to evoke an older idea of community from pre-colonial port towns of Lower Burma, one that did not focus on ethnicity and religion as exclusivist identity markers. Pre-colonial observers commented on the prevalence and ease of intermarriage and the common practice of participating in the rituals and celebrations of multiple traditions. This pluralist ethos persists but has been drowned out under nationalist and Burman Buddhist exclusivist discourse in the past century. But the spark of this type of interpretation of who belongs, who deserves to be defended, and how belonging is understood seems to be present in the current protests.
The idea of belonging built in this movement also seems to be explicitly anti-colonial, demonstrating a cross-ethnic solidarity. Broadly speaking, a military is effective in two kinds of projects—defense against external threats and the imposition of imperial rule. We can see this as much in U.S. military actions over the past two decades as in Myanmar. The Tatmawdaw is so revered because its founder, General Aung San, defeated the external threats of British and Japanese imperialisms. However, the contemporary Tatmawdaw military’s mandate from 1962 to the present has mainly been to carry out a similarly imperializing mission in the ethnic minority areas under the banner of Myanmar nation qua empire.
The movement against the military coup presents a new, anti-colonial ethnic solidarity that has been lacking from past movements.
The movement against the military coup presents a new, anti-colonial ethnic solidarity that has been lacking from past movements. Social media posts included apologies from Burmese Buddhists to Kachin and Rohingya for not supporting them against the military in the past. What began as calls simply for the restoration of the elected NLD parliamentarians have morphed into calls for an end to the 2008 Constitution and the creation of a federal democracy that would grant some autonomy to ethnic minority areas and end the military campaigns against them.
This coup has been devastating for people from all backgrounds, and that devastation only continues to grow. This crisis allows for the reimagining of the community that must be defended. It opens up possibilities for creatively imagining who belongs and how they want to build their future together. The vast solidarity seen in the streets now offers an evolving vision of a Myanmar worth fighting for.