Buddhist monks’ crucial turn against Myanmar military

Buddhist monks’ crucial turn against Myanmar military

Buddhist monks’ crucial turn against Myanmar military
Buddhist monks lead a protest march supporting the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw in Mandalay, Myanmar, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (AP)
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Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy have turned against the military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the country in the wake of the coup of Feb. 1. This is significant because the clergy is the most powerful civil society force in Myanmar and, in the aftermath of the coup, probably the second-most powerful and relevant political player. Following this intervention, the political dispute between the incumbent military government and the pro-democracy protesters has become a genuine contest. And that means there is a path forward for the restoration of the civilian government. 

The military and the clergy in Myanmar have a long history. Buddhism has been made a foundational pillar of the state by successive military governments since the country gained its independence from the British Empire, and the particular strand of religion practiced by the majority of people in Myanmar is the Theravada school, which is the most political of all variants of Buddhism. But, conversely, radical monks have been at the forefront of every large-scale social uprising against military rule, especially those in favor of democracy. 

It is for this reason the military has worked very hard to get the clergy on its side ever since the Saffron Revolution of 2007, when the monks played a critical role in the political movement that ultimately forced the military to institute the 2008 constitution and the move toward democracy. 

For example, Buddhist monks are now attached to military units as spiritual guides, meaning that the clerical hierarchy gets to observe most operational details of the army’s activities. And it was at the behest of the clergy that the federal military carried out its clearance operations against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state — the more radical elements of the Buddhist clergy have historically been the most hostile voices against “the threat of global Islam” in the country. 

It is not entirely clear at this point why the clergy has finally picked the side of the protesters, and why now.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Perhaps the leaders of the Tatmadaw (as the army of Myanmar calls itself) assumed that, by their actions against the Rohingya, they would have bought the loyalty of the clergy. And many of us in the international community who have been observing the genocide would have assumed the same. But it is now obvious that those assumptions were wrong. 

It is not entirely clear at this point why the clergy has finally picked the side of the protesters, and why now. Perhaps this is reflective of the same values and principles that drove the monks to support the pro-democracy protest movements of the past. Perhaps their historical alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) is genuinely more important than any concessions the military has made to them or could possibly make to them. Perhaps it is just the fact that they were more directly involved in the business of government and with the levers of power within the civilian government that the Tatmadaw overthrew and they are frustrated by the loss of power that the coup entailed for them. Or perhaps they have also been surprised by the strength of popular feeling against the coup and the growing strength of the protests, meaning they have calculated that they could ally with a popular movement that has a chance of succeeding at reinstating the civilian government. 

Whatever the case may be, this shift may well turn out to be the critical event that breaks the back of the new junta. The effects will not be felt immediately, but what the clergy brings to the table is what the protests have so far lacked and what they most desperately needed: Organization. I have so far been skeptical of the chances of the protests succeeding because, with the leadership of the NLD all locked up by the military, I could not see how they could coordinate their energies as an amorphous mass of popular feeling to direct the military government toward any negotiated settlement. 

The clerical hierarchy is ideally suited to play just that role of leadership. It has not yet publicly committed to doing this, but this path now seems likely and the restoration of the democratic civilian government in Myanmar is now in the realm of the possible.  

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim
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