The Saffron Democratization by Rev. Larbathami (M.A.)

The Saffron Democratization by Rev. Larbathami  (M.A.)

(Anniversary article for 6 years of Saffron Revolution)

 The Third Wave and Christianity

Political Science Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard University did not regard Buddhism highly in the global democratization process. He did not even take it into account. In his famous Clash of Civilizations he claimed that Buddhist nations have not even reached the point of civilization yet.

Christian and Islamic nations have developed into civilized states and even into empires. However, in contrast, Buddhism has always assumed a negative impact in human development and issue of democracy, lying low and hidden. The chief reason for it is that Buddhism could not maintain a foothold in its cradle, India, Huntington reasoned.

In another well-known book of his, The Third Wave, he presented the cases of about thirty nations that have passed from dictatorships into democracy during the period of 70s to 90s. He argues that religion was pivotal in the Third Wave democratization process. He claimed that Western Christianity and Democracy are inter-related; modern Democracy emerged first in Christian nations.

When one looked at forty-six democracies of 1988, thirty-nine of them were Catholic and Protestant-dominated countries. Democracy and democratic culture is hard to emerge in countries of Muslims, Buddhism and Confucianism, Huntington said.

The reason for democracy originating in Christian countries is Christianity’s stress on the dignity of the individual and separation of church and state. Professor Huntington argued that leaders of Catholic Church and Protestant orders were always at the forefront of liberation struggles against oppressive dictators. Moreover spread of Christian schools and believers were conducive to development of democracy, Huntington said.

Difficult to start and difficult to conclude

The issue here is not which religion is better but about the democratization process. As Huntington pointed out, Western Christian nations’ success in democracy is unquestionable. But increasing openness of Confucian China which is advancing on Western nations, Burmese monks’ recent anti-dictatorship movement of chanting Metta Sutta (Scripture of Love) and Tibetan monks’ Olympic Torch protests internationally seemed to challenge Prof. Huntington’s Christianity-biased views, I mused.

Though Burma’s Saffron Revolution of 2007 and Tibet’s 2008 Uprising have not succeeded, they are unique in world history and democratization process. On the one side is gentle non-violent defiance and civil disobedience and on the other side is the most vicious crackdown using the military machinery. The contrasting images were seen by all through global media lenses.

Burmese Buddhist monks’ orderly procession chanting mantras of love, display of Vinaya or austere Buddhist discipline, show of enormous might and images of monks kowtowing to riot police and soldiers have not only dazed the international community but also drawn tears from Burmese even.

From the Independence era up to the ’88 uprising Burmese monks were involved in every political movement of Burma. However the Revolution of September 2007 was an anti-regime movement wholly led by the clergy. The uprising was short but avidly watched by the whole world. The movement has brought a new vision to world democratic struggle with Buddhism turning its face from purely divine affairs toward worldly matters like development and human rights.

Although Burmese Buddhist monks’ struggle for democracy was brutally crushed, it could not be said as finished. Buddhism itself has reformed. Therefore the September incident has become a starting point for Burma’s long road to democracy. The September revolt by young Burmese monks has boldly shown the world that Buddhism hitherto regarded as a negative factor in world democracy movement is a positive force.

At the time when September monks’ movement was shaping up, a friend asked writer Maung Soo San for his opinion and he replied, “It’s hard to start and it’s also hard to conclude.” As he said so, the September monks’ uprising has to be started up arduously with great sacrifice of young monks, and, like most revolutions in Burma, could not be ended up with victory. Instead of becoming a velvety revolution of peaceful transition, Buddha’s sons of the Saffron Revolution unfortunately have to shed their blood.

Why was the September movement of young Burmese monks difficult to start and hard to end? What are the fruits of September? Is Burma’s Theravada close to Democracy? Would Buddhism be able to break out of tyranny’s snare in future as Christianity does, overpowering the tyrants? Or rather only when converts to Christianity from Buddhism grow like in South Korea would democracy take root? For all these questions, it needs to review Theravada along with the Saffron Revolution from sociology or social science aspect.

Human rights and Metta Sutta

In the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had said, “All men are created equal.” Later on, from Ibrahim Lincoln and Martin Luther King to today’s statesmen many leaders have repeatedly used the phrase. It means God had created all human beings with equal rights, making human rights an in-born attribute of all humans with no one authorized to restrict them. This one phrase is so forceful that it has bolstered attainment of democracy and human rights in the West.

If so, doesn’t Buddhism have words like that helpful for development of human rights and democracy in Burma? In fact, Buddha’s discourses contain plenty to learn from about rights of all humans if one can construe. For example, the Pali script “Matayahta niyanputta, mayusa acreputta manurekhay” has quite a broad meaning if one can ponder. It literally means all beings must be regarded with loving kindness like one’s own son. Looking at this phrase from the human rights aspect, it can be deduced that Buddha not only stood for human rights but also for all beings; As men have their inherent rights, other beings have their rights too; May human beings refrain from maltreating each other; Respect rights of every creature.

Since Burmese Buddhism is Theravada, Burmese people have to observe the homilies of ancient reverends. Some decried it as conservative and patriarchal or authoritarian. But there are very democratic and ultra-progressive discourses like the Kalama Sutta. There were also many instances of democratic features like St. Thariputtara’s tolerance of reproof poured out by a seven-year old novice monk.

Church and State

In non-democracies, religion and politics mingle and are not separated. Some countries have officially endorsed Islam as the state religion. Western democracies’ virtue is separation of church and state. This is the basis of religious freedom.

Christian churches have stood in the forefront of struggle for democracy and freedom. Popes have been hard-hitting in attacking the dictators. Proof of this can be seen in Chile, Poland, South Korea, the Philippines and Brazil which have changed into democracy in recent decades.

When Pope John Paul II met face to face with dictator Pinochet in Chile, 1987, he bluntly said, “I’m not a preacher of Democracy. I’m an evangelist. Nevertheless, Christian creed concerns all issues of rights pertaining to humanity. If Democracy implies human rights, then Christian churches have to preach democracy.”

By opposing dictators, Christian churches have been an important force in the history of men’s freedom cause. They have protected the people from unrestrained abuses of tyrants and despots. Then what about Buddhist monks and Buddhist churches?

The young monks of September movement were the freedom heroes of modern Buddhism. But the point at issue is the Grand Sangha Guardian Council (Mahanayaka) and some of the highest-titled abbots. The Grand Sangha Guardian Council is not an independent religious organization but a subordinate that has served successive Burmese regimes. It is like a government department with authority over religion.

The question whether Buddhist monks should do politics usually comes up all the time. Great abbots like Ledi Reverend did not want monks to involve in politics. Gen. Aung San had also asserted, “I would like to see monks labor for Pariyat (scripture studies) and Padipat (conduct sustainment).” Of course, it is correct. Monks’ work is Vinaya (canon) issue, ethical issue. Preserving oneself is preserving the world, improving the moral pillar of society and getting closer to truth.

But is Grand Sangha Guardian Council’s performance as a section of government department in accordance with the Vianaya? Aren’t the lords of clergy, the Sangha Mahanayaka, with all sorts of titles and awards bestowed upon them doing politics by defending the military regime with repeated issues of Hmawbi monks’ conference resolution, Kaba-aye resolution, etc. prohibiting monks from doing politics? If politics is related to power, does the authority reside in the Mahanayaka or with young student monks?

The Monks’ Alliance borne out of September Revolution is like emergent Martin Luther or Protestants who revolted against corrupt Catholic priests of Middle Age. International Buddhist Monks’ Association in exile has become an independent religious organization which would overthrow the Grand Sangha Guardian Council and bring liberty to Burmese people.

Theology Institution

Christian churches are basic institutions opposing all sorts of political oppression. These are also like clandestine underground centers advocating and campaigning for opposition to dictatorship; institutions upholding liberty and justice. These institutions of church are linked to each other internationally forming a network.

There have been immorality and corruption of Catholic priests but there also exists media to expose such licentiousness. Christian churches have become institutions protecting political activists; institutions protecting rights of men from cradle to grave.

Burma’s Buddhist theology (Pariyatti) learning monasteries are positive institutions too. This was evident in the September monks’ incident. Conduct sustaining (Padipatti) monasteries are also institutions giving guidance on laypeople’s social settlement and morals.

The army is Burma’s biggest institution which has destroyed all civil institutions unreservedly. Institutions of judiciary, civilian administration, education, health, etc. have gone to the dogs, unable to flourish.

Universities and colleges where student movements were born in the past have once been successful institutions. However destruction wrought by the military has reduced them to rubble and greatly weakened student activism. Older generation students are constantly initiating and pushing student activism but too little avail.

In September 2007, the hidden blow of Sangha institution, not expected by all people, not taken into account by all politicians, challenged the army. The event which began at Pakokku Theology Learning Monastery snowballed into a massive excommunicative boycott of rulers, and finally became the legendary Saffron Revolution.

Young monks’ communicability and coordinated activity within a short time, and their extraordinary discipline have entered the annals of world history on non-violence action. The main prop behind the activist young monks were monk tutors and lecturers of Pariyatti learning monasteries.

Unlike Mahanayaka abbots or Dharmakahtika (certified preacher) abbots, monk teachers are martyrs or idealists of Sangha. These reverend completely refrained from acquiring material offerings or fame, constantly keeping in touch with learning monks. Whatever available robes, medicine or alms they have, they share with young disciples, conducting ideal Vinaya discipline of foregoing all personal wants to teach scriptures to young monks. They are showing how to differentiate between Law of the Right (Dharma) and Law of the Wrong (Aadharma), standing for Truth, abhorring multitude of fans and minions.

Burmese monks’ institution could eventually become a revolutionary institution defying and challenging the military institution rather than being quelled under heavy suppression. Yet Burma’s Buddhist order itself could undergo reforms probably resulting in separation of church and state. Future progress of Buddhist religion depends upon its breakout from regime’s power grip.

SPDC’s attempt at legitimacy

After the defeat of September Revolution, is everything lost? No, not some achievements but quite a lot of accomplishments were won. The main achievement was a surprise blow to SPDC regime’s legitimacy which plummeted drastically. Military junta’s wish to keep the status quo was shattered.

Legitimacy is essential to a government, even to evil and lawless bloodthirsty tyrants. Rousseau had said, “The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right and obedience into duty.”

It means that ruthless and mighty dictators have to tread towards legitimate truth, justice and accountability in due time. However, legitimacy does not imply truth and justice. Existence of a government also includes peoples’ compliance, international community’s recognition, etc.

In ancient times, legitimacy of monarchs was based on traditional divine mandate among others. In modern era, dictators exploited nationalist, fascist, communist or socialist ideologies to acquire legitimacy. Gen. Ne Win’s regime obtained legitimacy with slogans of defeating internal disturbances, non-secession of states and non-disintegration of the Union along with socialism facades. The existing SLORC-SPDC military regime has also been in existence for twenty years under similar banners of non-disintegration of the Union and perpetuation of sovereignty.

Another factor providing legitimacy to the military regime is the principle of non-interference upon sovereign states. This doctrine could not be changed yet in international relations. In addition, interests of neighboring countries like ASEAN, China and India also provided legitimacy to the regime.

The Saffron Revolution of September was able to unmask the bogus legitimacy gained by the SPDC. International pressure including that of ASEAN mounted up. In particular, people’s opinion in favor of the military plummeted to nearly zero. The international community started demanding the regime to initiate a change toward settlement.

SPDC’s response was finding an escape route by jumping from Phase I to Phase IV of its Road Map with adoption of the unilaterally-drafted Constitution. While the nation was undergoing disaster wrought by Cyclone Nargis, the regime force-approved the Constitution with a 92% margin of affirmative votes. Anyway, the new constitution would certainly become a foul piece of paper rather than bringing legitimacy to them. The 2010 elections will be messed up with ambiguities and chaos. Dishonest, un-free and unfair elections usually result in violence, power struggles and assassinations. A lot of lessons should be learnt from elections of Sri Lanka, Pakistan, etc.

The military regime has a habit of launching surprise ambush attacks to conquer whether the fight is fair or not. Obstinacy and refusal to surrender is its nature. However, the enemy they are facing is more than mere NLD, politicians or students put together. Monks and people are now being regarded as their enemy. Regime’s economic mismanagement has prompted deterioration of the country together with starvation. All these have caused cracks in the army and fall of legitimacy.

Elections and Third Party

In a democracy governments have to contest in elections for self-renewal and reform. However what dictators feared most is to renew their power. Though the SPDC is planning strategically to keep on holding power through an election, they actually fear taking their uniforms off and contest in elections. It’s because elections are not a concern of dictatorship but the crux of democracy.

According to experiences of thirty-five countries that made a transition to democracy between 1970 and 2000, elections became beginning of the end of authoritarianism. Nevertheless, dictators would surely cheat, swindle, use violence and manipulate the results. In spite of this, opposition won the elections decisively and surprisingly in almost all emerging democracies. Hence revolutionary forces need to keep on struggling while political parties and politicians ought to continue maneuvering in the direction of power in various ways. The democratization process should be kept in mind forever.

Righteous and influential third group

What Burma’s democratization needs is a third party group which is prestigious and influential on both sides. UN envoy, ASEAN, China or fourteen-nation group could not be an effective third party. The SPDC as well did not give a damn to both domestic and foreign-based phony opportunist scholars. A group or an individual has to emerge inside the country like Thakin Kodaw Hmaing’s peace group in the past.

Clerical organizations borne out of September [Revolution] are revolutionary forces that could push for change between the government and the opposition as well as kind of third forces. The monks are not concerned with power for themselves but an institution working solely for people’s benefit. What young monks need is to win over far-sighted abbots of high repute and thereby weaken the Mahanayaka. This is the pathway to non-violent velvety revolution in Burma.

The Saffron Revolution has not ended yet. I would like to conclude my essay with a quotation from Che Guevara spoken to Fidel Castro. “Tell Fidel that this failure is not the end of the Revolution.”


Rev. Larbathami  (M.A.)


(Photo credit – EPA, Law Eh Soe, 2007, September)