Buddhist monks are political force
THOUGH THEY HAVE NO FORMAL POLITICAL POWER, Burma's religious leaders shape the political system through their extraordinary influence on citizens.
Since the era of British colonial rule, religious leaders in the Buddhism-dominated nation have sided with the people in times of political upheaval. This has created a deep well of support for monks among Burma's citizens.
The government, however, tends to view this tradition of activist monks and their efforts on behalf of the people as a threat to national power.
U Zawana, a Burmese Buddhist monk, explained how the role of Buddhist monks has been crucial in shaping the political system. He says religious leaders, most notably a monk named U Ottama, actively joined the movement that led to Burma's independence in 1948.
“U Ottama was the pioneer religious leader who served as a guide for us. He was a hero in helping the people of Burma liberate themselves from slavery under British colonial rule,” said U Zawana.
The highly respected U Ottama was imprisoned several times by British colonial government for his anti-colonialist agitation. An admirer of India’s Gandhi, U Ottama rejected violence, and he instead participated in many nonviolent demonstrations and strikes against British rule.
U Ottama once famously told the British Governor Sir Reginald Craddock to go back home to Britain, a declaration that landed the monk in prison. He died in September, 1939, due to his hunger strike in prison.
U Wisara, another monk repeatedly condemned to prison for his speeches, died in jail in 1929 after a 166-day hunger strike. His prison sentences included terms of hard labor, and he was also defrocked.
Both monks became an inspiration to Burmese activists and students involved in the independence movement.
“Monks have compassion for the people. Some monks just pray for the people. But some politically active monks get involved personally in the effort for the plight of people,” said U Zawana.
In 1988, during the rule of tyrant Than Shwe, Buddhist monks once again joined a popular uprising in which about 3,000 protesters died due to a brutal government crackdown.
In September, 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks led a peaceful demonstration, though at least 50 people were killed, including monks. As the protests took place in the streets, thousands of supporters cheered the monks on and even provided them with food. Many of them were arrested and jailed with long terms of imprisonment.
“All of these incidents are evidence of the important role of religion in shaping the political system in Burma's history,” said U Zawana.
As a whole, Buddhist monks, considered “sons of Buddha,” comprise the second-largest institution in Burma, after the armed forces, which number over 400,000 soldiers and police.