Commentary: Saffron Revolution

Read analysis and commentary on the Buddhist protests in Burma:

The sangha, the community of Buddhist monks, played an important role, second only to that of students, in the democracy movement of 1988. In Mandalay, for example, it is widely believed that the participation of thousands of monks, manning the barricades and providing security, prevented that city from descending into the anarchy witnessed in Rangoon and elsewhere in the country at that time.

Since the failure of the 1988 movement, the military enacted a number of institutional measures that successfully hindered students’ capacity to organize politically. This included the suspension of classes for long periods and permanently emptying the main urban universities, and in their place requiring students to attend newly built satellite campuses in isolated rural areas.

Such measures could not be enacted easily with respect to the Burmese sangha, given its organization and ubiquitous presence throughout the country, from rural monasteries in virtually every village and town to the large monastic colleges of Rangoon and Mandalay. This country-wide array of institutions represents a network of communication and cooperation that typically transcends regional and ethnic differences and traditionally has always been an avenue by means of which monks could quietly organize, whatever the purpose. While institutional matters pertaining to the sangha are overseen at the national level by the central government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, sangha loyalty and political sentiment remains naturally wedded to those of its principal donors, in this case everyday citizens, most of them poor — farmers, laborers, government servants, petty merchants, and so on, most of whom also intensely dislike the current regime.

As of Wednesday (Sept. 26), the news broadcasts are reporting that the Burmese government has begun to crack down on the monk-led demonstrations. Doubtless security forces will be able to suppress this outbreak of political expression with force as they have done so many times before. But will the military junta ever succeed in wooing the sangha from its ties with ordinary people and turn it into a willing instrument of religious-political legitimation in this devoutly Buddhist country? Perhaps the generals themselves do not believe so. At the base of the Shwedagon Pagoda, prominently placed and gorgeously decorated, one can find a specially built ordination hall reserved for the sons of military families, a ritual space for creating new monks, and in this case perhaps a new religious caste in this otherwise casteless religion of the Buddha.

— Patrick Pranke teaches Asian religions at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where his area of specialization is Burmese Buddhism.

Socially engaged Buddhism has added a significant voice to public discourse in Asia since it developed after World War II. Its concrete efforts to translate Buddhism into a means of positive social change for the benefit of all living beings has resulted in numerous and highly successful projects for social and environmental justice. Socially engaged Buddhists in Asia have produced initiatives for health care in poor areas, for peace building in conflict areas, and even for interreligious cooperation on a global scale.

These successes, however, have taken place in developing and developed countries that respect human rights and religious freedom, such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. In countries where freedoms are tightly controlled by central governments, these successes have, by and large, not happened. This is true of Myanmar.

For the near future, I expect the government of Myanmar to block the monks in their monasteries and repress any demonstrations by the Buddhist laity. The result of the demonstrations will be failure.

In the long run, however, dialogue between the monastic leaders and the government may lead to positive changes. This is now happening in China, where engaged “humanistic Buddhism” is working with the government to address social and environmental issues of concern to all Chinese. Since the Chinese government is a close ally of Myanmar, my hope is that they will encourage the Myanmar government to engage in dialogue with Buddhist leaders for the good of the country and region.

— Donald W. Mitchell is a religious studies professor at Purdue University and the author of BUDDHISM: INTRODUCING THE BUDDHIST EXPERIENCE (Oxford University Press).