The Other Face of Buddhism: Aung San Suu Kyi and the Buddhist Struggle of Liberation


Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the popular Burmese/Myanmarese Democratic (NLD) opposition, is once again in the news headlines. After being put under house arrest for years, the Nobel Prize winner and leader of the opposition has finally been allowed to leave her home and venture out into the streets to meet her loyal supporters and followers who rallied to her cause more than a decade ago.

The government’s suppression of the opposition via the use of violence has not been able to dampen the spirit of the opposition: If anything, it has only made them even more determined to regain their democratic rights and liberty as a people. Indeed, one thing that cannot be denied is the fact that the successive military regimes that have ruled Burma/Myanmar since 1962 have never been able to secure the loyalty and support of the nation as a whole. Even though they have tried their best to trace their political lineage to the founding father of Burma/Myanmar Aung San (1), the generals in Yangon have not been able to translate the foundational ideals and principles of the Burmese liberation struggle into a popular discourse that speaks to the masses in general.

Burma today remains as divided and fragmented as ever before, and perhaps the only factor that has kept the country united has been the use of force and the continued attempt to unite the people against the imaginary threat of subversive forces within and without the nation. Since the coup by General Ne Win in 1962, Burma’s population has been forced to live at the point of a bayonet and the country’s isolation from the rest of the world (brought about by the closing of the country’s borders by the junta in the same year) has kept it out of the global current of change and reform.

Yet one amazing thing has to be taken into account, and this is the fact that since the 1960s the ruling military junta has tried its best to maintain its hold on power through its own reading of the dominant religious-cultural discourse in Burmese society: Buddhism.

Practically every major military leader in Burma has tried to justify the imposition of martial law and the curtailing of public freedoms through a reference to Buddhism. When they first came to power in the 1960s the army even went as far as trying to develop an ideology of their own which they referred to as ‘Buddhist Socialism’. (Reminiscent of Muammar Ghadaffi’s own attempt to forge together the ideas and values of Islam, Socialism and Militarism which eventually led to the publication of Ghadaffi’s infamous ‘Green Book’.) These ideas were encapsulated in the official government text, ‘the Burmese Road to Socialism’ that tried to graft together the essential ideas and values of Buddhism, Socialism, Burmese culture and traditions as well as the martial ethos of the armed forces. General Ne Win himself became one of the leading exponents of this hybrid ideology, and he was patron to a number of international Buddhist conferences.

At the peak of the state’s deliberate campaign to use the discourse of Buddhism to suit its ends, the leaders of the junta went as far as sponsoring the construction of more than 20,000 pagodas and stupas all over the country. Under military rule, Buddhism was also presented as a quietist religion and way of life that sanctioned the depolitization of society. The government presented Buddhism anew, as a religion that preached tolerance, forbearance and stoicism, but also one that discouraged political opposition and resistance to the state.

In a bizarre twist of logic, Buddhism’s inherently pacifist outlook was exploited to the full by a military elite who wished to use Buddhism as a means to pacify the masses. According to their interpretation of Buddhism, Buddhists were meant to obey their rulers, remain loyal to the state and concentrate only on social services and public duties deemed ‘safe’ and ‘uncontroversial’ by the authorities: the net result was an attempt to turn Buddhists into sheep.

The Burmese experiment shows just how religion can and has been used (and abused) for political ends by ruling elites. The Burmese attempt to use Buddhism as a discourse of political legitimization is certainly not new and not unique in the world. Buddhism was, after all, the ruling ideology of state in the traditional kingdoms of Siam, Kamboja, Laos and elsewhere. The monumental structures of Angkor Wat in Cambodia (built, one might add, by a Buddhist Malay ruler from the Patani region named Suryavarman) spoke of imperial grandeur and a thirst for power - all communicated via the use of Buddhist discourse. The face of the Khmer ruler Suryavarman the Seventh, which stares at you from practically all corners of the Angkor monument speaks volumes about the imperial state’s desire for control and dominance. The Buddhist God-Kings were the equivalent of Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ at the time, watching their subjects and monitoring their movements in a panoptic state that left no room for private life and dissident thoughts.

Burma’s isolation from the rest of the world from the 1960s onwards also meant that the younger generation of activists, students and liberal-democrats had little inspiration from elsewhere: they were kept in the dark about the developments in Europe, when students and workers took to the streets in 1968. Likewise Burmese students were oblivious to the political turmoil in the ASEAN region in 1974, when students in Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia rose up against their respective governments. But Burma’s isolation also meant that the activists were able (some would say forced to) turn to their own traditions and values as a source of inspiration. In time, the desire for democratic change and reform was expressed through the very same discourse that the military junta had used to justify its own existence: Buddhism. The democratic reform movement in Burma borrowed heavily from the discourse of Buddhism and utilized it as a tool for the de-legitimization of the military government. Here we see again how religion, as a discourse of legitimacy, can also be turned around and used as a discourse of de-legitimization. As was the case in Latin America and the Philippines, where Catholicism was used as a liberation theology to mobilize the masses, the democratic movement in Burma sought to base their struggle on the very same foundational principles and values of the dominant religious-cultural discourse of the nation.

As the Japanese scholar Mikio Oishi (2) has argued, “in many ways, the struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi for democracy and human rights in the country since the 1990 State Law & Order Restoration Council (SLORC) crackdown on the NLD is inspirational. It shows how an individual and a leader in Asia could harness the traditions and spiritual beliefs found in the country’s culture and history and employ them to their fullest potential in the struggle against oppression and tyranny. What is remarkable about Suu Kyi’s struggle is that she evaluates Myanmar both by its own traditional standards, embedded in the teachings of Buddhism, and by the principles which form the kernel doctrines of civil society, which are to a large extent exemplified by Western societies. Her struggle shows that there are many things that the SLORC and certain other governments in Asia can do without and should discard from their political baggage, while at the same time absorbing wholesome virtues and practices that have been part and parcel of their countries’ social beliefs since time immemorial.”

When the military regime finally opened the way for some form of limited democracy to emerge, the frustration and anxiety that had been pent up for decades finally came to the surface. When elections were announced in 1988, an unprecedented 280 political parties were registered almost overnight. What made things more complicated, however, was the fact that the junta’s policy of divide-and-rule had helped to fragment the country’s population even further, and this was reflected by the growth of so many political parties - most of which were small and catered only to their own specific ethnic and religious constituencies. The breakdown of the political process and the junta’s brutal suppression of political movements that came soon after did little to improve things and only delayed the inevitable collapse of the junta itself. Today Burma seems to be moving in the direction of democracy and reform once again.

Doubtless even the most die-hard among the military rulers must realize by now that Burma/Myanmar can no longer remain isolated and cut off from the currents of globalization that have brought the world together. Whether the democrats and liberals will be given the chance to assume control of this divided country remains an open question at this stage. But one thing is certain: the experiment with political Buddhism has shown that Buddhism cannot simply be reduced to the stereotype of a quietist religion or way of life that preaches isolation and withdrawal from the world. The Burmese case shows just how Buddhism can be used, turned around and deployed as a discourse for social and political activism, and how it can serve the ends of democracy and liberation as well.

Endnotes: (1) It is one of the kinder ironies of history that the founder-father of independent Burma, Aung San, was assassinated in 1948 almost as soon as the country achieved its independence. Aung San was killed when a hand grenade was lobbed into the assembly hall where he and some of the other Burmese nationalist leaders were speaking. Due to his early removal from the political arena, Aung San was never given the opportunity to rule the country and make the same mistakes as his contemporary President Sukarno of Indonesia. (It must be remembered that both Sukarno and Aung San were, in fact, military leaders.) His untimely death removed him from the Burmese political scene for good, and since then his image has been used by practically every Burmese nationalist and military leader who have sought a seal of legitimacy for their policies.

During the post-1962 era of General Ne Win, the image of Aung San was one of the most popular and powerful public icons in the country. Aung San was also given an other-worldly aura and in time a halo of mysticism was attached to the man. The portrait of Aung San in a heavy military greatcoat (worn while he was in London) adorned the walls of government offices, schools and homes- but his appearance in Western dress made him appear even more remote and transcendent than ever before. It is interesting to note that when his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi began her democratic movement, the image of Aung San was also brought to the fore on many occasions. Like Benazir Bhutto (whose father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was killed by the military regime of Zia ul Haq), Aung San Suu Kyi’s political success was due in part to her adroit manipulation of the image and legacy of her father. (2). See: Mikio Oishi, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Struggle: Its Principles and Strategy. Published by the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), Kuala Lumpur.


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