Saturday 25 August 2012

Monks, morality and military. The struggle for moral power in Burma—and Buddhism's uneasy relation with lay power

24 Aug, source Rebound 88
In September 2007, thousands of monks marched through the street of Burma's major towns chanting the Mettā Sutta, one of Buddha's most important discourses on loving kindness. When they walked and chanted they overturned their rice bowls as a sign of not receiving alms from the military. This boycott of donations (thabeik hmauk) is a powerful symbolic act rarely used as a collective political statement by Buddhist monks. It was a clear political message to the brutal regime and a powerful attack on the ontological security of the military personnel, particularly the ruling generals.
During interviews in Mae Sot, Thailand in 2010 and 2011, some of the exiled monks from the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution’ explained how Buddhism, education and democracy are intertwined. They combine the Buddhist core concepts mettā (loving kindness) and karu ā (compassion), the idea that monks should help lay people who suffer from repression, with the power of education and morality as prerequisites for developing democracy. They defined their strategy as ‘study power’: hpoùn acariya; ācariya means ‘teacher’ in Pali and is often used in the title of a monk with a degree. In this context it was translated ‘study’. Hpoùn (or hpòn) means merit or the power of religious merit in Buddhism (derived from Pali puñña). A monk in Burmese is called hpoùngyi—‘great merit’ or ‘great glory’. But the word also signifies the power of a person (male) who possesses substantial personal merit, or moral capital based on karma. In other words, this kind of spiritual power, or karmic power, is seen as a subjective substance and property. This is somewhat contrary to the most common definitions of power which emphasize the relational dimensions of power above/or combined with the person's abilities. However, in Burma the personal, karmic capability of power, called hpoùn, is crucial for understanding the struggle between the military and the opposition and for the concept of democracy in the Burmese context. The monks and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have used Buddhist concepts in order to translate and transmit ideas of democracy, human rights and human security into a Burmese cultural context. The opposition thus uses Buddhism as a medium for critique of the regime, while the generals use Buddhism as a means to legitimize their power and rule. However, the simple opposition contains a more subtle struggle of morality and subject formation in a modern form of spiritual politics (Foucault 1978).1 Spiritual politics is not the policy of a state but the resistance to and moral enquiry into a regime and its rule. The Generals, on the other hand, apply Buddhism as a national, political religion to promote ideas of a unitary state with a common Myanmar national identity covering all 24 plus ethnic groups. Buddhism is synonymous with Burmese tradition and seen as under threat from ‘external and internal destructive forces and neocolonialists’. This perceived threat is used by the regime to legitimize the use of force against the opposition including monks.
The main focus in this paper is the struggle between the democracy movement(s) and the military regime, which increasingly demonstrated totalitarian tendencies. I will argue that this struggle can be considered a struggle for the control of subjectification, i.e. the formation of subjects, their position, their rights and how they are morally judged, how they act and finally how they are subjected to power. It is a struggle involving a religious cosmological imaginary (explained below) shared by Buddhist Burmese, as well as political ideas and ideologies in local, as well as in universal forms. Burmese monks have engaged Buddhism in search of a new moral and political order.2 Thus the focus of this paper is on the symbolic forms of power included in this imaginary of an alternative social order.
In this brief discussion of the role of Buddhism in Burma, I have to make generalizations and counter-pose opposition and regime. The use of Buddhism and its concepts in the discourse on politics vary among monks and lay people. Thus, the interpretations I give here may not be shared by all 300,000–400,000 monks or their lay followers. Buddhism is not one coherent ‘religion’. There are nine official ‘sects’ in the monastic community (sangha) of Burma and there are individual opinions and interpretations. However, there is a common discourse and practice within the opposition and another within the regime and its supporters, which I attempt to describe and analyse in the following. Likewise, it is not possible here to make a detailed analysis of the regime and its modes of operation, but only a brief overview of its practices.

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