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Monks in Politics: Are Monks Servants of the State in Contemporary Myanmar?
The AMINEF / Fulbright Indonesia Conference (2016)
  • Robert E Sterken, Jr, University of Texas at Tyler
This research finds that Myanmar citizens, Burmese Buddhists (laypeople and members of the monastic community) widely agree that monks must not be involved in politics and or policymaking. Myanmar’s 500,000 monks, however, actually use a complex rationale to engage in politics (Walton 2015). Thomas Jefferson argued that a close relationship between a government and a religion could reduce the religion to the role of servant of the state. Jefferson argued that religion needed to be separate and protected from government (Cousins 1958, 137). The power of the state could, Jefferson warned, could corrupt the religion. This paper examines the transformative impact of politics and state power on the monastic community of Theravada Buddhists in contemporary Myanmar. Traditionally, Theravada Buddhist monks are forbidden from “doing politics” and “doing politics” is (or was) a cause for disbarment from the monkhood (Jordt 2015). However, the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, which adjudicates monks’ behavior, has not sought to defrock the infamous monk, U Wirathu or his followers, for their extensive and controversial engagement in Myanmar politics. U Wirathu is a monk and the leader of the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion (called the Ma Ba Tha) and has been widely engaged in controversial and often violent political action. In September of 2012, U Wirathu led a Ma Ba Tha rally to support a controversial plan to deport 800,000 Burmese Rohingya Muslims. Ma Ba Tha leaders claim responsibility for the government’s recent passage of four controversial pro-Buddhists protection of race and religion laws. U Wirathu and the Ma Ba Tha movement enjoyed the backing of the Myamnar military government and actively campaigned with and for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which lost in the landslide November of 2015 election to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. This paper seeks to explain how Myanmar politics has affected the Buddhists’ religion and monastic community. Through historical analysis, interviews with leaders in the Myanmar monastic community (conducted in 2015-16), and a survey (given in 2015-2016), this research examines and explains three important ways in which politics has 1) rearticulated the Buddha’s teachings for the Theravada Buddhists in Myanmar, 2) changed monastic religious discipline and norms, and 3) transformed and reshaped the relationship between and perceptions of the monastic community in the larger society in contemporary Myanmar. Lessons drawn from Myanmar affirm and support Thomas Jefferson’s fears, concerns, and warning.
  • Monks,
  • Politics,
  • Myanmar
Publication Date
March, 2016
Jakarta, Indonesia: The American Indonesian Exchange Foundation (AMINEF).
Citation Information
Robert E Sterken. "Monks in Politics: Are Monks Servants of the State in Contemporary Myanmar?" The AMINEF / Fulbright Indonesia Conference (2016)
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