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Buddhism, Politics and Ideology in Burma/Myanmar


Substance of a talk given by Maung Zarni on Thursday, 5th July

[NOTE: The Burmese generally use single names, such as Zarni. The prefixes Maung, Ko and U are titles, equivalent to 'Mister' but donating age. Maung - as in Maung Zarni - is used for younger men; U, as in U Thant, for older men. It is also contextual/relational in the sense of the age and status differential dictating which prefix is used between individuals]


Myanmar is a country marked by ethnic divisions exacerbated by the period of British rule when, in common with other countries under European domination, colonial administrators had developed the economy with a view to the interests of the European motherland. Myanmar had itself been an Empire with the Burmese, who were Buddhist, as the dominant people centred on their capital at Rangoon. The conflict with Britain had, then, been a conflict between two Empires which the Burmese lost. The British developed what they called Burma into the largest rice economy in the world but it was incorporated into their Indian Empire and the revenues were largely used to pay for the Indian administration.

During the Second World War Burma had been the scene of conflict between the Japanese and the British, both wanting to use it as a launching pad for the struggle to dominate China. The result was an abundance of leftover munitions and the militarisation of the society as both Britain and Japan armed potential supporters while an anti-colonialist movement had developed opposed to both of them.

Although Burma had tried to keep out of the Cold War it had a 1,500 mile long border with China and the anti-colonialist movement had naturally developed an anti-capitalist character. The country had passed straight from a feudal monarchy to colonial domination (when the colonial rulers had had no interest in developing a local political leadership) to independence at the end of Empire, achieved with the end of the Indian Empire in 1948. The result was a mess.

For the first twelve years of independence the country was formally a parliamentary democracy. The Prime Minister, U Nu, was a founder of the non-aligned movement. Burma however had no tradition of different parties advocating different strategies for organsing the country.

Independence had been negotiated with the government of Clement Attlee by Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi but he had been assassinated together with six members of his cabinet [there is more on this later in the discussion] in 1947, on the eve of independence. A year later, within 90 days of the establishment of the state, the Communists who had been the mainstay of the anti-colonialist Nationalist movement, launched a revolt.

They argued that the independence could not be genuine because it had not been achieved through struggle. The leadership had negotiated a treaty with Whitehall under which the Burmese armed forces were to receive British training. British firms giving up their control of parts of the Burmese economy were to be compensated. Burma was, however, the only part of the former empire that declined membership of the Commonwealth.

The Communists were a mainly Burmese (as opposed to ethnic minority) movement. They had formed an Anti-Fascist Peoples League against the Japanese, then against the British, threatening a general strike. When they left the government the most powerful group was the Socialists.

U Nu was not himself particularly ideological. His thinking combined elements of social democracy, nationalism and Buddhism. Increasingly he relied on the Buddhist religious orders - the Sangha. This represented a deviation from the original emphasis of the Nationalist movement on a secular state. Zarni took the view that this identification of religion and politics was dangerous since there would always be a tension between the pursuit of spiritual aims and the needs of politics especially in economics. The Buddhist influence provoked fear among the other ethnic groups in Burma, especially the Christians.

Christianity in Burma was the result of missionary activity by both Protestants and Catholics prior to the Anglo Burmese wars. The missionaries had made little progress among the mainly Burmese Buddhists living in the central plains but they were well received among the animists on the hills on the borders with India and China. This was a strategically important territory since it was rich in mineral resources (notably rubies and jade) and the trade routes passed through it. Buddhism was not a proselytising religion and little effort had been made to convert them to Buddhism but the stories of the Bible corresponded well to the conditions of their own lives and their own native mythologies. They experienced conversion to Christianity as a liberation giving them a status in relation to the dominant Burmese on the plains.

A relationship developed between the British colonial administration and the largely US missionaries who had been present before the first Anglo-Burmese war (in 1824-6) and knew the people well. Burma was not formally annexed until 1885/6. The British favoured the Christians especially in recruiting for the police force and this exacerbated tensions between the Burmese and the ethnic minorities.

In 1962 the army turned against the civilian government which was corrupt and divided into factions. Some 110 top politicians and civil servants were imprisoned. Concessions to the Buddhists were rolled back and the secularist idea emphasised. A 'socialist revolution' was proclaimed which lasted twenty six years, until 1988. During the first 12 years of the coup ­ up to 1974 - the country was governed by a 'Revolutionary Council' made up predominantly of colonels and brigadiers and a small number of technocrats. There was a radical reconstruction of the society. International bodies such as the Ford Foundation and Asia Foundation were thrown out. The State's official support of the Sangha was withdrawn, not for the first time. However, in 1980, Ne Win's government re-patronized the Sangha and sponsored the establishment of a national Sangha organization out of its needs to control the politically potent and restive Sangha, ostensibly under the banner of Sangha purification. The sangha had also been broken by the British since it had performed the role of legitimating the monarchy.

Although people did not welcome the coup they liked much of what it did. It created an equality of poverty where there had previously been huge differences in wealth. This appealed to the non-acquisitive strand in Buddhist thinking, its theoretical egalitarianism. The Buddhists taught that Marxism was good but it was a lower level of knowledge than Buddhism which was higher and better.

Zarni himself had left Burma in 1988 after the country had been isolated for 26 years. Among his generation there was a real longing for contact with the outside world. He had taken the job of tour guide in order to meet foreigners. Readers Digest and Time Magazine were eagerly sought after and read by intellectuals. White people and their culture were regarded with fascination.

He had been able to leave through contacts made in his work with tourism, particularly with US academics. He had gone to California and had missed the great popular rising against the military which had taken Aung San Suu Kyi as its leader. She had been brought up in England and was living in Oxford but had just happened to be in the country because of the death of her mother. In the US he had become a very active member of the group which had built her up and created her image throughout the world. They had called for UN resolutions, for sanctions and an embargo against Burma but since 2002 he had become disillusioned with her leadership and now felt this approach was counterproductive.

In very general terms he felt her effort to combine Buddhist ideals and politics resulted in bad politics. She had claimed her highest aim was to 'purify her mind.' But Zarni thought 'politics is not the place where one purifies one's mind ... saints don't enter politics.' Politics required skills of strategy and cunning, a Macchiavellian approach, whereas her strategy was to press the US and Britain into imposing sanctions and then disclaiming personal responsibility for the suffering and isolation that ensued.



In the discussion the question of the relationship between the government and the minorities was raised. Zarni said a low intensity conflict with the Communists and with the minorities had been going on for sixty years and as a result much of the territory had been heavily mined. The Burmese army's strategy was to burn villages in order to prevent them from becoming recruiting centres for the rebels and to break supply lines.

The Burmese military had made their careers out of the war against the minorities and felt close to victory. A number of ceasefire arrangements had been made more or less successfully. The Communist rebellion had been hugely weakened by the ending of Chinese support after the get-rich-quick revolution introduced by Deng Xiao Ping in 1978.

The Chinese government was on good terms with the Burmese government and was the major beneficiary of the sanctions and divestment campaign of the pro-democracy movement.

Zarni was asked about the assassination of Aung San.

As the British withdrew before the Japanese advance they had pursued a scorched earth policy. They destroyed everything. They established a wartime HQ in Simla and, with Churchill still in power, developed a White Paper for reconstruction with a view to re-establishing colonial rule. Then the Labour Party came into power with a policy of dismantling the Indian Empire, of which Burma had been a part.

The governor, Dorman Smith, however, had a pro-colonial outlook. He wanted the minorities who had helped the British to be rewarded. Attlee wasn't interested. The result was a struggle between Aung San and Dorman Smith. Aung San was accused of executing village chiefs who had supported the Japanese. Mountbatten had intervened in support of Aung San and wanted Dorman Smith recalled. Later in London Dorman Smith was to form a charity called the Friends of the Hill People. It is generally believed that he developed a plan to eliminate Aung San and that this could be proved through telegrams from Rangoon to Westminster which had been suppressed. The highest Burmese official under the pre-war administration, U Saw was Aung San's main rival and had been encouraged by Dorman Smith to believe that he would be the post-war leader.