(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School).
The 2007 democratic uprising in Myanmar looked a lot different from the current anti-coup resistance. Sparked by a rise in fuel prices that created further economic burden on an already struggling population, thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns across the country took to the streets in defiance of the military. In a country in which religious actors, institutions, practices, and ideas are deeply influential, the so-called Saffron Revolution, the most recent mass mobilization prior to the current one, had seismic consequences – contributing to the military’s decision to shift to quasi-democratic rule the following year.
This time around, it’s not Buddhist monastics but young lay people who are at the forefront of Myanmar’s mass protest, with clergy from all faiths following their lead. While religious actors and symbols may be less visible than in 2007, they are still very present. This will surprise no one familiar with how deeply entrenched religion is in Myanmar’s social, political, and economic life. And indeed, precisely because of this, exploring the religious dimensions of the current protests provide critical insights on the coup and its aftermath. Among other things, the changing nature of how religion is intersecting with and influencing the protests tells us something about how the country as a whole is changing, and what its future might be.
Religion in Past Political Movements
Religion, and specifically Buddhism, has long been an important cultural factor defining the nation state, shaping its political culture, and, at times, contributing to tensions between diverse communities. While the vast majority of the country – over 85 percent, cutting across ethnic communities – is Buddhist, a significant number of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’i, and practitioners of the indigenous nat tradition also comprise the nation. Many members of non-Buddhist faiths are simultaneously members of minority ethnic groups, who feel doubly marginalized by the state because of their ethnic and religious identities.
Prior to British colonization, Buddhist monarchs ruled in close entanglement with Buddhist institutions. While British authorities sought to disestablish the sangha (the Buddhist monastic community) from the state, the post-independence state re-established a degree of mutual dependence between the state and Buddhism, including through creating a ministry to “protect and propagate Buddhism,” to the frustration of non-Buddhist communities. More broadly, Buddhist monastics often feel a sense of duty to ensure that the state and its leaders are abiding by certain Buddhist principles and responsibilities. This sense of obligation among the sangha is sometimes traced to the state’s abrogation of its duty to oversee and support the sangha during the colonial period, which spurred many monks to lead anti-colonial efforts in the mid-twentieth century.
The interplay between the sangha, politics, and the state has not been singularly defined but instead has manifested itself differently through the years and among different actors. During the previous military-led era, for example, a significant number of monks continued to agitate in support of democracy, participating in the 1988 uprising in addition to leading the 2007 one. Bamar Buddhist democratic leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, General Aung San, have argued that democratic principles and practices are beneficial for the health of Buddhism, an idea endorsed by some Buddhist monastic leaders. Even military leaders have sought through theatrical acts of Buddhist charity to present themselves as righteous Buddhist rulers fulfilling their Buddhist responsibilities, and have their own monk supporters.
This multiplicity of interpretations and political positions among monastics stem in part from the fact that the sangha, constituting some 500,000 monastics (a size, notably, that rivals the number of soldiers in the military), is hardly a monolithic body. Many monks and nuns choose to remain politically neutral and unengaged, while others chose to align themselves more clearly with certain political movements, sometimes at great cost. In fact, three prominent monks who have been critical of the military were among those arrested on the first day of the military’s attempt to take power in early February.
By and large, monks and nuns have played a less active role in the current protest movement than in 1988 or 2007. To the extent they have been visibly involved, it has been predominantly on the side of the protestors. Several prominent monasteries have issued statements of solidarity with protests, and monks and nuns across the country, particularly in the Buddhist symbolic center of Mandalay, have taken to the streets. Some have organized food donations while others have offered daily loving-kindness chanting for the protestors.
Buddhist symbols and networks have also played an important role in the protests themselves. As has been a common feature of past movements, protestors hold upside-down alms bowls as they march, signaling the spiritual exile of the military leaders. And Buddhist temples like the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon are, once again, serving as symbolic gathering places for the protests. Protest networks of mutual aid that support government workers participating in the strike, meanwhile, are modeled on Myanmar’s traditional religious charity networks, parahita. In these ways, the protests are imbued with the moral, cultural, and institutional power of Buddhism, in ways that echo past movements.
Breaking from the Past
But it is the differences – some subtle, some significant – in how Buddhism and religion generally are manifesting in the current movement that reveal how the nation and its democratic vision are changing. Three of these differences are worth highlighting.
First, the dynamics between clergy and lay, as well as between older generations and younger generations within that distinction, are playing out in ways that depart from the past, particularly from 2007. Traditionally, clergy, and especially Buddhist monks, have received significant social deference and are accustomed to operating as cultural leaders. In the same way, there is a great deal of respect and deference given to older generations. While that respect still clearly exists, there has also been a flipping of the traditional forms of leadership with this movement, as young lay people have been shown deference by clergy, including elders. This is not the movement of the recent past; it is a movement led by a new generation of young people with different ideas about inclusive democracy, and these changes are largely being embraced by clergy and older generations – as signaled by the fact that they are following rather than seeking to lead.
Second, the movement is intentionally and visibly uplifting diverse religious expression – not just Buddhist expression. While those of all faiths have participated in protest movements in the past, what is noteworthy about this movement is how members of non-Buddhist faiths are participating with pride and distinction — wearing their religious clothing and claiming their religious identity while marching and demonstrating. Equally surprising, they are being celebrated for doing so by fellow protestors. In a departure from the past, imams across the country have shown up in their Islamic garb. Muslims from the Rohingya ethnic group carry signs identifying themselves as such. Christian clergy don their robes and Christian young people write biblical passages on the shields they hold to protect them from bullets while marching on the streets. The distinct religious expression of non-Buddhist communities has been celebrated by Buddhist participants as a reflection of the diversity of the movement and its vision.
And third, while the Saffron Revolution was endorsed by some formal institutions, it was largely a monastic grassroots mobilization. In contrast, some significant Buddhist institutions are taking “political” and formal stances with respect to the current coup and distancing themselves from the military. Perhaps most significantly, a letter was leaked from the Mahanayeke (MaHaNa) Council, a monastic body appointed and managed by the state to regulate sangha affairs, expressing its own condemnation of the military and supporting potential participation of some members in the strike. If authentic, this would be a significant first; the MaHaNa never broke with the military in previous uprisings. Just as striking, monks from the monastery that is home to the infamous anti-Muslim monk Ashin Wirathu have participated visibly and in large numbers in the diverse movement. Monasteries that have historically sought to stay politically unengaged, including some that notably refrained from participating in the Saffron Revolution, have also issued statements condemning the coup and supporting the protestors.
Prophesying the Future
What do these distinctive characteristics of this protest movement augur? First, as in other places worldwide, youth’s frustration with traditional religious institutions’ and actors’ recent failure to stand up for justice may mean a displacement of the traditional authority they have held in society. This may result in a transformation of religion generally – even, one could say, a democratization of religion. Akin to the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, while institutional religion is not playing the same role it has in past protest movements, that is not to say religion is not manifest among the protest movement. Religious symbols, practices, networks, and values are present in both the substance and process of the protests, in ways that both reflect and spur the transformation of religion in Myanmar society and state.
Clearly, traditional and formal institutions of religion and their figureheads are in a posture of responding to, rather than helping to shape and lead the movement in Myanmar. This may mean that in a future Myanmar, traditional and institutional religion will not play the same prominent role it has previously – though religion and spirituality will likely continue to shape and inscribe social, political, and economic life in meaningful if less formal ways.
Second, the dominance of Buddhism in past democratic movements was always something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it helped provide moral legitimacy to the democratic movement and cohesion for the vast majority of Burmese of different ethnicities who are Buddhist, while undermining the legitimacy of the military who claimed itself to rule in line with Buddhism. But it also, understandably, created misgivings among non-Buddhists who worried that a strongly Buddhist-inflected democratic vision and movement would marginalize them. Today, the collective celebration of Christian, Muslim, and other non-Buddhist religious expression and participation in the movement itself hopefully foreshadows a more inclusive sense of nationalism. If nurtured and institutionalized by the appointed National Unity Government, this inclusive national identity could contribute to a democratic state where diversity is honored and celebrated, and those of non-Buddhist faiths do not face the same degree of institutional and social discrimination they have in the past. This will require significant, likely generational, transformation of state, religious, and cultural institutions and processes that have historically privileged Bamar Buddhists.
And third, should the movement eventually succeed, there is some reason to believe that, institutionally and bureaucratically, the new state would “manage” religion in a different manner. Rather than the state co-opting the sangha through the MaHaNa, there is the potential for the body, or one like it, to be in creative and democratic tension with the state. This would create a healthier relationship between state and religious institutions and actors, where neither is beholden to the other; instead both would critically engage one another as part of the democratic process, helping to ensure that both society and the state truly are living up to the best ideals and principles of religious and democratic values.
Given religion’s historical importance to Myanmar’s politics, culture, and society, there is little doubt that religion in its diverse and multi-faceted dimensions will continue to affect Myanmar in fundamental ways. As the interaction between society and religion evolves, religion will continue to shape the ongoing competition between authoritarianism and democracy. Likewise, religion will influence the ways diverse communities struggle and persevere in the face of extraordinary challenges. And the evolution of society and the Myanmar state will, in turn, transform religious practices and institutions. The current movement affirms this dynamic reality and foreshadows how these transformations can spur justice and democracy.