Contradictions In Action

Buddhism and Politics in BurmaPaula Green

An eleventh-century Burmese king honored his conversion to Theravada Buddhism by building Pagan, an imposing city containing 13,000 templesand pagodas on the fertile plains of the Irrawaddy River. Slaves constructed this spectacular homage to the teachings of the Buddha.

In the late twentieth century, a Burmese dictator commands a military government that tortures, murders, and impoverishes its own people. The general, the soldiers, and the victims are all Buddhists.

For these many centuries, abuse and warfare have existed side by side with Buddhist teachings. What is the role of Buddhism in the tragedy of Burma? Is there any way the teachings of the Buddha can put an end to the cycles of violence? Burma's past is not remarkably worse than that of other nations, but the centrality of Buddhism, with its emphasis on nonviolence and compassion, makes the situation in Burma difficult to comprehend.

As we sort through these questions, our Western perspective imposes biases and misunderstandings. We can see Asian Buddhism only from the vantage point of outsiders. Furthermore, we in the West surely cannot cast stones but must scrutinize the historical impact of Western religions with the same rigor we apply to Buddhism in Asia. Nonetheless, if we are concerned about the transmission of the dharma to societies in the twenty-first century, we might try to understand, albeit with humility, this paradox of a Buddhist nation in self-inflicted agony.

Burma sits between India and China. On its eastern flank, Burma shares a long jungle border with Thailand. Although it encompasses an area only the size of Texas, Burma has an elongated north-south reach, stretching from Tibet to the Indian Ocean. The peripheral border areas are mountainous and largely inaccessible, whereas the lowlands, with wide river valleys for rice cultivation, have a greater population and are the site of Burma's cities. Both the neighboring border countries and the inhabitants of the peripheral regions play significant political, economic, and social roles in the Burmese drama.

Variety and complexity characterize the nation's forty million people. The Burmans, for whom the country is named, are the dominant group; comprising approximately two-thirds of Burma's population, they practice Buddhism and reside in the central lowlands. In the jungle and mountain peripheries of Burma, approximately seventy ethno-linguistic groups make their homes and attempt to maintain their traditional ways of life. Major groups include the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon, Kachin, and Arakan. Most of the ethnic groups practice slash-and-burn agriculture, forage in the forests, and trade natural resources for their modest economic needs. Many are Buddhists who trace their lineage directly back to the time of the Buddha; others converted to Christianity during the nineteenth century. Small groupings in western Burma are Muslim. Historically, the ethnic minorities have not identified themselves primarily with Burma as a nation. Some speak nothing except their own languages and reside astride both sides of arbitrary national borders established in the jungle. Over the centuries any attempt to solidify a nation out of such diversity failed.

Burma has also been well endowed with natural resources. In addition to the world's largest remaining teak forests, natural resources include tin and tungsten, jade, gold and rubies, oil, fish, a thriving opium trade and enough paddy to have once been called the "rice bowl of Asia."


A Burmese legend claims that Buddhism has existed in Burma continuously since the visit of the historical Buddha 2,500 years ago. Three centuries after the Buddha's death, the Indian emperor Ashoka entered the area that is now Burma to propagate the new faith, establish the sangha, and initiate the monastic order that continues unbroken to our own day. Burmans migrated to the region from eastern Tibet, settling in upper Burma and bringing Mahayana Buddhism with them. However, during the eleventh century (the Golden Age of Pagan), a Burman king was converted to Theravada Buddhism by a Mon monk practicing in the tradition of Sri Lanka. Thus did the Theravadan tradition take root and become the established practice and unifying communal and cultural identity of the Burman people.

Prior to the British colonial period during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, struggles for power and domination between the Burman majority and the ethnic groups or neighboring countries pervaded Burmese history. Although at present the Burman military clearly commands the government, at other times in history the Mon or Shan minority peoples ruled the country. The continual presence of Buddhism has not visibly affected state behavior.

The Burmese felt humiliated and disenfranchised in their own land during the British occupation. Many remembered King Mindon, dethroned by the British and paraded in an oxcart in front of his people en route to exile in India. Britain annexed Burma and administered it through India. The British and Indians displaced the Burmese in running their institutions, businesses, and bureaucracies, while the Burmese themselves became menial servants and landless peasants. This domination destroyed traditional patterns of relationship and authority, replacing them with alien Western forms. Burma's post-colonial xenophobia grew in part out of the disruption of culture and the psychic wounds of subjugation developed during this period. The Japanese invasion during World War II served only to reinforce Burmese opinion that it was best to keep foreigners out.

Following World War II the Burmese elected Aung San and his party to lead their first parliamentary democracy. In 1947, three months after the election, Aung San was assassinated.

The nation grieved for its promising young leader, whose daughter Aung San Suu Kyi would develop into a leading political figure. On October 14, 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "because of her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights."

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