Aung San Suu Kyi and Buddhist Identity


In an excellent summary of current political and religious issues in Burma, Extremist Buddhists out to kill Suu Kyi’s election hopes (The Nation, 13 March 2014) Htun Aung Kyaw gives a thorough summary of issues to do with the constitution, the upcoming elections, identity and the role of the Sangha in this process.

His basic idea is that the ‘National Religious Protection Group’ (NRPG) headed by U Wirathu is being used by the ruling ‘Union Solidarity and Development Party’ (USDP) to foster a sense of national identity being based upon Buddhist identity. The rhetoric used by the NRPG is one on which Buddhism is under threat from Islam. The preservation and survival of Buddhism is dependent upon laws being passed which protects Buddhism, such as those banning women from marrying a man from another religion if the man does not convert to Buddhism.

These arguments are in turn used to attach Aung San Suu Kyi and her ‘National League for Democracy’ (NLD) party. This attack takes the form of a personal attack on Aung San Suu Kyi for having been married to a foreigner and for having two sons who are British citizens. The now infamous clause 59F prohibits Aung San Suu Kyi from leading the country as it is not possible for the parent of foreign citizens to become president.

As Htun Aung Kyaw argues, under the guise of protecting Buddhism these groups, extremist monks and the USDP, are in no way defending Buddhism, for Aung san Suu Kyi, her late husband and children, are or were Buddhist. Htun Aung Kyaw’s thesis is that these nationalistic and religious ideas are being used and manipulated. That Aung San Suu Kyi was married to a British academic is being used as a stick to hit not only her, but the democratic process in Burma. And this stick is being wielded by members of the Sangha, monks, who symbolically and through deeply ingrained cultural norms, it is difficult if not impossible to critisise. As Htun Aung Kyaw argues:

‘Suu Kyi has devoted her life to Buddhism. Her late husband was also a Buddhist, and she followed tradition by having her sons ordained as novices. So why is the NRPG still attacking her and campaigning to convince people not to vote for her? The NRPG is ignoring the fact that her entire family is Buddhist, and carrying out a smear campaign centred on the fact she was married to a British citizen. The NRPG was founded with the aim of protecting Buddhism, not promoting racial discrimination or xenophobia. Yet its leader, Wirathu, has stated that the reason he will not vote for Suu Kyi is that she married a foreigner. In other words, he is against all foreigners, even if they are Buddhists. So a contradiction exists between the NRPG’s stated aim and its actions.

This raises a further question: Does the NRPG really want to preserve the Buddhist faith, or simply manipulate devoted Buddhists to act against the NLD party and its leader who married a foreigner? If the latter is so, the NRPG is not trying to protect Buddhism but simply attacking Buddhists who are foreigners. Unfortunately, it’s likely that many monks and Myanmar citizens fail to understand the NRPG’s true aim.’

Htun Aung Kyaw finishes with the following warning:

‘Though unlikely, there is still hope that key constitutional clauses like 59(f) may be amended. Without such changes, it’s possible that Myanmar will see a repeat of the popular uprisings of 1988 and 2007. Such an uprising would likely lead to one of two scenarios: the end of military rule, or the resurrection of another military dictatorship.’

One might add that movements such as ‘The Organisation for the Protection of National Race and Religion’ and the ‘National Religious Protection Group’ that are taking shape in recent months are nothing new in Burmese politics. For example in 1958 Ne Win launched the ‘Buddhism in Danger’ campaign intended to divert communist influence in the Buddhist Sangha (See The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, p. 119.



3 thoughts on “Aung San Suu Kyi and Buddhist Identity

  1. I think what matters most for NRPG monks is “whatever foreign” regardless of whether being Buddhist or even the closest blood (as in ASSK’s case). The basic premise we can observe here is these monks’ mental image, a sort of illusion to believe preservation of “our original society” among the bombarding waves of globalization (foreign), commercialization (foreign) and migration (foreign). Finally, it comes to their consensus that “whatever foreign is our enemy”.

    It is not a new scenario in the global Buddhist panorama as the same basic premise can well-explain centurion broils of Sinhalese monks’ nationalist movements. Another very important observation we can make here is these monk’s understanding of our Buddhist religion: for them, Buddhism is purely local – universal Dharma are also to be understood locally and Pali Canon is limited to the utmost understanding of a chosen (divine-related) group of people (Sinhalese, Burmese). It is no wonder that a foreign Buddhist like Michael is also regarded as an enemy and non-beneficial stranger to such society, ruled by illusive mental images of these blind monks.

    So, the question is “are these mental images still Buddha’s vada?” Absolutely, not. As a matter of fact, this is none other than the corrupted “Brahmna vada” that Buddhist India has struggled against for the millenniums. It is that Brahmna vada that proclaims to believe the uncorrupted fate of society is already decided by chosen people (divine relatives: Brahmnas (monks) and Kshatriyas (rulers, military class) and the other second rank chosen people (merchants, laborers) must ALWAYS follow the former two classes’ rule so that divine(nature)-chosen society can never be corrupted to reach their sacred destiny.

    Sadly speaking, both modern Burmese and Sinhalese Buddhist orders are wickedly designed and ungracefully consecrated Brahmna vada’s order; not the spontaneous, inclusive, and extensive order of our holy Buddha’s Dharma. The NRPG or Bala monks are just corrupted priests of this caste system. Absolutely, they have no merit to be regarded as Noble Sangha, sons of Buddha!

  2. Thanks Nyo Tun. There are a few dilemmas apparent in how we critisise these Burmese and Sri Lankan monks, if that is what we want to do. Surely, it is not permissible for a lay person to admonish a monk for their conduct, including their verbal conduct? I cannot offer any textual evidence for this right now, but one would imagine this would exist. Isn’t the standard thing in such circumstances for ruler or king to purify the Sangha to rid it of corrupt monastics? Like I say, there are several issues and I have noted that many Burmese are not willing, or are even unable to disagree with a monastic. There must be some precedents for this situation?

  3. Thanks, Dr Paul. I like to think the ruler has no right to punish corrupted Bikkhus unless they commit prosecutable crimes or act to directly harm the individuals. For example, Wairathu can say “the Muslims are like animals”; that kind of speech can’t be punishable by civilian laws in a democratic society (unless having evidence of intentionally harming the “individuals”). However, for that kind of inappropriate speech, we and many other people will no longer regard him as a venerable Sangha is up to his misconduct. When we lift a stick at one end, another end always follows; to take the sequences of doing an unwholesome action are only the doer’s responsibility.

    So my opinion is the authority has no right to use their executive power to purify Sangha and rid it of corrupt monastics based on their mere reason of establishing wholesome uncorrupted Sangha society (purifying Sasana). It is not his jurisdiction and he also doesn’t have trustable sound judgmental capability of either Buddha or Ven. Upali to decide what laws to abide by Bikkhus are like to be.

    The ruler’s jurisdiction takes into effect only when monks’ corruption has undeniable evidence of affecting direct harms to the individuals of the civil world. The authorities in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar must prohibit the movements of encouraging not to purchase from the Muslim shops as such actions amount to discrimination based on religion and simply, such actions are unconstitutional but they have no jurisdiction for prohibiting the founding of so-called “protection leagues”. However, these protection leagues’ further actions encroach the public domain to physically or psychologically harm the individuals or particular groups they target, it is the ruler’s jurisdiction to take actions.

    While sequences of a Bikkhu’s unwholesome thoughts and actions, and breaching Vinaya rules are of his own, the Pali Canon hinted that laymen (the general public) should admonish the corrupted actions of monks. The most significant one is that said by Ven. Kassapa in the monk’s gathering after Buddha’s death to decide which Vinaya rules were to be amended: ” Let’s push this matter aside to next generations. Laymen would criticize us our Teacher just passed away and His disciples are trying to change the rules immediately “. This classic opinion of Ven Kassapa indicates that monks are to respect the general public’s impression in regard to their conduct with respect to Buddha’s teaching and also should be willing to welcome constructive criticism by lay people.

    We can also find a number of examples in Vanasamyutta sutras where woodland deities admonished a number of monks including Ven. Ananda for their disrespectful conducts and thoughts (such as excessively communicating with laymen and conceiving unwholesome thoughts; in one case disrespect for private property of laymen) for urging the sense of urgency in the monks. And all monks humbly respected these good-willed admonishments and changed their behavior.

    Actually, even earliest democratic thoughts can be observed in regard to this issue. If schism happens, monks of both separate groups must present their reasoning to the Nuns (Bikkhunis) and it is the Bikkhunis who must decide which group respects the Buddha’s principles. This briefing in front of Bikkhunis is a must for Bikkhu guys if schism ever happens. Laymen, though not responsible like Bikkhunis, are advised to approach both groups and encouraged to ask their reasoning and should then decide which Bikkhu group respects the teachings.

    Seeing these democratic policies of Buddhism, we can safely say Buddha and Arhats welcome critique of “noble men” as becoming a noble man often needs some very “effective external device mechanism” to control our unwholesome conceit.

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