Buddhism Is Not a Democracy Movement


Ian Buruma has a Sunday L.A. Times piece boldly asserting that while religious devotion can sometimes provoke violence, it can also "be a force for good." Exhibit A is the Burmese monk protest. I'm not going to quibble with the sentiment, but using Burmese monks as proof of religion's awesome power to do good is really, really weird.

The State Peace and Development Council derives its legitimacy from public support for Buddhism, and in recent years has leaned even more heavily on approving pronouncements from prominent religious officials. Theravada Buddhism is the establishment religion under a repressive military regime. No actual Burma scholars dispute this, as far as I know. Anyone with doubts should check out the military's propaganda paper, which is a dual attempt to showcase the devotion of military officials and advocate peaceful, Buddhist complacency on the part of the Burmese. It adopts the tone of an authoritarian yoga instructor for a reason.

The monks, known as the sangha, regularly accept extravagant and highly publicized gifts from well placed military officials; this is a desperately poor country filled with gilded gold pagodas. The rebuilding of Buddhist shrines can be a public project, with villagers force to participate. Monks have in the past refused to perform ceremonies for NLD members. It's difficult to define complicity when everyone may be acting out of fear, but you can't call a religion that confers legitimacy on a bunch of thugs (and advocates passivism in response) entirely helpful.

Yes, the Burmese monks have a history of peaceful protest, as in 1990 and 1962. But you wouldn't want to define the monks by these protests any more than you would a pope by his opposition to communism. It's rather more complicated than that.