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In modern times however, militant Buddhism dates back to the anti-British

resistance  in the 1880’s and the anti-colonial movement led by

U Ottoma and Saya San in the 1920’s and 1930’s.



Marxism and the Monks

By J. Damu

AP headline October 8, 2007: Burmese junta says guns found in monasteries


Not since Thich Quang Duc sat down in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection on July 16, 1963 and engulfed himself in flames to protest the anti-Buddhist policies of the corrupt Ngo regime have Buddhist monks attracted such international attention as is now being focused on those in Burma.

Unlike the monks of Viet Nam however, who had almost no political influence in the cities, the Burmese monks, among Burma’s most respected citizens, have a long historical record of radical activism, often marked by influences of various strains of Marxism over the past numerous decades.

Though monks today would probably not credit any form of Marxism as an inspiration, the fact that within the Burmese monasteries reside the closely guarded flames of democracy that have all been but extinguished on the outside, belies their great radical tradition.

From the late 1940’s until at least the 1988 a great latitude existed within the Buddhist communities regarding the question of communism. Many monks, like many Burmese citizens, became keen students of Marxism.

Former monks, writes Martin Smith in his gold-standard work, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, say they were initially attracted by the Buddhist laws of change and Marxist discussion of materialism, which they saw as similar to Buddhist self-denial. Marxism with its moralistic slogans was seen as easily fitting into the Burmese educational systems.

In addition many monks were attracted to the ideals of social justice and national liberation.  

Prior to the penetration of Burma by English imperialists following the period of the Three Wars during the 19th Century, all Burmese male youths were required to spend two years as members of a monastery. During these years they were taught to read and write which resulted in Burma having one of the highest literacy rates in the world. It was also common practice, before the arrival of the British, for the monks to act as mediators between villages and feudal princes when the people felt that taxes were too high.

In modern times however, militant Buddhism dates back to the anti-British resistance in the 1880’s and the anti-colonial movement led by U Ottoma and Saya San in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Ottoma’s first anti-colonial effort, after returning from study in India, was the creation of the successful “Remove Your Shoes” campaign. This campaign was directed towards Europeans who until that time exhibited disrespect and contempt for the Burmans by refusing to remove their shoes when entering Buddhist pagodas and shrines.

Historically, it was the first clear victory won by means of mass protest and action in Burma, and it gave a great impetus to the growing national awareness.

During World War II the movement for national independence fully developed with many organizations outside the walls of the monasteries taking the leading role. First among these organizations were the Communist Party of Burma and the Anti-Fascist People’s Liberation Organization, headed by Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947.

Aung San was the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the currently recognized leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement.

Immediately after WWII, the CP, which enjoyed much support from the monks, went through a period of cleansing itself of the effects of Browderism that had prevented it from vigorously pursuing national independence.

Earl Browder was the head of the American Communist Party who had argued that world imperialism had been so weakened by the world war that normal means of the class struggle would be unnecessary, a message apparently delivered to the Burmese by way of the Marxist movement through London.

However, the most striking example of Buddhist militancy since the 1947 independence was the rise of the left wing Yahanpyo movement, popular among young monks in Mandalay. In the 1950’s it was run along military lines and monks were allowed to keep weapons in their monasteries. Also during those years monks turned up at fairs and public meetings to act as unofficial policemen.

Finally in 1988 during the great social upheavals that led to the positioning of the current military junta that has refused to recognize the democratic election of Aung San Suu Kyi Burma’s estimated 150,000 monks, including the long suppressed Yahanpyo order, again took to the streets to police the great pro-democracy demonstrations. In Mandalay alone the monks were credited with mobilizing 100,000 people. The Thayetta monastery in Rangoon was turned into a virtual fortress when it became one of the main centers of the democracy movement.

Smith writes that well in to the 1990’s, the Buddhist monasteries continued to keep alive the ideals of democracy long after many of the democracy protests and organizations had been crushed.

What is now needed is for the world to step up its support for the pro-democracy forces in Burma. But successful or not there is little doubt the monks will continue to shelter and breathe life on the flame of justice in Burma.

Jean Damu is a former member of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, taught Black Studies at the University of New Mexico, has traveled and written extensively in Cuba and Africa and currently serves as a member of the Steering Committee of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

posted 8 October 2007 

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