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Buddhist monks’ role in Burma’s National Reconciliation

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Nai Banya Hongsar : Editor’s Note: We would like to introduce our readers to the third installment in our “Burma Tranformed”. In this installment our writer discusses the role of Burmese monks in Burma’s future national reconciliation process.

Buddhist monks played central roles in Burmese history both before and after the country became independent from colonial rule; for this reason Burma’s military junta’s appalling treatment of monks  should be reviewed by the international community. Many monks have been killed and imprisoned in recent years for their political opinions. Nation-building in Burma cannot be accomplished without the contribution of religion leaders like Buddhist monks. Buddhist monks are the sons of million of Burmese parents. They have the right to have their own opinions on the social issues that impact their parents and siblings and they also have the moral responsibility as monks to protect private citizens from wrong doing.

This essay will examine the military junta’s treatment of monks, many of whom have been vibrant political activists in Burma, between 1988 and 2010. The appropriate role of monks in Burmese politics will be covered. I will explore the role of Buddhist monks as mediators during a reconciliation between democratic forces, including ethnic leaders and the ruling military junta, the  State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Monks have long held an important role in Burma’s politics. Buddhist monks served the best interests of kings and the nation as far back as the 10th century. Burma became a Buddhist community under Mon monks in the 7th century. Monks have a long history of being victims of political strife in Burma. In 1757 Burmese kings overthrew the Mon empire, and brutally slaughtered over three thousand Mon  monks in a ‘Fire Burn”, in a group near Rangoon.  The current name of the location is called ‘Thin Gyun Chun – the island of burning robes”.

In the old days, the monks who rose against the king could be disrobed or deported to a rural place  as punishment.  In these modern days, the Burmese government views monks as enemies of the state, and has treated them accordingly.  Despite the fact that the majority of monks have been monks since childhood, the military junta seems to regard them as political activists, rather than disciplined monks who have been learning and teaching the Buddhist religion for many years.  Rangoon and Mandalay -based senior monks have been playing two roles in Burmese society.  The roles they occupy are that of the heads of the Buddhist religion in Burma, and as mentors to young monks those who see themselves as part of a democratic change in the country.  The disciplined monks have many times keep silent about the military government’s abuse of monks, due to fear of losing their positions and status. The current military junta has appointed local and national representatives of the monks, who oversee the daily business of the monks and temples. In other words, the ruling military has ‘shut the mouths’ of these senior monks who have moral authority in Burmese society.
Monks have held key roles in mediation since ancient times. When national reconciliation in Burma does occur, senior monks, along Burmese leaders and ethnic minority leaders will play key roles in the reconciliation process.

The Monks and a Deeper National Reconciliation:
In the time of a reconciliation, Burma’s monks can play key roles, if they subscribe to the laws of Buddha that mandate that monks serve the people, not just the government.  The senior monks could  play central roles in reconciliation by not siding with any political groups.  The western leaders and policy makers for a new Burma need to review the implications of showing disrespect to the monks when they begin engaging in a future national reconciliation in Burma.  Transitional justice in Burma cannot get very far unless good relations between political forces, both internationally and inside Burma, and senior monks are maintained
The main issue that will confront pro-democracy forces in Burma in a time of reconciliation is whether the Burmese community can grant amnesty to the cruel military leaders who have killed so many of their countrymen in the last 20 years, and imprisoned over 3 thousand political activists, including junior and senior monks. This confronting issue must be addressed by the monks.  The monks must protect all the lives of current leaders in Burma if a true national reconciliation is sought in the future; the foundations of Buddhism dictate that the military leaders alone must bear the penance for the wrongdoing of the last sixty years. Therefore, all political leaders are encouraged to acquire a sound knowledge of Buddhist principles from the senior monks for better relations among them during and after the national reconciliation.

The United Nations and its good office and staff who are working on Burma should be proud to be supporters of Burma to transit a democratic nation.  The International Centre for Transitional Justice or (ICTJ) has also earned some credits on its legal frameworks to solve Burma’s crisis.  However, both agencies have failed to acknowledge the potential role of the senior monks in a reconciliation process; the monks are the ones who have access to the senior military leaders and top leaders within the National League for Democracy.  Some foreign policy makers and even the UN’s Special Envoy on Burma have under-estimated the political capacities of senior monks and their ability to convince the senior military leaders to begin national reconciliation and mature trust.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has outlined his vision of a stronger UN for a better world, saying “I am determined to make progress on the pressing issues of our time, step by step, by building on achievements along the way, working with Member States and civil society.” He can embrace his vision in Burma by joining forces with the country’s monks who are the leaders in Burma’s civil society in terms of education, community development, and cultural orientation.

In March 2003, representatives from ICTJ, Louis N. Bickford held a forum on Burma’s national reconciliation in Bangkok with representatives from democratic forces and ethnic minorities. This writer raised the key question of whether the ICTJ would engage with the senior monks’ community for this reconciliation process. It has been nearly 10 years, and the role of monks in the process of national reconciliation has not yet bee further explored.

Potentially, monks who take an active role in Burmese politics will be seen as hypocrites by the traditional Buddhist community. Such a change will be un-welcomed by conservatives but appreciated by progressive leaders.  The monks could use different languages and creative methods for dealing with non-religious affairs. As part of their vows, monks already serve the best interests of the nation and the people, and move peace to end the suffering of all human beings.  The monks understand the concept of social and political conflicts in Burma.  They have been maintaining the Buddhist pratices for over  2 thousand years in Burma, despite the plights of past and present political crises.  The British attempted to dismantle the roles of the monks in social and political life in the country in the 18th century, but they resisted to the British by non-violent means.  The role of the monks in social, political and religious affairs cannot be separated from nation-building in Burma. It is time for Burma’s policy makers reassess their strategy.

National reconciliation is a healing process.  The monks would be the best counselors, who are the experts in healing in the Burmese community. Political healing is not strange field to the monks.  The issues are on the mental side.  They monk can treat the country’s mental health better than the layman.  Political reconciliation would be a test for the monks, whether they are the masters of peace and reconcilability. After twenty years of stalemate, Burma deserves a chance to solve its own problems with its own methods. At the same time, international leaders from each country must guarantee that they will be supportive of this internal movement towards a peaceful Burma and a prosperous nation in the 21st century, post-reconciliation.

The State Peace and Development Council, the current military junta, must cease any oppression of the junior monks who express their opinions under the rule of laws.  The government must cease to use troops against monks, and stop giving orders to kill monks who dare to protest in the street, as it did during the Saffron Revolution.  The monks’ community will be the community most likely to grant amnesty to the cruel military junta. They military generals must pay any sufficient compensation for those who lost lives during twenty years of democratic movements by the monks and other activists.  A common principle of truth and reconciliation must be upheld by both sides.  The monks’ community and other democratic forces, especially students’ leagues, should compromise with the military general under the guidance of the senior monks for this process.  It is a painful journey for all parties.  Forgiveness is the highest quality of mankind. The Buddhist community in Burma will be the champion on the world’s stage if they bring about an endpoint to the country’s suffering by solving Burma’s issues without violence.  Violence is a sin that Buddhist community does not accept.

In conclusion, the role of the Buddhist monks in preparation for, and engaging in, the national reconciliation process is crucial for the future progression of Burmese politics.  The political participation of monks would be mutually beneficial for all stakeholders in the reconciliation process, including the military ruling elites.  The monks’ role is vital in this critical time of mental and political reconciliation and transition.

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