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Part I: Education for rural community development: The role of Buddhist monk and faith leaders in Myanmar

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Monastic education is a fundamental education system in Burma for over many hundreds of years. Learning basic literacy and numeracy skills usually begins at the local monastery for many rural communities. The role of Buddhist’s monk in engaging with civil society is inevitable to harness the norm of democracy in Burma. This discussion paper is aimed to shed some light on the lack of resources available to collect data on current monastic education in Burma. It is a common interest that both Burmese citizens and Western people would like to see some gradual changes of political systems in the country over the last 20 years. However, there is little study on the role of Buddhist’s monks in terms of shaping new Burma’s civilization post-independence of Burma since 1948.

Group photo of students and young monks receiving mini blackboards (Photo: Ah Ar)
Group photo of students and young monks receiving mini blackboards (Photo: Ah Ar/Facebook)

Monastic education is a voluntary education for community, especially for Buddhist communities in Burma since centuries ago. Learning of each ethnic language, dialect and old script such as Pali is usually only able to be accessed at local monasteries. State public school is very limited to rural people, and even outskirt urban areas in some cities. For over the last 60 years, access to education for local rural people and adult learners are only can be provided by the local monasteries. The argument begins with “what is education” in Burmese education context is key are area of interest to be explored in this paper.

Historical Context
We can estimate that there are between 2 -5 monasteries in each village of Burma with a population of 600 – 1500. Some monasteries are only resided by 2 – 3 monks. Generally, only 5 -7 monks usually reside in each major monastery. Some monasteries are well resourced, but some sites are poorly resourced depend on the support and welfare assistance of local community groups. The best resourced monastery is able to provide welfare of each monk from 20 – 100 and some case, even from 150 – 300 resident monks. We are informed that central Burma is the heart of Buddhist’s community land of harmony with Buddhist’s festival but celebrating Buddhist festivals is less popular in the higher land or northern land. The government of Burma in some cases claims that Burma is a land of Buddhist people but it is not always the case in higher land and northern land like Chin, Kachin, and Kayeh states.

The western people, especially leaders from USA, Canada, British, Australia and a few EU countries expressed frustration to the slow progress of moving forward to democracy in Burma in the last over 20 years. However, the function of Burma is largely dominated by two factors; the role of the military administration in political affairs and the role of Buddhist monk in the community. This paper avoids as another subject matter in relating to the role of non-Burmese people as it is seeming an affairs of social, historical and political context rater as an education context.

Personal Journey
I was a junior monk when I was debating with the army senior officials in a train from Moulmein to Rangoon as we were sitting face to face for the 10 hours’ journey. I only spoke some Burmese, as I am ethnic Mon, while we were debating some issues about social and political changes in the country. I am clueless whatsoever why he wanted to discuss with me these issues because I am a Buddhist monk and I have no good knowledge about politics. However, I only learned the lessons from senior monks to whom I sought advice for in regarding my debate with the senior army official on the train. I am informed that he seeks sources of information on a wide range of issues regarding how the monk follows politics and national affairs. They also seek piece of information from local / rural monks, in my case I was born from the rural village where anti-government Mon and Karen armies used to patrol. Finally, I learned well when I was questioned by the senior military intelligence official in 1992 with an accusation of linking with Thailand based pro-democracy groups for distribution of newspaper and magazines. I concluded that monks are under threat by all means, even though we are only having two meals a day and we spend the rest of our time in social and spiritual practices.

The Role of Local Monk
The Buddhist monks held a higher social and cultural status in morality in Burmese society prior to the arrival of British into Burma in 17th century. The senior monks had greater power with the Burmese kings, in this case even other non-Burmese kings such as the Mon and Rakhaine. The kings and their royal aides usually consulted with the senior monks in special occasion when dealing with conflicts and other natural disasters in the country. In return, the kings fulfilled the wishes of senior monks, who planed to construct temples, pagodas, bridges and road in respected villages and towns. Senior Buddhist monks from 16th – 18th centuries are well regarded as State figures in relations to both internal and external relations on social, cultural and religious affairs. The role of Buddhist monks in the community diminished in the late 19th century with an emerging of socialist and communist ideology in Burmese political figures. However, the Buddhist monks’ role in the Buddhist community and its cultural significance in Burmese political landscape has never been misread. The monks, especially well educated monks, hold a unity of purpose to oppose the British in late 1920. The monks led the peace campaign as known as ‘Saffron Revolution’ in September – December 2007, another classic example to the discourse.

Restoring Hope
The leadership of senior monks and well educated monks could bring some gradual change in Burma, at least Burmese education system. The government has a lack of resources to tackle basic education services in rural areas. However, with a leading of monks’ voluntary services, over 60,000 children in Mon and Karen States are able to read Mon and Burmese languages. The leadership of Buddhist monks has proven that community education, in this context monastic education, can be transformed into the community during summer school programs.

Killing laymen is a sin, but killing a monk is a serious sin in a Buddhist community. The basic principle of a Buddhist is just to uphold the five moral disciplines in their lifetime of not killing, stealing, sexual violence, lying to others, and drinking. Killing is the top sin of the among five sins and indeed, the brutal Burmese army killing monks in cold blood in recent weeks is just to be named as “crime against religion” in Burma. As a former Buddhist monk for over 10 years in Burma, I learned first-hand from experiences in 1988, when I was in Rangoon during massive public protest that killed over 300 monks, civilians and students at the front of Public General Hospital. The wound remains in my soul and a recollection of all memories once again visited my mind in recent weeks. The key debate is whether the role of Buddhist monks have a place to play toward democracy and national reconciliation in Burma? This is a key debate for both the State Peace and Development Council and National League for Democracy, plus representatives and leaders of the ethnic nationalities, to be taken into account for peace and prosperity in the country.

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