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Worrying about Burma

Worrying about Burma

In my last blog post I wrote about my experience of returning to Burma (with my wife and newborn daughter) after many years away. That piece has elicited a lot of responses, mostly positive. This one might be a bit different in that respect.

As I wrote, during our stay in Burma we paid a visit with our relatives to the ancient city of Pagan (pronounced bah-gan), the capital of the first Burman Empire founded in the eleventh century by King Anawrahta. Theravada Buddhism took root in central Burma for the first time during the Pagan era and has thrived in the country ever since. Modern-day Burma is still very much under the spell of Pagan — both in terms of political culture and religious practice.

Pagan, perhaps because of its many outsized personalities, established ideal models for leaders that still influence political life today. I was struck by how many people I spoke with still seem to expect the solutions to our political problems to come from great heroes (whether it’s current president Thein Sein or an opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) rather than institutions. Our leaders tend to prefer one-man (or one-woman) shows instead of people who develop the necessary political institutions (such as fully developed political parties). Ironically, of late I’ve found Thein Sein, an ex-general-turned-president and my former political adversary, to be more savvy in this respect. At least he’s been trying to get help from technocrats. Aung San Suu Kyi, by contrast, seems to prefer the company of sycophantic gatekeepers and business cronies from the old regime. Lately the Lady appears to be increasingly arrogant and out of touch. Almost all of the intellectuals and dissidents I spoke with — people who once went to jail with her name on their lips and were ready to die for the cause she represented — spoke of their growing disappointment with her, while at the same time expressing frustration with the lack of viable alternatives in the opposition movement. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are still putting all their hopes on the heroes. Burmese people still seem to look for "the good king" or the "pretender to the throne" as the panacea for all of the country’s chronic ills. This does not bode well for the future of democracy, I suspect.

Another thing that struck me was the over-ritualization of Buddhism. Every morning, the first things you hear when you open your eyes are the chanting or the pleas for alms or the announcements about religious events that are broadcast over crackly loudspeakers from neighborhood groups or passing trucks. Anywhere you go in Rangoon, you’re constantly bombarded by these amplified requests for donations, usually involving the renovation of this holy site or that monastery. Donations have become big business, contracted out to companies or beggars by temples and even specific monks. I guess this makes sense if it brings in the funds that they need. But it doesn’t strike me as especially transparent.

The Buddha urged his followers to give without any expectation of personal reward. Generosity (dana) is supposed to help you move from a self-centered, greed-driven existence to one that is other-centered and greed-free. Evidence of the importance of charity in Burmese culture is abundant, from the golden glory of the Shwedagon Pagoda (which owes its magnificence to donations from countless devotees) to the familiar sight of mendicant monks receiving alms. Nor is charity reserved for those who choose the religious life. Rest houses are set up all over the country for the comfort of travelers, and vessels of pure, cool water can be found on every roadside, put there for the benefit of passersby. These distinctive clay water pots are replenished daily, often by local people who have little else to offer but who aim to contribute something to the well-being of others.

In today’s Burma however, this rosy image of traditional generosity no longer holds. In many places, charity has become a self-serving tool to acquire wealth and power. Even among religious people, it amounts to little more than a money transfer to the next life. I often heard the loudspeaker broadcasts pushing the message that it is the lack of generosity, and not poverty as such, that is the reason for the destitution. "If you say you can’t make donations because you lack wealth, you can never expect to become wealthy," I heard at one point. (In fact, this is a well-known motif of official religious propaganda. During the era of the old military junta, this message was published regularly in the state-run media.) This Catch-22 may be cold comfort for the poor, but for the rulers it makes perfectly good sense. Why blame decades of mismanagement for the country’s many economic woes? Isn’t poverty just the product of parsimony? That, at least, is what the reigning establishment would like people to believe.

In Burma, no political practice is possible without involving Buddhism — and Buddhism has been politicized to such a degree that no religious act is apolitical. The military junta that ruled Burma for so long used religion to enhance their political legitimacy by patronizing the Sangha (the council of monks who preside over the Buddhist religious establishment). Successive rulers have exploited the Sangha’s historically important role as a unifying factor for state control.

The successive civilian as well as military regimes actively organized large-scale ritual events in which they have mobilized the Buddhist population to take part, such as national veneration of the Buddha’s sacred tooth relic in 1994, and an umbrella-hoisting ceremony in 1999. In short, the whole country has been transformed into a ritual community, one designed to prevent the emergence of an authentic political and civic community. Worst of all, these ritualized practices are not helping to improve people’s everyday morals. There can be little doubt that today’s moral climate is dire — ranging from corruption to substance abuse to status-driven bullying and violence. These are obviously not the values the Buddha aimed to foster.

As a devotee of Buddhism, I have found the Buddha’s teaching (especially the Theravada Buddhism professed by the majority of Burmese) as guidance that enables each of us to improve ourselves and attain benefits on an individual basis. The Buddha did approve of certain collective practices, but in the end liberation can only be achieved individually. No one — not even the Buddha — can save you but yourself. At the same time, I’m deeply grateful to some Buddhist abbots and lay devotees not only for their spiritual guidance but also for their great works of charity for the poor and the victims of natural disasters. It seems to me that the ritualized Buddhism screaming out those loudspeakers strikes has little in common with that genuine spirit of care for others.

My return to Burma was uplifting. My reunion with my family and friends filled me with joy. It was great to be home again. At the same time, I felt quite alienated by these two visible flaws in the public life of the country: personalized politics and ritualized religion. Go ahead and blame me for it. I don’t mind.