Turning Over the Bowl in Burma
In late August,
a series of widespread and spontaneous protests erupted in response to an
unannounced removal of fuel subsidies by Burma’s ruling military regime. But
prospects for a large anti-regime movement led by pro-democracy activists
soon seemed to fizzle. As the AP reported on August 26, “A week of protests
over fuel price hikes present no immediate threat to Burma’s military rulers
because very few people joined the demonstrations and the key organisers
were swiftly detained, analysts said Sunday.”
Then, on September 5, some 300 monks in the central city of
Pakokku joined the protests. Chanting universal loving-kindness to signal
their wish that all beings be free from suffering, the monks implored the
military to reinstate the subsidies out of compassion for the people.
The monks’ efforts at persuasion were met with a brutal
crackdown by police, soldiers, and plain-clothed thugs. This treatment of
the most revered members of society shocked and horrified the public and led
to an escalation of the protests. In the third week of September, some
20,000 monks walked through the streets of Yangon with their alms bowls
overturned. A hundred thousand people marched behind them.
At the height of the protests, I was contacted by Seth
Mydans, the Southeast Asia correspondent for the New York Times. For
20 years, I have studied the relationship between religion and politics in
Burma. Mydans said he was preparing a Week in Review article about “militant
monks,” and he wanted some quotes from me on the subject.
“Well,” I said, “you’ve got it all wrong.”
I told Mydans that if he did write up the protest as a story
of militant monks, he would be endangering the movement and putting the
monks at risk. That was because “militancy” contradicts Burmese
society’s dominant view of the role monks can take vis-à-vis worldly
society. It would also have been inaccurate reporting. The protests were
almost uniformly peaceable.
After listening to me and interviewing one or two other
experts on the subject, Mydans wrote an article that, I believe, accurately
conveyed the character of the monks’ protest. It began:
“As they marched through the streets of Burma’s cities last
week leading the biggest antigovernment protests in two decades, some
barefoot monks held their begging bowls before them. But instead of asking
for their daily donations of food, they held the bowls upside down, the
black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.
“It was a shocking image in the devoutly Buddhist nation.
The monks were refusing to receive alms from the military rulers and their
families—effectively excommunicating them from the religion that is at the
core of Burmese culture.
“That gesture is a key to understanding the power of the
rebellion that shook Myanmar last week.”
In 1997, when the New York Times immediately went
along with the regime’s renaming of Burma as Myanmar, the country’s leaders
gloated that their legitimacy had been recognized by the international
media. Speaking with Mydans, I had worried that if the Times
described the monks as militant, it would make it easier for the regime to
identify the protesters as “bogus monks,” who could then be forcibly
disrobed and punished.
Of course, the regime was intent on this course of action in
any case. But the monks were in all likelihood able to conduct their marches
through much of September without military suppression because they were
widely recognized as acting in accordance with their prerogative as the
religious authorities of the land. This form of public moralizing without
direct engagement in politics must be understood if one is to make sense of
the monks’ involvement in the protests.
The monks’ “anti-political” engagement derives from two
states of affairs in Burma, one relatively recent and the other ancient.
First, widespread antipathy toward the military regime has
existed since the violent suppression of student protests in August 1988. A
landslide election in favor of National Democratic League leader and Nobel
Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in 1990 was disregarded by the regime, and Ms.
Suu Kyi has spent most of the intervening years under house arrest.
Since then, there have been no formal power-sharing
institutions apart from the military, and political activism of any kind is
quickly found out by spies and suppressed. It has been illegal for more than
five people to gather in one place. Under the circumstances, those who wish
to stage political resistance have no choice but to do so by veiled means
and away from the ubiquitous surveillance of the regime.
It would take a book to give a proper account of this
resistance. The forms of it that I have observed in Burma over the past two
decades have all mirrored the structure of the present uprising, on a much
smaller scale. All have taken place in or through the religious sphere.
Burmese people wear amulets of monks who are famous both for
their spirituality and their refusal to be co-opted by the regime. They make
pilgrimages to such monks, spread rumors of supernatural retribution against
the regime (such as the rumor that their sacred white elephant had committed
suicide), and donate property to monks and monasteries to avoid
nationalization (since the government does not touch or tax various
categories of sacred property). In these and other ways do they
surreptitiously but unmistakably escape from and protest the controlling
activities of the regime.
It is equally important to recognize that religious
anti-politics is also rooted in the Vinaya, or monastic code of conduct,
which seeks to enforce the vows of renunciation taken by monks by explicitly
prohibiting them from engaging in worldly affairs. Contravention of the
Vinaya is grounds for disrobing, traditionally a voluntary act taken by the
monk himself in cognizance of his violation. Marching in a political rally
would certainly qualify as a violation of the prohibition.
One exception is allowed, however. This can occur when some
person or persons are seen as acting in ways that threaten the Sasana—the
teachings of the Buddha, or, for our purposes, the Buddhist religion. In
such a case case, the Sangha (order of monks) is permitted to issue what is
regarded as the ultimate moral rebuke: refusing to accept donations. The act
is known in the Pali language as “patam nikkujjana kamma”—turning
over the bowl.
To refuse to accept someone’s donation is to deny that
person the opportunity to earn merit. Merit is a moral condition that
produces real world power and felicitous circumstances in one’s future life.
When the Sangha formally announced on September 18 that it
was denying the military the opportunity to earn such merit, it was doing
something much more important than intimating the public’s desire for regime
change to democratic rule. By refusing to function as the “merit fields” in
which the military can sow their future prosperity, the monks effectively
removed the spiritual condition sustaining the regime’s power. That was the
meaning of their parading with upturned bowls.
The monks’ boycott extended to all donations from the
military regime’s leaders, their families and close associates. To combat
this, the military at one point went so far as to bar regular citizens from
offering to the monks, in order to force them to accept military
donations. Yet even in the face of this, many monasteries refused the
donations, and rice sacks lay unopened on the monastery grounds. Monks who
were taken to prison also refused to accept alms from the military, many of
them going on hunger strikes.
The moral force of such refusal was evident in 1990, when
there was a smaller movement of turning over the bowl. Then, military wives
refused to cook for their husbands until they apologized to the Sangha,
since their own merit fields were jeopardized.
Indeed, there have been instances of this kind of protest
throughout Burmese history, and in many cases the results have been
momentous. What is involved is the classical moral dialectic between Sangha
and State. The Sangha has the role of admonishing rulers to conform to the
law of dhamma, the moral causal law of justice. The rulers for their part
see to it that members of the Sangha do not stray from their own code of
Thus, on September 21, the Pokokku monks issued a statement
(reported from Bangkok by the Inter Press Service) that declared:
“The violent, mean, cruel, ruthless, pitiless kings—the
great thieves who live by stealing from the national treasury—have killed a
monk at Pakokku, and also arrested reverend clergymen by trussing them up
with rope. They beat and tortured, verbally abused and threatened them. The
clergy boycotts the violent, mean, cruel, ruthless, pitiless kings….The
clergy hereby also refuses donations and preaching.”
The statement was a significant rebuke, but remained highly
moral and anti-political. The language of kingship and refusal of donations
remained within the traditional bounds available to the Sangha in desperate
But even as the monks undertook their anti-political rebuke
of the regime, so the regime was bound to reply according to the same
language—by interpreting the monks’ actions as being “against the religion”
by virtue of the fact that, according to the regime, they had stepped
outside of their role as renunciates.
On October 6, the junta’s propaganda newspaper, the New
Light of Myanmar, stated that the monks’ actions were “in total
disregard of the Sasana and the Buddha’s teachings, and they attempted to
tarnish the image of Buddha’s Sasana and sow discord between the government
and the people. As a result, the Sasana as well as the country was
The New Light reported that, in line with the
Vinaya’s proscription of political activism among the clergy, the military
had announced that “monks and nuns taken in the raids were defrocked before
interrogation and those found to not have participated in the demonstrations
were reordained and sent back to their monasteries.”
According to the newspaper, “The handling of the situation
during the violent protests and measures taken by officials for purification
of the Sasana amounts to serving the interest of the Sasana. Officials are
to make continued efforts for perpetuation, purification and propagation of
In fact, some monks—younger ones in particular—did made
gestures and statements in the language of the democracy movement. It was
this more expressly political position that the Western media has
On October 24, for example, Agence France-Presse reported,
“Myanmar has been in the world spotlight since pro-democracy protests
spearheaded by the country’s revered Buddhist monks were violently put down
by the regime last month.” And on December 7, AP spoke of “[m]ounting
pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks.”
Only one journalist, Dinah Gardner, captured the
anti-politics story, in a November 10 article in Asia Times Online:
“The real tragedy was the politicization of the protests.
The monks first marched only to plead with the government to do something
about the crippling poverty….Matters started to go awry, say observers, when
the main opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), jumped on
board and added their call for democracy. The order to start shooting would
never have been given if the demonstrations had not been sabotaged.
“‘The monks would be marching and the NLD would run ahead,
parting the crowds and directing the monks like traffic,’ remembers one
Yangon-based expatriate. ‘At one point they came to a junction and waved the
monks towards the right-side route, but the lead monks choose the left path.
That was telling.’
“The protests could have gone on for much longer if the
monks had been in charge, says another NGO worker. ‘I think it’s really a
pity that the protests didn’t just stick with the monks because what would
the government have done if the monks peacefully walked on and on and on? It
would be very difficult for them to start shooting. They would have had to
tolerate it for a longer time and then you would have started this culture
“Even activists agree that the bulk of Myanmar’s citizens
just want a better life. ‘Most people don’t know much about democracy,’ said
a Yangon-based former political prisoner. ‘They just want enough money to
feed their family.’”
The two protest positions—the anti-political turning over of
the bowl and the pro-democracy activism—are, in fact, not easy to disengage.
For the media, the challenge of making sense of the Burmese
religio-political landscape is hugely complicated by lack of physical
Even so, the Internet has opened up possibilities for
accessing internal reports and interpretations in an entirely new way.
Scholars of Burma have themselves relied much more on these sources than on
newspapers to keep abreast of the developments on the ground.
In addition, the thriving pro-democracy activist movement
outside the country, which includes many expatriate Burmese, has contributed
much to shaping the understandings on the ground in Burma. Activists have
fastened on to the voices of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, the most
explicitly pro-democracy group within the Sangha.
As in any political debate, there are bitter divisions
outside the country over the question of how to bring about regime change in
Burma. These have centered on the question of the usefulness of sanctions
and, more fundamentally, the question of the relevance of the notion of
democracy itself in a country where exposure to its principles has been
rudimentary at best.
The most widely understood moral principles of fair and just
governance still derive from Buddhist models. The mass protests by monks
stemmed specifically from the regime’s refusal to be morally corrected by
the Sangha and to amend its behavior in accordance with the monks’ rebuke.
The regime’s violent reaction to the monks’ action suggests
that there can be no return to status quo ante, and that the ’07 protest
therefore represents the beginning of the end for the regime. At this
writing, although the events in Burma have stopped being widely reported on,
the monks have continued their boycott.
The laity are said to be attending, and passing around VCDs
of, monks’ lectures that are bold in their discussions about bad kings and
about the regime’s planting of bogus monks into the Sangha. The best hope
for regime change may continue to lie, as hope for reform always has in
Burma, with the Sangha’s moral authority.