Buddhism was adopted in Burma since eleventh century at Bagan by king Anawrahta (1044-77). Pagodas rose, a new programme of education was adopted, and the cause of culture was strongly encouraged and advocated.
With the arrival of Buddhism, Burma underwent major changes in various phases of her life especially in culture, art, literature, and civilisation.
Buddhism has played an important role in unifying the peoples of Burma that ultimately brought the racial groups into one united whole under one religious banner.
Buddhist Monks (Sanghas Community) became well-established and Buddhist religious leaders taking an active role in the political affairs of the country.
Buddhism has been influential in the educational progress of Burma since very ancient time. To the growth of the Burmese language and literature too, Buddhism made great contribution.
During British rule in Burma traditional Burmese society was drastically altered by the demise of the monarchy and the separation of religion and state.
During the British administration of Lower and Upper Burma, also known as Burma Proper, government policies were secular which meant monks were not protected by law. Nor was Buddhism patronised by the colonial government. This resulted in tensions between the colonized Buddhists and their European rulers.
Buddhism made major contributions in the development of Burmese politics. Burmese nationalism first began with the formation of the Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA) – modelled on the YMCA – which started to appear all over the country at the start of the 20th century. Buddhist monks along with students had been in the forefront of the struggle for independence and later for democracy, the best known leaders in history being U Ottama, U Seinda and U Wisara.
A wave of strikes and protests that started from the oilfields of central Burma in 1938 became a general strike with far-reaching consequences. In Rangoon, student protesters were charged by the British mounted police wielding batons and killing a Rangoon University student called Aung Gyaw. In Mandalay, the police shot into a crowd of protesters led by Buddhist monks killing 17 people. The movement became known as Htaung thoun ya byei ayeidawbon (the ‘1300 Revolution’ named after the Burmese calendar year.
In August 2007, protests across the country after the junta raised the fuel price overnight by 500 per cent without advanced notice. By late September, this movement had become a popular uprising, attracting tens of thousands of ordinary people on to the streets of Rangoon. The unrest was increasing when Swan-Arr-Shin, military sponsored militias, and soldiers beat monks during a demonstration in Pakokku on September 5, 2007. That became a spark that grew into a broad-based challenge to the government, and the biggest anti-government protests in two decades broke out. Some barefoot monks held their alms receiving bowls upside down before them instead of asking for their daily donations of food. 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.
Buddhist Monks and nuns have always been at the centre of Buddhism and the monastic way of life is practiced in all of Burma and the monks are greatly revered. They are supported both by the government and by the local communities; exist upon donations and ties with the monasteries are very strong.
The military rules by force, but the monks hold ultimate moral authority. Tens of thousands of Burmese people led by Buddhist monks took to the streets of Rangoon demanding for change. Military responded by shooting, beating, arresting and killing the saffron robed monks and peaceful demonstrators. Soldiers surrounded monasteries; preventing monks from leading further demonstrations and detach from public in order to cut support effectively as the hostages in their own monasteries. Violence against Buddhist monks by the military generals provoked the outcry and outraged to the international community.
The protest demonstrations were at first dealt with quickly and harshly by the junta, with dozens of protesters arrested and detained. Starting 18 September, the protests had been led by thousands of Buddhist monks, and those protests had been allowed to proceed until a renewed government crackdown on 26 September. At the time, independent sources reported, through pictures and accounts, 30 to 40 monks and 50 to 70 civilians killed as well as hundreds arrested. However, other sources reveal more dramatic figures. In a White House statement President Bush said: “Monks have been beaten and killed. Thousands of pro-democracy protesters have been arrested”. Some news reports referred to the protests as the Saffron Revolution.
One of the most prominent Buddhist monk leaders during 2007 Saffron Revolution who bravely led the public is Ashin Htavara.
Burma Democratic Concern (BDC) calls for people of Burma to demand for the right of Burmese citizens 500, 000 Buddhist monks to have their rights to vote in Burma’s national elections.