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Burma’s Buddhism & Monks



Humans lived in Burma as early as 11,000 years ago, the oldest of which is probably the Mon or the Pyu. In the 9th century the Bamar people migrated from the then China-Tibet border region into the valley of the Irrawaddy. By 849, they had founded a powerful kingdom centred on the city of Pagan. King Anawrahta (1044-77) successfully unified all of Burma. Mons adopted Theravada Buddhism and founded kingdoms in Lower Burma in the 6th or 7th century. In 1289, the Mongols captured most of the Pagan Empire, including its capital, and ended the dynasty.

After the collapse of Pagan authority, Burma was divided. A Bamar Ava Dynasty (1364–527) was eventually established at the city of Ava by 1364, and was overrun by the Shan in 1527. King Mingyinyo founded the First Toungoo Dynasty (1486–1599) at Toungoo, towards the end of the Ava dynasty. After Shan invaded Ava in 1527 many Bamars migrated to Toungoo which became a new centre for Burmese rule. King Tabinshwehti (1531-50) and Bayinnaung (1551-81), unified Burma again. The Toungoo rulers founded a second dynasty at Ava, (1597–1752). In 1613 King Anaukpetlun, decisively defeated Portuguese attempts to take over Burma.

Alaungpaya founded the Konbaung Dynasty, and bring Burma to unite together. King Hsinbyushin (1763-76) had conquered to Ayutthaya (Siam) in 1766 and successfully repulsed four Chinese invasions between 1766 and 1769. In January 1824, during the reign of King Bagyidaw (1819-37), a Burmese general Maha Bandula succeeded in conquering Assam, bringing Burma face to face with British interests in India.

The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) ended in a British victory, and by the Treaty of Yandabo, Burma lost territory previously conquered in Assam, Manipur, Arakan and Tenasserim. In 1852, British provoked a naval confrontation and thus started the Second Anglo-Burmese War, which ended in the British annexation of Pegu province, renamed Lower Burma. Britain accused King Thibaw (1878–85) was a tyrant intending to side with the French, and declared war once again in 1885, conquering the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War resulting in total annexation of Burma.

Britain made Burma a province of India in 1886 with the capital at Rangoon. Traditional Burmese society was drastically altered by the demise of the monarchy and the separation of religion and state. Though war officially ended after only a couple of weeks, resistance continued in northern Burma until 1890, with the British finally resorting to a systematic destruction of villages and appointment of new officials to finally halt all guerrilla activity.

The economic nature of society also changed dramatically. After the opening of the Suez Canal, the demand for Burmese rice grew and vast tracts of land were opened up for cultivation. However, in order to prepare the new land for cultivation, farmers were forced to borrow money from Indian moneylenders called chettiars at high interest rates and were often foreclosed on and evicted losing land and livestock.

Most of the jobs also went to indentured Indian labourers. While the Burmese economy grew, all the power and wealth remained in the hands of several British firms and migrants from India. The civil service was largely staffed by Indians, and Burmese were excluded almost entirely from military service. Though the country prospered, the Burmese people failed to reap the rewards.

By the turn of the century, a nationalist movement began to take shape in the form of Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA), General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA), and Wunthanu Athin or National Associations. A new generation of Burmese leaders arose in the early twentieth century from amongst the educated classes.

In 1920 the first university students strike in history broke out in protest against the new University Act which only benefit the elite and perpetuate colonial rule. ‘National Schools’ sprang up across the country in protest against the colonial education system. Prominent among the political activists were Buddhist monks, such as U Ottama and U Seinda in the Arakan, and U Wisara, the first martyr of the movement to die after a prolonged hunger strike.

In December 1930, Saya San in Tharrawaddy, leader of farmers, revolted against the British government. It lasted for two years and required thousands of British troops to suppress the rebellions. May 1930 saw the founding of the Dobama Asiayone (We Burmese Association) whose members called themselves Thakin (an ironic name as Thakin means “master” in the Burmese language. The second university students strike in 1936 was triggered by the expulsion of Aung San and Ko Nu, leaders of the Rangoon University Students Union (RUSU). It spread to Mandalay leading to the formation of the All Burma Students Union (ABSU).

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.

Burmese Thakin movement opposed Burma’s participation in the war under any circumstances. Aung San was instrumental in founding the Bama htwet yat gaing (Freedom Bloc) by forging an alliance of the Dobama, ABSU, politically active monks and Ba Maw’s Sinyètha (Poor Man’s) Party. After the Dobama organization called for a national uprising, an arrest warrant was issued for many of the organization’s leaders including Aung San. Aung San and twenty-nine young men who went to Japan in order to receive military training and they came to be known as the “Thirty Comrades”.

Japanese declared Burma, in theory, independent in 1943, as Ba Maw head of state. It soon became apparent that Japanese promises of independence were merely a sham and that Ba Maw was just a puppet. Aung San, Thakin Than Tun, Thakin Soe, Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein founded the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) secretly in August 1944 and was later renamed the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). On March 27, 1945 the Burma National Army rose up in a countrywide rebellion against the Japanese and joined the Allies as the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF).

The Japanese were routed from most of Burma by May 1945. After the war ended, the British returned. The AFPFL opposed the government, and becoming a general strike. British calmed the situation by meeting with Aung San and convincing him to join the Governor’s Executive Council along with other members of the AFPFL. The new executive council, which now had increased credibility in the country, began negotiations for Burmese independence, which were concluded successfully in London as the Aung San-Atlee Agreement on January 27, 1947. Thakin Aung San also succeeded in concluding an agreement with ethnic minorities for a unified Burma at the Panglong Conference on February 12. On July 19, 1947, Aung San and several members of his cabinet were assassinated. Thakin Nu was presided over Burmese independence on January 4, 1948.

Prime Minister U Nu The first years of Burmese independence were marked by successive insurgencies. By 1958, the country was largely beginning to recover economically. Gen Ne Win staged a coup d’etat on March 2, 1962, and declared a ‘socialist state’ run by a ‘Revolutionary Council’ of senior military officers. All opposition parties were banned. Ne Win quickly took steps to transform Burma into his vision of a ‘socialist state’ and to isolate the country from contact with the rest of the world. A one-party system was established with his newly formed Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) in complete control. Commerce and industry were nationalized. A new constitution was promulgated in January 1974 that resulted in the creation of a People’s Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) that held supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority, and local People’s Councils. Ne Win became the president of the new government.

“Demonetization” of certain bank notes in the currency, in September 1987 wiping out the savings of the vast majority of people. Burma’s admittance to Least Developed Country status by the UN the following December highlighted its economic bankruptcy. Triggered by brutal police repression of student-led protests causing the death of over a hundred students and civilians in March and June 1988, widespread protests and demonstrations broke out on August 8 throughout the country. During the 8888 Uprising, the military responded by firing into the crowds, killing thousands. General Saw Maung staged a coup on September 18 and promised to hold the election.

Multiparty elections in May 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory. The military, however, would not let the assembly convene, and placed U Tin U and Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, under house arrest. Burma came under increasing international pressure to convene the elected assembly. In April 1992 the military replaced Saw Maung with General Than Shwe.

Than Shwe convened a National Convention in January 1993, but insisted that the assembly preserve a major role for the military in any future government, and suspended the convention from time to time. SPDC crackdowns on NLD intensified and forcing to close down NLD offices. The military placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest again in September 2000 until May 2002, and again in May 2003 after an ambush on her motorcade by a pro-military mob. She remains under house arrest today. In August 2003, junta announced a seven-step “roadmap to democracy”, which got no timetable for implementing it. On February 17, 2005, the government reconvened the National Convention, in an attempt to rewrite the Constitution. However, major pro-democracy organisations and parties, including the National League for Democracy, were barred from participating. It was adjourned once again in January 2006.

There were a series of anti-government protests in August 2007. The immediate cause of the protests was mainly the unannounced decision of the ruling junta to increase the fuel price by 500%. Led by students and opposition political activists, the protest demonstrations were at first dealt with quickly and harshly by the junta, with dozens of protesters arrested and detained. The protests had been led by thousands of Buddhist monks and they withdraw religious services for the military. Their role in the protests was significant due to the reverence paid to them by the civilian population and the military.

Protests began spreading across Burma. Those marching through the capital chanted the “Metta Sutta” (the Buddha’s words on loving kindness) and making the event the largest Burmese anti-government protest in twenty years. Civilians were forming a human shield around the monks. Truckloads of armed soldiers and riot police were sent into Rangoon and shoot the un-armed demonstrators. The junta security forces began raiding monasteries across the country to quell the protests, arresting thousands of monks.

The military government cut the Internet access and violently crackdown the demonstrations by shooting, beating and arbitrarily detaining thousands of monks, prodemocracy activists, onlookers and killing dozens. Currently, there are more than 2000 political prisoners in Burma and regime continues to arrest democratic dissident, torture and sentence to prison. In February 2008, the regime announced the plan to hold the referendum in May 2008 following the election by 2010. No transparency in referendum process and excluding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 election. The Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks, 88generation student group, NLD members and other dissidents groups vowed to continue the protests until the Burmese military junta is deposed.


Burma gained independence from the Britain on 4 January 1948. It shares the border with China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India. The military has dominated government since General Ne Win led a coup in 1962 to 1988, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. In 1988, student led the uprising and eventually managed to topple the one party rule led by General Ne Win. Another military came to power and gun down more than 3000 protesters. Due to the increase domestic and international pressure, junta promised to hold the election. In 1990, National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the Burma’s independence architect Gen. Aung San – won a landslide victory. The ruling junta refused to hand over power and instead put NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest.

The people of Burma have been suffering under one of the world’s most brutal and repressive regime. The military regime uses murder, torture, rape, political imprisonment and forced labour as practices for ruling the citizens of Burma. Freedom of expression and freedom of association are non-existent and Burmese citizens are denied any state in the shaping of their future.

Burma’s economic crisis continues to deepen under military rule. People earn on a wage of around $1 a day. Unemployment is rising dramatically every month while prices of consumer goods are escalating out of control. And the value of the local kyat on the informal market continues to stumble. Living standards of many Burmese are declining rapidly. One child in three under the age of five is already suffering from malnutrition, less than 50 per cent of children will complete five years of education according to UN reports.

In Burma, people face complete lack of access to basic social services such as health services, and water sanitation. Under the military generals, poverty has soared and corruption is growing. Burma spends less than $3 per person per year on health and education – well below the World Health Organization recommended level of $40 per person. The economic crisis and instability in Burma is driving waves of Burmese children into hard labour, begging and the sex trade. Burma is in the midst of a health and educational crisis.

The military maintains an extensive network of Military Intelligence (MI), informers, police, militias such as Swan-Arr-Shin and Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) members, ready to arrest anyone suspected of holding or expressing anti-government opinions in Burma. Laws have been established that criminalize freedom of thought, expression, association, assembly and movement, thus legitimizing these arbitrary arrests and continued to arbitrarily detain people across Burma for associating with opposition groups. These types of detentions occurred commonly and in most cases individuals alleged of such illegal association were detained, interrogated and many were tortured, without warrant, charge or trial.

The military maintained complete control over the legal system and remained unbound by any legislation or constitutional provision for a fair trial, due process of law or any other rights. Military government denies basic rights to due process of law, a fair and public trial in political cases. No trials of political prisoners were open to the public, and in many cases reported details of the case were not even available to the defendant’s family; such as the reason for arrest, sentencing or location of the person detained.

Frequently the detainee is not informed under which section or article he or she is being detained. In addition, detainees rarely have access to legal counsel or the opportunity to obtain release on bail. The accused may be held for lengthy periods of time without any communication. Trials for political detainees are normally held in courtrooms on prison compounds, in a “special court”, and defendants are given little chance to speak, are ignored when they do make statements and certainly are not permitted to properly defend themselves. Even after being charged, political prisoners are still denied the right to proper legal counsel.

Prisons in Burma are places where human rights violations and brutality are everyday realities. Abuses include prolonged shackling, torture, lack of proper medical care and insufficient food. Political prisoners face cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment in the prisons, or in detention centres. They also face torture after arrest and during interrogation so as to punish them and to force them to cooperate with interrogators. Political prisoners face both physical and emotional torture, often during long-lasting periods of detention after the initial arrest while they are isolated.

Children under the age of 18 are about 40% of Burma population. The military junta does not consider children’s development and welfare as a priority and used almost half of the state budget is spent to the arm, leaving very little for the vital education and health care systems. Decades of military mismanagement of the economy has resulted in an appalling economic situation and is forcing the vast majority of parents to rely on the contribution of their children working in order to feed their families.

The worst forms of child labour can be seen in Burma –in the army, the construction industry, domestic work, and the mines or in different places. Children are by no means exempt from the forced labour imposed on hundreds of thousands of the Burmese population by military. Moreover, the military continues to forcibly recruit children into the army, some as young as eleven years old. There are 70, 000 children in the army and largest child soldiers in the world. Military forced young girls to serve as porters and sometimes rape and used them as sexual slaves.

The Burmese government spends seven times less on education than on the armed forces. Since 1990, government expenditure on civilian education has dropped by 70 percent, and the most recent statistics indicate that spending on education is currently equivalent to less than 1% of the GDP. According to World Bank figures, Burma’s military government spends only $0.28 per year for every child in a public school.

Following a sharp increase of fuel prices on August 15, 2007, prodemocracy groups led by students began a series of peaceful marches and demonstrations to protest the failing economic situation in Burma. The regime immediately responded by arbitrarily detaining prodemocracy activists. As popular dissatisfaction spread, Buddhist monks began leading peaceful marches together with public and the regime violently crackdown by shooting, beating and arresting thousands of monks, prodemocracy activists, onlookers and killing dozens. Currently, there are more than 2000 political prisoners in Burma and regime continues to arrest democratic dissident, torture and sentence to prison.

In Burma, power is centred on the ruling junta–the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC–which maintains strict authoritarian rule over the people of Burma. Control is maintained through intimidation, the strict censuring of information, repression of individual rights, and suppression of ethnic minority groups. To avoid doing genuine dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the regime is using one of the delaying tactics- buying times. They are waiting for another crisis happen in another part of the world and if the crisis happens, the attention on Burma from international community will divert to that crisis and Burma will go back to status quo.

In February 2008, the regime announced the plan to hold the referendum in May 2008 following the election by 2010. No transparency in referendum process and excluding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 election. In addition, the military regime received wide-spread criticisms from both domestic and international because of failing to honour 1990 election result and plan to hold another election in 2010.


Burma is a multi-religious country. About 90% of the Burmese people follow Theravada Buddhism, 4% are Christians, 4% are Muslims and the rest 2% are Hinduism, animists, or other. 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. At the end of the thirteenth century, Bagan fell under the invading Tartars (Mongols). King Dhammazedi (1472-92) once again unified monastery with the king as the guardian was attained and Burma entered a new chapter in the history of Buddhism. Ancient Burmese kings collected many treatises, particularly those written in Sanskrit, brought from India for the royal library, encouraged their study and translated into Burmese. They were keen enthusiasts who contributed immensely to the welfare of the Sangha, peace, progress and prosperity for the religion.

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. Sanghas (Monks Community) became well-established and 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. All Buddhists accept Buddha as the historical founder of the religion. Buddha was a man who discovered the way to enlightenment and anyone can follow his footsteps and achieve enlightenment as well. Buddha was a teacher, a guide, a philosopher who taught the middle way between pleasure and pain that leads to Nirvana. 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.

Burmese monks have taken part in protests in the past, against British colonial rule and against military dictatorship. U Wisara was the most prominent monk martyr of Burmese Buddhism, who died in prison in 1929 after a 166-day hunger strike. Burma gained Independence from British rule in 1948 and U Nu became the prime minister. He was a devout Buddhist, a cultured and spiritual man. Burma has been military dictatorship since 1962, after the coup led by Gen. Ne Win. He closed the Burma from international community and ruled the country with repression. In 1988, there were a lot of demonstrations took place in Rangoon, led by students and monks. These demonstrations were brutally repressed by the military killing thousands of people. Eventually, after the bloodshed, Ne Win led regime deposed. Another military came to power in 18th September 1988 and promised to hold the election in 1990. The people of Burma voted overwhelmingly to National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The military leaders ignore to honour the election result and put her under house arrest.

In August 2007, protests across the country after the junta raised the fuel price overnight by 500 percent 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 Sept. 5, 2007. That became a spark that grew into a broad-based challenge to the government, and the biggest antigovernment 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.

The military rules by force, but the monks hold ultimate moral authority. Tens of thousands of Burmese people led by 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. During the saffron revolution, more than 200 lives were lost and hundreds were missing. They have arrested thousand of political prisoners and crack down continue today by arresting dissidents; tortured, interrogate and put them in prison.





















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