Despite the unerringly military nature of state control in Myanmar for decades, the junta has on several occasions — and especially in times of crisis — used ancient traditions and rituals of Buddhist kingship to legitimise its control, even endowing military officers with special religio-ritual characteristics. Niklas Foxeus tracks this phenomenon in its various contexts.
In post-Independence Burma, starting from 4 January 1948, the model of Buddhist kingship to promote and defend Buddhism has repeatedly been employed as a source of political legitimacy, especially in times of uncertainty, contestation and instability. Although the circumstances have changed from one period to another, the ideology of Buddhist kingship has been a common denominator of political leaders of most governments: during the U Nu period (1948–62, with some hiatuses); the late Ne Win period (1962–88); the military dictatorship of SLORC–SPDC (1988–2011); and after the military coup of 1 February 2021, led by General Min Aung Hlaing.
The model draws on the karmic path of Buddhism: improving karma through merit-making by giving alms and other donations to the sangha (monastic community); building or renovating pagodas, monasteries and the like, thereby enabling a rebirth in the heavenly world of the gods (nat-pyi) or as a wealthy human being in the next life (while those who commit misdeeds can be reborn in hell (nga-ye)), and so forth.
In a more traditional understanding of society as mainly determined by karma from previous lives, everyone deserves his or her social position. The kings or — in a modern context, political leaders — have, similarly, earned the highest position in society due to their superior accumulation of karmic merit acquired in previous lives. Hpoun (‘power’ or ‘glory’) is obtained as a result of having a large store of karmic merit. As noted by Min Zin, hpoun is taken for granted and naturalised at most levels of Burmese society, from the family to the government; further, there are also certain signs of superior hpoun such as the ability to collect huge amounts of donations to host merit-making ceremonies on a grand scale; giving lavishly to monks; building imposing pagodas and monasteries, etc. Such acts will not only generate more favourable karmic merit but will also serve as a source of social prestige.
A politically significant sign of such karmic power is being able to seize political power and maintaining it, or the appearance of white elephants as its embodiment (see below). This hpoun is therefore (as Min Zin points out) self-legitimating by its mere fact (certain signs or possession of power). What is needed is a public that will recognise its significance. As we will see, that may have changed in the contemporary period. Having committed misdeeds (especially military leaders), acts of merit-making are also performed to create a balance between the accumulation of merit and demerit. Many of the features above can be traced back to the so-called Asokan model of the Buddhist Indian King Asoka (r. 273–32 BC).
There are thus three dimensions involved in, for instance, public performances by Buddhist leaders:
- display of karmic power (hpoun);
- generating karmic merit through Buddhist merit-making;
- social prestige.
The performative spectacles of the military leaders have covered these three dimensions, with an emphasis on the first: to persuade the people of their possession of superior store of karmic merits from previous lives providing them with hpoun and a cosmic sanction to rule as a kind of Buddhist kings defending and promoting Burmese Buddhism and nation.
Shortly after independence, Burma was plunged into civil war with Karen and Communist insurgencies. At the same time, there were rumours, prophecies and expectations — from around the 1940s — that a righteous king would arrive who would protect and promote Buddhism. Moreover, there were also expectations that a Buddhist ‘world emperor’ (Burmese sekyā-watay-min; Pali cakkavattin) would appear, both figures, at times, seemingly fused in the popular imagination. The future king would inaugurate a prosperous era for Burma and Burmese Buddhism that would make it last for its prophesied remainder of about 2,500 years during the second half of the sasana era.
In this unstable and tumultuous period, U Nu became prime minister and came to embody the expectations of a righteous Buddhist king who would promote Buddhism after a long hiatus of British colonial rule. Some regarded U Nu as a bodhisatta (a Buddha-to-be), like the Burmese kings, while others believed that he was the prophesised Buddhist world emperor. U Nu, however, combined this Buddhist imaginary with an essentially secular socialist ideology. Like a king in the Asokan model, he convened the so-called Sixth Buddhist Synod in 1954–56. He built pagodas, monasteries and even temples for the spirit-cults of the 37 Lords. As his Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) party won three elections (1952, 1956, and 1960), it was clear that his persistent appeal to traditional Buddhist sensibilities resonated with most of the Buddhist population. In the 1960 elections, he even promised to make Buddhism the state religion.
In contrast to earlier periods, the military leaders of the SLORC–SPDC government, which seized power in a coup in 1988 following a popular uprising, portrayed themselves as inheritors of the Burmese Buddhist warrior kings that had united the country, of whom there were grand statues in the new capital Naypyidaw, the ‘Abode of Kings’ (in 2005): King Anawrahta (1044–77), King Bayinnaung (1551–81), and King Alaungpaya (1752–60).
To appease popular opinion, the military junta promised to hold multi-party elections in May 1990. The National League for Democracy (NLD) and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory, but the military government refused to hand power to them. Later the same year, in August, monks organised a monastic boycott of the military. As it had annulled the Constitution of 1974, the military junta had no formal source of political legitimacy; it was essentially a military council ruling by decree. Without popular consent to rule, they began to focus more on Buddhist sources of legitimacy. They employed Buddhism as a kind of populist political legitimation strategy, and performed a ritual theatre in a performative manner to persuade the public about the notion that they are the rightful rulers of Burma/Myanmar, not merely defending the country and preventing its disintegration but also — like the historical Burmese kings — foremost in promoting and defending the Buddha’s dispensation (sasana), as well as Burman Buddhist cultural traditions and customs. In 1994, as noted by Juliane Schober, the military government borrowed a tooth relic from China and led a procession in royal style (with other rituals) in order to unify the divided public in their common interest of Buddhist merit-making. It was a performative spectacle in the emulation of pre-colonial royal Buddhist ceremonies that portrayed the generals as righteous rulers (dhammaraja) over the Buddhist realm.
At this time, the military government repeatedly declared (in state-controlled media) that it had found white elephants. In traditional Buddhism, white elephants are seen as a cosmic confirmation of the hpoun of the ruler that confirms his political legitimacy and promises an era of abundant prosperity. It is one of the seven jewels of a Buddhist world emperor and thought to be able to bring rain and prosperity. There were also other cosmic signs that were meant to confer legitimacy on them. What people could not see on the ground in the economically mismanaged country at the time, they were thus assumed to see in such cosmological signs promising a prosperous future. Reportedly, it was General Than Shwe who first used white elephants as a source of political legitimacy since the monarchical period; nine white elephants were found during his rule. In one elephant stall, there is an inscription attributed to General Than Shwe saying: ‘White elephants are only found during the reign of a glorious king. It is an omen that augurs the country’s prosperity.’
On 1 February 2021, General Min Aung Hlaing carried out a miliary coup in which the army seized power from the NLD, which had won a landslide victory in the general elections of November 2020. Although the military junta (titled the State Administration Council (SAC)) led by General Min Aung Hlaing claimed to seize power in accordance with the Constitution of 2008, it was, according to analysts, unconstitutional and illegal.
Once again, Burma/Myanmar had a government ruling without popular consent. As during the former military junta rule, military leaders turned to Buddhism for political legitimacy. During the demonstrations that broke out following the coup throughout major parts of the country, initially led by a popular movement called the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), General Min Aung Hlaing seemed to focus on Buddhist matters, namely finishing what he claimed to be the largest seated Buddha statue in the world, a project he began before the coup. In the months following the coup, while the streets were filled by demonstrators and clashes occurred between them and the police and the military, Min Aung Hlaing held several ceremonies and organised events to which monks were invited where they discussed the project devoted to his seated Buddha statue. Like his predecessors, Min Aung Hlaing made lavish donations to the monks and the Sangha; he performed — like military rulers of SLORC-SPDC — various magical rituals (yadaya-khye) intended to ward off dangers and mishaps predicted by astrologers and to help to maintain his power; and a white elephant was found that would confirm his hpoun.
According to Ingrid Jordt, some/many Burmese people during the SLORC–SPDC period (1988–2011) were persuaded by some of the Buddhist cosmological implications of the performances and events during military governments confirming their hpoun and right to rule. However, the younger Generation Z seems to be more secular, or have at least adopted more secular attitudes demanding religion be separated from politics, including monks supporting their own cause. Moreover, they have mocked and ridiculed the generals and military rule by using humour, thereby rejecting their pretentions of legitimate claims to power.
After the coup, the monk Sitagu Hsayadaw, formerly held in great respect by the people, became a kind of chief monastic advisor to Min Aung Hlaing, thereby providing him with legitimacy. As a result, his reputation has been tarnished and he has come to be despised by people belonging to the Opposition. He is criticised and ridiculed on social media. This public criticism of a famous monk is a significant change in comparison to earlier times.
An important difference between U Nu and the military dictatorships is that he won elections and enjoyed popular support among the people. He did not portray himself as a warrior king but mainly as a pious Buddhist layman who sought to implement Buddhist principles in society as a kind of panacea for social, political, and economic problems — like disseminating loving-kindness to all living beings; avoiding killing living beings by the prohibition of using pesticides by farmers; and trying to refrain from using violence against insurgents.
By contrast, the military seized power, and most people were/are opposed to their rule. In the absence of popular consent, they turned to Buddhism as a kind of populist political legitimation strategy and performed a ritual theatre in a performative manner to persuade the public about the notion that they are the rightful rulers of Burma/Myanmar. Their sincerity has — among Western observers and some Burmese people — therefore often been doubted, that is, that they are using religion instrumentally in a cynical manner. However, it is likely that they are more convinced than anyone else of the efficacy of their own rituals and the significance of various perceived signs of their greatness. Military leaders have turned to astrologers and cult leaders for various forms of divination and power-strengthening rituals (yadaya-khye). Min Aung Hlaing even claimed that his white elephant is superior to those of the generals of the former military junta; and maintained that his ruby — a symbol of royalty — is larger and of better quality than theirs, etc. The seated Buddha statue he is currently sponsoring will, he has claimed, be the largest one in the world. In this way, he seems to say that he is even more fit to be a righteous Buddhist ruler than the previous generals, because the cosmic signs are more persuasive.
Yet, Min Aung Hlaing seems to enjoy less respect among the public than his predecessors. The public mockery of him reached unforeseen levels in the months following the coup in February 2021. Demonstrators carried portraits of him hanging from the gallows; photographs of him were strewn on the streets so that not only would the demonstrators trample on them but also soldiers and police, a very disrespectful act; slippers were seemingly sold with his portrait underneath them; and even toilet paper with his portrait was sold. On cartoons, he has been sometimes depicted as a short man wearing women’s high-heeled shoes that would make him taller.
All these actions were a kind of popular mocking counter-discourse to any claim he could make to legitimate political power. Generation Z may be less likely to be persuaded by the public performances of Buddhist kingship and related cosmic sanctions than previous generations, probably a sign of the social and ideological transformations the country has undergone, especially in urban areas during the 10-year (2011–2021) experiment in democracy.
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