Buddhist visions of moral authority and modernity in Burma

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

21 Scopus citations


Since the popular uprising in 1988, the confrontation between the military regime and the pro-democracy forces has ground to a seemingly unchanging stalemate with no foreseeable solution to the political impasse. The change of government to representatives of the National League for Democracy (NLD), promised by elections in 1990, has not occurred. The national convention to draft a new constitution abandoned its work following the NLD's boycott in the mid-1990s. At present, Burma is governed by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which represents a continuation of the military regime that functioned as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) since 1988. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's pro-democracy leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, is again confined to house arrest at her home on University Avenue, near Inya Lake, in Rangoon, while her and her party's activities are closely monitored and frequently curtailed by agents of the regime. This chapter examines modern forms of Buddhism, politics, and civil society in Burma. Acknowledging the range of contemporary Buddhist practices and interpretations one finds in Burma today, the essay specifically looks at two very different interpretations of modern Buddhism that uphold competing claims about moral authority, political legitimacy, and national community. These two distinctly modern visions of moral authority and civil society emerged in Burmese Buddhism in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and the subsequent rule of the military councils. One is the nationalist, centralized, and ritualistic patronage of Buddhism by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and the other is the socially engaged Buddhism advocated by Aung San Suu Kyi that emphasizes personal, social engagement, ethics, and meditation. The former employs large-scale rituals to legitimate a political hierarchy of the state, while the latter advocates meditation, individual empowerment, and social ethics to resist spiritual and material exploitation by the state. Both visions of moral authority are rationalist interpretations of power for which one may find justification in references to the Theravāda textual tradition. 1 Both of these forms of modern Buddhism intersect with Euro-American political traditions derived from post-Enlightenment thought. And both employ modern technologies of communication and mobilization in order to engage a broader public in national and international contexts.2 They appeal to modern Buddhism to imagine their respective visions of the nation's future and use that vision to justify their respective political claims. This chapter's central claim, therefore, is that among modern Buddhist communities in Burma, specific religious interpretations and practices entail corresponding visions of moral authority and are closely tied to particular social and political visions of the modern Burmese nation-state and national community. These forms of modern Theravāda Buddhism express issues central to modern politics and public life, such as national identity, ethnicity, national territory, and control over or potential fragmentation of the political center. Contemporary Buddhism in Burma is at once polarized and coopted by the need for legitimation among the prevailing power structures. In the absence of secular means of legitimation-for instance, a national constitution, a parliamentary process, and independent civic institutions-there is a great need for public legitimation to sanction moral and political authority. At the same time there is a need to strengthen the role of civil society and secularism to ensure continuity for any political system in Burma. The need for public space given to the secular is especially pressing in a nation-state that is at once engulfed by a struggle for moral and political authority in a multiethnic context and is, at the same time, challenged by the political omissions of the past. A final concern addressed here is, therefore, the place of civil society and the secular in envisioning the future of the Burmese nation-state.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBurma at the Turn of the 21st Century
PublisherUniversity of Hawai'i Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)0824828577, 9780824828578
StatePublished - Dec 1 2005
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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