Buddhism and politics in Myanmar: an interview with an author

What made you want to write Buddhism, politics and political thought in Myanmar?

My interest in the subject began in 2002, during my first trip to Myanmar. With a friend, I had signed up for a month-long meditation retreat at a monastery near Mandalay. One of the teachers was an American who had been ordained a monk in Burma. In the early 1990s, a prominent Burmese monk asked this American to speak with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about vipassana meditation (perspective), as she had recently begun to rediscover this part of her heritage. It was a time of incredible intellectual ferment for her – you can see it in some of her writings and speeches from the time – as she tried to weave together Buddhism, democracy, rights, etc. the retreat was kind of my “conversion” moment to practice as a Buddhist myself, it was also the event that started me on this intellectual path of trying to better understand how the teachings, Buddhist beliefs, practices and identities affect the ways in which people understand and engage in politics.

What is the most important take-home message for readers?

It is commonplace for many people to say that Buddhism influences politics in a country like Myanmar, but actual attempts to describe this influence usually end up being superficial or overly generalized. I describe a “moral universe” of modern Theravada Buddhist thought that provides key ideas and understandings that Buddhists have used to make sense of the political world in which they inhabit. If we don’t know the outlines of this worldview (and the variations of interpretation it contains), we risk missing many of the subtle nuances of Burmese expressions of political thought; for example, assuming that calls for “democracy” necessarily align with western liberal democratic notions (which themselves are quite varied).

Was there anything you had to leave out?

The thesis had a somewhat more comparative content, with other Theravada cases and also with writers and ideas from the Western tradition of political thought. Most of that had to be cut to make it a more Myanmar-focused book, but it all comes back in the next book, which is comparative through the Theravada tradition. (Also, I’m a little ashamed to say that I haven’t fought hard enough to be able to keep the Burmese-language font in my bibliography. Not that it’s – yet – actually searchable, but it’s something which I think authors working in uncommon languages ​​should really try to defend. I think when you get to the final stages of a manuscript, it’s unfortunately easy to let some of these things down.)

As this was a sort of general overview of some of the themes and organizing ideas of modern Buddhist political thought in Myanmar, I was unable to go into many sub-themes in detail. I really look forward to spending much more time with some of the leftist Buddhist literature from the 1920s to 1950s that I could only briefly touch on in this book.

I touch on some of the contemporary “Buddhist nationalist” movement, but some readers might be surprised how little there is in the book, given that Myanmar has recently made headlines for the tragic treatment and hated by Rohingya Muslims. In this book, I cover this movement largely in relation to competing notions of monastic participation in politics, but the next book will examine the arguments of this movement in more detail, particularly in relation to Buddhist theorizing about the limits of inclusion in politics and moral communities.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

I guess the most important thing would be that Buddhism is somehow “apolitical,” a misconception that many of us still struggle with, even within academia. The other frustrating thing that people working in non-Western traditions regularly encounter is an assumption that we will pass on the Buddhist vision of politics. It is such an arrogant assumption to believe that all of these rich traditions can essentially be boiled down to a clear set of fundamental ideas, whether related to politics or any other subject. This book attempts to identify an influential tradition of political thought in recent Burma/Myanmar history, but I also try to make clear that 1) it is not the only one and 2) even within it there are huge variations in how people use concepts and ideas derived from their religious beliefs and practices.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I am trained as a political theorist, but I also work in comparative politics and I am often asked to contribute to political discussions. I am well aware that some of the positions I take in the book are not necessarily new to anthropologists or scholars of religious studies, but it is still very important for us to advocate for more nuanced incorporations of religion into the political analysis. I particularly want to push back against instrumentalist arguments about how religion is “used” in politics, showing instead that the actors themselves are deeply rooted in their religious worldviews.

Do you just hope to inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

I don’t imagine there’s much in this book that would piss people off (I guess I’ll save that for my media contributions). The book begins with a vignette of the “saffron revolution” of 2007, trying to set up the argument that if we don’t understand how protesting monks and lay people fit into particular streams of thought and belief , we miss much of the implications and resonance of their statements and actions (and also risk misidentifying these protests as simply “pro-democracy”).

I really want to draw attention to the depth and complexity of this tradition of thought, not least because it was actively suppressed by a series of military governments in Burma/Myanmar from 1962 to 2011 and because it was actively used in recent years to demonize and exclude Muslims from membership in the political community. Despite this, I am very excited about the re-emergence of national public political discourse in Myanmar in recent years and hope that this book can encourage people (inside and outside Myanmar) to turn to this tradition to find creative ways to think about politics and political affairs.

What other title would you give to the book?

Well, I was a bit disappointed with the rather mundane title that Cambridge preferred, but I understand the need for easy keyword searching these days. And also, Hurst was happy to use a variation of my dissertation title (“Politics in the Moral Universe”) for the next book (see below), so it wouldn’t be completely lost!

What do you think of the cover?

I love the cover! I was adamant that I didn’t want to just use another photo of Protestant monks. And fortunately, my very good friend Aung Soe Min is an artist, gallery owner, and versatile renaissance man in Yangon. The cover is from a series he painted called “Crisis of Buddhism”, and I think all of the pieces in the series really capture some of the complex imagery and uncertainty of 2012-13 and the increased political engagement of the monks during this period. You can see many paintings from the series, as well as the work of dozens of other Burmese artists, at Thukhuma Online Gallery.

Is there a book you wish you had written? Which? Why?

Robe Colors: Religion, Identity and Difference, Ananda Abeysekara’s book on Buddhism and politics in Sri Lanka. I am continually impressed by how effectively he clings to a framing that sees the very categories whose solidity we usually assume (religion, Buddhism, monk, etc.) as only appearing at particular times, usually moments when their centrality, their resonance or the very definition are contested. It’s incredibly difficult to systematically integrate these poststructuralist ideas into our research, but he manages to say consistent things while acknowledging contingency. His approach to the study of religion and politics strongly influenced one of my current projectsa critical study that attempts to disaggregate and better understand the phenomenon of “Buddhist nationalism” in Myanmar.

What’s your next book?

The next book is called Buddhism and Politics: Organization and Participation in the Theravada Moral Universe, and will hopefully be released in 2018 with Hurst. It is an extension of the book on Myanmar, to comparatively examine Buddhist political thought in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. It expands on some of the concepts and frameworks in this book, but focuses in particular on an argument that positions Theravada Buddhist views of human nature as influencing the expansion and contraction of political participation and the limits of political inclusion. over the last century and a half, regardless of political regime type. So, for example, we can see the growth of mass Buddhist movements in the late 19and and early 20and centuries, the rise of left-wing Buddhist thought in the first half of the 20th century, and the restriction of popular political participation in contemporary Thailand as outcomes related to how Theravada Buddhists viewed the human moral condition.