Book Review: Buddhism, Politics, and Political Thought in Myanmar

By Courtney Wittekind, The I*rrawaddy, 5 June 2017

Yangon, Myanmar -- With Buddhism, Politics, and Political Thought in Myanmar, Matthew J. Walton offers a thorough account of how Buddhist ideas have influenced political thinking and, as a result, political action, in Myanmar. Central to such an account is the argument that politics in Myanmar cannot be thought of without Buddhism, given that Buddhism, as a “moral universe,” delineates what “the political” consists of, and what forms political authority and participation might take.

<< Pre-novice monk Zarnayar, 11-years-old, walks as he studies Buddhist texts at a monastery outside Mandalay, Burma, Nov. 10, 2015. / Reuters

The phrase “moral universe” is a significant term for Walton - one intentionally used to underscore the fact that, for Buddhists in Myanmar, “political action and political change are quintessentially moral practices” insofar as the world is understood to be governed by moral rules, and a moral logic of cause and effect (8). Yet, as Walton makes clear in his successive chapters, this moral universe, and the moral-causal logic upon which it is built, is not unproblematic for Burmese Buddhists, but rather produces certain political impulses and tensions. Such tensions must be acknowledged if scholars and citizens alike are to develop a deeper understanding of Myanmar’s political inheritance and still-fragile transition. This pragmatic orientation towards core concepts of contemporary Burmese politics makes Buddhism, Politics, and Political Thought much more than an exercise in political theory or religious inquiry. Instead, the questions Walton seeks to answer, while lying at the intersection of Burmese political thought and Buddhist moral practice, are profoundly concrete in nature.

Take, for example, the question of human nature, as addressed within a Burmese Buddhist worldview — a topic Walton tackles in the third chapter of his book. While providing a detailed reading of two key texts addressing human nature and its relation to socio-political circumstances and modes of authority — the Aggañña Sutta and the Cakkavatti Sutta — the chapter ultimately constructs an argument with tangible consequences for contemporary politics. Given that the suttas Walton analyzes provide two notions of human nature that exist in tension with one another — the notion of humans as inherently flawed and weak, and that of humans as simultaneously powerful in their capability of achieving ultimate enlightenment — it is unsurprising that visions of the value of political authority might also exist on a spectrum that lies between two poles. When humans are envisioned as inherently flawed, then the promise of political authority is one linked to the preservation of moral and material hierarchies— a logic that resonates in the commonly-heard invocations as to the necessity of a “disciplined democracy” or for government based on the establishment of “order” (a concept discussed in detail in chapter 4). Conversely, a viewpoint that foregrounds individuals’ ability to transcend their flaws posits a more complete solution linked to moral action— one that exists above and beyond the temporary and transitory order achieved by forms of political authority.

These two responses to the question of human nature, and the role of authority vis-à-vis a population, have direct implications for the types of political arrangements deemed acceptable or effective in Myanmar. Walton makes this clear in discussing the way in which contemporary visions of governance oscillate between an expressed goal of maintaining order and that of liberation, with governance seen as that which could free citizens to strive for moral action and, relatedly, a just and stable state. Sometimes existing in opposition, but often woven together in complex articulations as to what sort of “democracy” Myanmar might pursue, these two logics of government, and the paradoxical “moral universe” upon which they are built, must be understood if we are to assess progress toward the expressed goals of Myanmar’s political actors and institutions.

Questions of human nature and the resultant goal of governance relates in important ways to how exactly “politics,” as a concept, might be conceived— a point that underscores Walton’s central proposal that it is only with an eye toward Buddhist thought that we might understand what “the political” consists of in Myanmar. Even at the most fundamental level, when considering the common Burmese word for “politics,” nain ngan ye, “politics” articulates in significant ways with the paradoxical Buddhist conceptions of humanity and authority referenced above. Nain ngan ye, itself, implies an emphasis on kingly authority and the demarcating of the realm of “high” politics, one accessible only to elites. Such a conception echoes, in significant ways, a vision of government as that which achieves order through the actions of a highly selective group of actors, and where the moral failings of the masses render them unable to exercise political rule. It is interesting to contrast this selective, elite inflection of nain ngan ye with more recent notions of political participation as associated with individual moral practice (a phenomenon to which Walton turns in the fifth chapter). Foregrounding moral practice and meditation, and such actions’ implications for the collective, this latter conception of politics counters the more dominant notion of politics as relevant only to the elites. Instead, in this second conception, one’s moral practice can affect the circumstances of their community, and the collective pursuit of liberation, both in the religious and political senses of the word.

While such points represent only a sampling of the diverse, yet equally essential, religious and political concepts outlined in Walton’s text, what is evident even in such a brief summary is the ways in which terms foreign scholars might commonly associate only with a liberal, rights-based theory of governance— terms such as “freedom,” “democracy,” and “participation”— take on new meaning (sometimes dramatically so) when considered in terms of the “moral universe” in which they function. Particularly valuable in this regard are the pages Walton devotes to the translation and explication of common Burmese language words such as the example of nain ngan ye referenced above and, relatedly, local understandings of commonly-cited Western terms. A section on the three most commonly-used notions of “democracy” as circulated in Burmese political discourse— those of a “disciplined democracy,” a “rights-based democracy,” and a “moral democracy”— for instance (see chapter 6), should give pause to scholars and advocates alike, reminding them to ask what exactly is meant by the unqualified use of the term “democracy” in the Myanmar context. Such insights can only come from close readings of the texts that represent both historical and contemporary political thought in Myanmar, in their original Burmese— a task Walton advances here in his engagement with Burmese language sources from the last 150 years. In addition to complicating scholarly notions of “the political” in Myanmar, Buddhism, Politics, and Political Thought in Myanmar delivers a second challenge to the field of Burma/Myanmar studies by demonstrating just how crucial Burmese language materials and competencies can be in the crafting of an academic text.

Even in arguing for the conceptual and methodological advances he proposes, Walton is nonetheless keenly aware of the limitations of his study— limitations that he draws on to effectively map out the state of the research into Buddhism and political thought in Myanmar, as well as to identify productive directions for future research. Recognizing, for example, that a focus on “Burmese Buddhism,” precludes him from addressing either the diversity external to such a category— such as Buddhist practices of non-Burman groups such as the Karen, Mon, or Shan—or that which lies within in— the variations in Buddhist thought and practice extant among Burman Buddhists— Walton notes the necessity for comparative scholarship that extends beyond assumptions of a single, coherent perspective on politics in Myanmar. Furthermore, while Walton furthers discussions of Burmese Buddhism’s relationship to politics, arguing strongly for recognition of Myanmar’s own intellectual history and the Buddhist political ideas that undergird such a history, the question of how Myanmar’s dominant political and religious philosophies might have been developed in dialogue with other traditions could use more attention— a point Walton himself underscores in his discussion of twentieth century debates around the proper relationship between Marxism and Buddhism. Certainly, the fluidity with which ideas traveled throughout the colonial and independence eras, not to mention the contemporary moment— when an influx of political consultants and governance specialists brings a new language through which “politics” is discussed— speaks to a need for more fine-grained research into how Buddhist ideas exist not as a “pure” body of thought, but rather one developed in dialogue with other contradictory worldviews throughout history.

Possible expansions of this research aside, overall, Buddhism, Politics, and Political Thought in Myanmar provides a much-needed accounting of contemporary Burmese Buddhist approaches to politics, and the worldview and logics upon which such approaches are based. Clearly written, yet carefully researched through both English and Burmese language texts, the book provides a foundational introduction to Buddhist thought— useful for religious scholars and those less familiar with Buddhism, alike— while also spelling out the concrete and practical implications of such a worldview when it comes to the domain of politics. Whether related to Buddhist nationalism and associated exclusionary politics, the carefully-managed transition to a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” or the fraught relationship between freedom and authoritarianism in Myanmar’s history, Walton’s emphasis on the Burmese Buddhist “moral universe” is indispensable to any number of questions central to Myanmar’s ongoing political transition.

This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.
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