Theravada Buddhism was a vital organizing force in pre-colonial Burmese society. Buddhist practice and public piety— generally in the form of offerings to the Sangha or large-scale construction projects of Buddhist monuments—have been wellsprings of political legitimacy both historically and in modern times. In pre- colonial times, a king’s claim to the throne was seen as both a cause and a result of his righteous conduct, his exceptional piety, and his religious patronage of the Sangha. However, members of the Sangha also occasionally pushed back against political leadership, and kings sought to control them by “reforming” and “purifying” the Sangha. These “reforms” could include attempting to define normative beliefs and practices, interfering with the Sangha’s wealth, regulating monastic behavior, and refashioning religious texts. Strong kings often imposed severe punishments on any members of the Sangha or their lay supporters who opposed their reforms.1
This pre-colonial legacy of the relationship between Burma’s political and religious leaders has continued to have a deep impact on modern Myanmar. For example, General Ne Win, who ruled Burma from 1962 to 1988 as head of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), raised the spire on the Mahawizaya Pagoda in Rangoon, an act that has historically symbolized a display of royal power. On the other hand, when confronted with a resistant Sangha, modern political leaders have also invoked the memory of kings who reformed the Sangha, calling it their “religious duty” to contain monks who opposed military rule. Such conflict between the Sangha and the government came to a head in 2007, when the Saffron Revolution pitted the monastic community against the military government in a protest that became the largest public demonstration by Buddhist monks in modern Burmese history. The monks’ protests and the subsequent unrest garnered global attention.
Not surprisingly, the Sangha is therefore regarded as a stronghold of anti-colonial sentiment that affirms and is affirmed by Burmese Buddhist nationalism. The deep associations between Buddhism and nationalism have sidelined non-Buddhist minorities and have been deeply influential in shaping the experiences of all of the citizens of Myanmar.
1 Juliane Schober, Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), 11, 24- 26.