Buddhist monks in post-coup Myanmar face division while youth resistance turns secular

    Monks protesting in Myanmar in 2007
    (source: Robert Coles, Wikimedia Commons).

Myanmar’s Buddhist monks and nuns have mostly stayed on the sidelines since the February 2021 coup, as the resistance pursues a secular agenda that includes violent action, a new International Crisis Group report, A Silent Sangha? Buddhist Monks in Post-coup Myanmar (March 10), finds. This contrasts with the significant role played by monks in previous political crises, up to the 2007 Saffron Revolution. While restrictions due to Covid and the fact that many monks returned to the countryside during the pandemic may initially have played a role, a major reason for the change is the divisions that have developed within the Sangha (the monastic communities), in which one can find both supporters of the regime and vociferous opponents, though most avoid taking a public position. This avoidance also reflects a sense that it is unlikely that the monks—even if they were united—would be able to influence the conflict’s outcome. Such a sidelining of monastic figures might have significant consequences in the future, the authors of the report stress. The Sangha represents some 600,000 individuals in Myanmar (comprising ordained monks, novices, and 60,000 nuns).

Formed in 1980, a state-backed Sangha Council attempts to enforce the military’s control over the monastic community, issuing in 2007 a prohibition on monks’ participation in non-religious activities. It also rebuked radical nationalist organizations led by monks. But the already weak legitimacy of the Sangha Council has been further eroded by its complete subordination to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, even with a number of monks sitting in the Council. “Council members are aware that public perception that a monk is biased toward the military can seriously undermine his following,” according to the report. Those monks supporting the regime tend to be older, and some hope that the military will better defend Buddhism than the previous government. Those supporting the revolution tend to be junior monks. Many monks are remaining neutral not only because they are afraid of the consequences of repression, but also because they became disenchanted with the previous administration and because of the use of armed violence by the resistance, which they do not feel the right to support even in response to brutality.

Moreover, a number of young people in the anti-regime resistance movement appear to “have developed an aversion to organized Buddhism and Theravada cultural norms more generally.” It should be noted that—contrary to widespread expectations—activist nationalist monks have not come together as a unified force supporting either side. Despite the current developments, the authors warn about premature predictions of a decline of Buddhism. Buddhist monastic communities remain a crucial social institution for supporting people in Myanmar. If the current secular shift among some segments of the younger generation endures, it would likely “foment rural-urban division” or might lead to a conservative backlash if some social forces or the Sangha would feel alienated from future political processes.

(The full report can be downloaded from the ICG website, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/330-silent-sangha-buddhist-monks-post-coup-myanmar)