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Buddhists donate food and other necessities to monks as a way of earning merit for future lives. Monks have refused donations of alms from the military as a political protest in 1990 and 2007, a boycott that some monks insist is still in effect.
In response to political reforms in Myanmar — also known as Burma — the U.S. and other Western countries have eased some sanctions targeting the country's former military rulers.
But so far, one of the most powerful institutions inside the country has kept its sanctions in place. For some time, Myanmar's Buddhist clergy have effectively been on a spiritual strike by refusing to take donations from the military — a serious blow to the former regime's legitimacy.
Now, the prospects for lifting this spiritual boycott may be improving because of recent reforms by the nominally civilian government of President Thein Shein.
The day before his 37th birthday, Nay Myo Zin buys lunch for a dozen Buddhist monks. It's his way of expressing his gratitude for making it this far in life. At a monastery on the outskirts of Myanmar's main city, Yangon, he covers two tables with plates of rice and vegetable curries, which the monks eagerly tuck into.
Nay Myo Zin is a former captain in the Myanmar army who now runs a charity and is a political activist. He says he quit the army because soldiers were "always made to do bad things," and thus preventing him from properly practicing his Buddhist religion.
Nay Myo Zin is a former captain in the Myanmar army who now runs a charity and is a political activist. He says he quit the army because soldiers were "always made to do bad things," and thus preventing him from properly practicing his Buddhist religion. Anthony Kuhn/NPR
With his rugged build and jutting cheekbones, Myo Zin looks every bit the senior captain in the Myanmar army that he was until seven years ago. Now he runs a charity that digs wells for poor villagers and campaigns for an end to the decades-old insurgency waged by ethnic rebels against the Myanmar military.
"As an army officer, my life was comfortable, but the common people were tired and poor," he recalls, sitting at a roadside teahouse. "I couldn't accept this situation. As a Buddhist, I believe I must do good deeds and earn merit for future lives. This is what made me leave the army, where we're always made to do bad things."
The military and the monkhood are the two most powerful institutions in Myanmar, where 90 percent of the population is Buddhist. Members of the two institutions admire each other and recognize that they have much in common. Both are places where young men can be assured of getting enough to eat, but only in exchange for a highly regimented life.
For centuries, Burmese kings portrayed themselves as patrons and defenders of the faith, sponsoring the building of pagodas and editing of sacred texts. But members of Myanmar's former ruling junta, Myo Zin says, gave alms as a form of propaganda.
"The generals committed many crimes against the people, so they really want the monks to absolve their sins," he says. "They also want to use Buddhism to gain legitimacy among the people."
Boycotting As Political And Religious Protest
Back at the monastery, crows swoop among groves of bamboo, coconut palms and monuments to eminent monks of the past. Abbot U Eian Da Ga leads a dozen young monks in maroon robes through their evening prayers. In 2007, the abbot joined other monks in anti-government protests dubbed the "Saffron Revolution." He was arrested and jailed.
A monk waves his alms bowl upside down in defiance of a threat to send troops to end anti-junta protests in Yangon on Sept. 25, 2007, during the country's monk-led Saffron Revolution.
A monk waves his alms bowl upside down in defiance of a threat to send troops to end anti-junta protests in Yangon on Sept. 25, 2007, during the country's monk-led Saffron Revolution. Reuters /Landov
"While I was in jail, I met some young monks from the Buddhist University," he recounts. "After the Saffron Revolution, the minister of home affairs tried to give food to these monks. The monks fasted and went back to their dormitory. They were all arrested."
Monks declared a similar boycott in 1990, when the government refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition National League for Democracy following their decisive electoral victory.
When a monk turns his alms bowl upside down and refuses to accept donations, Da Ga explains, it is an act of political and religious protest. The monk is rejecting the offering as unclean and ill-intentioned, and essentially excommunicating the donor.
He says that in 2007, most monks decided to refuse donations from the junta's senior generals and their families or to perform religious services for them. That spiritual boycott remains in effect.
"Anyone who insults the monks and the monkhood must apologize, directly or through an intermediary," he says. "But this has not been done. According to Buddhist law, even if the generals retreat from politics or die, if they don't apologize, then the boycott can't be lifted."
Da Ga says the boycott is only targeted at the former military rulers, not the current, nominally civilian administration of President Thein Sein.
Repairing The Relationship
Earlier this year, state media showed Thein Sein and other senior administration leaders making donations to a government-sanctioned council of senior monks, which was originally created in 1979 to increase control over the Buddhist clergy — and perhaps to assure that there would always be some pro-government monks who would not reject donations.
U Zaw Tee Ga is head of another, more lavish monastery, where large photographs of senior military brass making donations to him and fellow clerics are prominently displayed.
"Yes, some hard-line monks are taking a wait-and-see approach toward the new government, or holding out for an apology," Tee Ga says. "But most of them realize that the new government is good. They are changing their minds. They're taking donations and cooperating with the government."
In recent weeks, Buddhist monks have joined street protests involving a range of issues, from chronic power shortages to clashes between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya residents in western Myanmar's Rakhine state. It's a reminder that the monks can be quickly mobilized into a potent opposition force, and why the government might want to try to buy the monks' favor with lavish donations.