By Davide Orsitto
One of the most interesting and frequently discussed aspects of religion and comparative politics is the relationship between national religious actors and the shift towards democratic reforms of the state they act within. This topic has been so appealing that a significant amount of literature has discussed extensively thereon because of two factors: the unquestioned authority of global history which has so far shown that religion played an important role in the third wave of democratization, and the prevalence in the field of comparative politics of the so called secular theories, which for over half a century disregarded religion as a significant variable in shaping global politics by the secularization theories. The claim of secularization theory has been that the social power of religion was undoubtedly declining ever since the creation of the Nation State system, and a decline in religious social power triggered a decline in number of people adhering to a faith. In time, secularists argued, the outcome of the vicious cycle devouring religion’s legitimacy would be the marginalization of religion from the center of human life (Bruce, 2011, pp.viii-ix). One of the most remarkable arguments that challenge the secular views is raised by Monica Toft, Daniel Philpott and Timothy Shah (2011) in God’s Century, in which the authors argue that, even if religion has undergone a relative decline in the first half of the nineteenth century, it has experienced a revitalization process in the past four decades and is now more significant than ever in shaping global politics (p. 3). One of the aspects of global politics in which the authors claim religion is particularly significant lies in the correlation between religious actors and the transition of authoritarian regimes towards democracy in the period of third wave of democratization spanning from 1972 to nowadays. After having assessed the significant relationship between religion and democratization, the authors elaborate a paradigm which explains variation in the behavior of religious actors across the many case studies of democratization. The paradigm explains religious actors’ variation in terms of changes in the institutional relationship between the state and religion and changes in political theology. Finally, the authors conclude that, generally, the optimal institutional relationship of religious actors with the state to be successful in the democratic transition is conflictual independence (Toft, Philpott and Shah, 2011, p.110). The aim of this paper in the first part is to conduct a theoretical analysis of the argument outlined in chapter four of God’s Century and discusses the methodological validity of the authors’ paradigm in explaining the variation in the behavior of religious actors in relation to democratization. In its second part, the paper will examine the case study of Myanmar ,lingering on the 1988 uprising, the 2007 Saffron Revolution and the November 9 2015 victory landslide of the NLD party, to assess to what extent does God’s century’s argument and paradigm apply to it . More specifically, the paper will draw a comparative analysis between the role of the Burmese Sangha in its leading opposition role in the 2007 saffron revolution and that of the the secular pro-democracy movements in 1988 (the students, San Sun Kyi’s NLD party and the international collective pressure over a shift towards democracy), reaching the conclusion that, all things being equal, religious actors have been the most significant variable inducing the military regime to open up to reforms. In the second part, the paper will try to assess the inherent features that made religious actors play such a decisive leading role in democracy fostering despite its institutional position of conflictual integratation within the Burmese government of the Tatmadaw, which is considered by Toft, Philpott and Shah not an optimal position to realize effective changes. To achieve this purpose, this paper will try to triangulate the significance of the independent variable of religious actors upon the dependent variable of positive democratic reform by studying the transformations in the institutional relationship between the government and the Sangha.
In developing the first argument about the significance of religious actors in the process of democratization, Toft, Philpot and Shah (2011) previously operationalize the terms ”role of religious actors in relation to democratization” and ”push for democratic reforms”. The first operationalization consists in labeling actors as free riders (indifferent to reforms), supporters (secondarily significant in promoting reforms), leaders (chief promoters of reforms) and reactionaries (hostile towards reforms) (p. 86). The second consists in defining ”push for democratic reforms” as the level of promotion of liberal values which pave the way towards democracy in a future (p.90). Subsequently, the authors give a quantifiable account of the degree of influence exercised by religious actors in the third wave of democratization, showing how religion played a significant role (supporting or leading) in 48 cases of substantial movements towards democracy out of a total of 78 (2011, p. 95). According to the provided data, the correlation between religious actors and democratic reforms seems plausibly significant. The second part of the argument spurs from the first: since religion is significant in promoting democratic reforms, it is necessary to study the different stages of success in achieving democratic goals by the many religious actors fitting in the paradigm. Why was Vietnam’s Engaged Buddhism push towards democratic reform less efficacious than Desmond Tutu’s Anglican activism in ending Apartheid in South Africa? To tackle this issue, the authors provide their own paradigm in understanding the degree of success in achieving democratic and liberal opening by taking into account two main variables: the institutional relationship between religion and state and political theology. Political theology can be broadly divided into politically and non-politically engaged theology, whereas institutional relationship can be divided in four classes: consensual integration, consensual independence, conflictual integration and conflictual independence (2011, p. 45). With this paradigmatic division in mind, the authors gather that religious actors push for policy changes when they are oppose the state, i.e. when they are either conflictually integrated or conflictually independent. From the empirical evidence collected, the authors reach the conclusion that usually the greatest practical achievement in democratization happens when the religious actor is conflictually independent from the state. The conclusion makes sense: if the religion is independent from the state, it has more liberty of action and thus more possibility to effectively organize a resistance to the state. On the other hand, when religion is consensually integrated within the state, its political theology is meaningfully influenced by the state’s discourse because of the degree of economic and cultural dependence from the latter, and therefore religious actors have less space and capacity to act autonomously (2011, pp. 110-112). It follows that when the political theology of a religious actor opposes the nature of a state’s regime and the religion is conflictually integrated, the integrated level of institutional relationship is not optimal for real democratic openings (2011, p.119).
Toft, Philpott and Shah’s (2011) paradigm, although thoroughly elaborated, can be criticized for many of its in-built assumptions. First, the authors seem to axiomatically equate democracy with Liberal values, which denote a Western-centric view of the concept of democracy that has certainly influenced the method of classification of successful democratic transitions, i.e. the data gathering and interpreting process in the research. The authors show to have a clear bias in defining ”democracy” as more fair elections, and therefore reject altogether the concept of illiberal, i.e. non-Western, democracies presented by Zakaria (Toft, Philpott & Shah, 2011, p. 84). Because the whole range of cases of illiberal democracies is dismissed, collected data does present a probability of being skewed. This paper accepts the assumption that Illiberal democracies are negligible due to assignment limitations, although it pinpoints the level of arbitrariness in the methodology of the data selection. The second, more important criticism lies in the choice of the variables explaining the extent to which democratic reforms were successfully implemented. In choosing the variables structuring their paradigm, the authors neglect that a significant factor of multicollinearity that seemingly makes the variables of institutional relationship and political theology partly carry the same amount of information. If the variables carry the same amount of information and are dependent upon each other, the model loses both significance and goodness of fit, i.e. the ability to predict and extrapolate patterns (Anderson, D. R., Sweeney, D. J., & Williams, T. A, (2011), p. 644). Following this reasoning, it is evident that the political theology of a religious actor is significantly correlated with the degree of institutional relationship of the latter with the state, as the state can influence the religious actor with economic subsidies, military coercion and other means. If the political theology of a religious actor is strictly correlated with state’s control over the latter, the paradigm becomes tautological in itself and unable to describe reality effectively. For this reason, new variables could be built into God’s century paradigm to explain and possibly reduce the wide amount of variability of the model, i.e. the anomalies its paradigm has to face.
One of the most interesting anomalous cases which does not seem to align with God’s Century’s argument is the history of Burma, namely the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in the recent struggle between pro-democracy opposition forces and the military junta. From the 1988 revolution, to the 2007 saffron revolution up until the November 8th 2015 landslide victory of the NLD party, Myanmar is a case in which significant achievements of democratic reforms inside a bureaucratic authoritarian regime were met (Fisher, 2015). In Myanmar’s ongoing transition to democracy, religious actors are but one among the many players in the struggle, but it can safely be argued that in 2007, the solemn, sacred encroachment of thousands of monks wrapped in saffron robes in the streets of Yangoon protesting against the military junta’s clumsy and oppressive regime has been one of the most significant factors which led to a major democratic opening. This paper examines in the first part the case study of Myanmar lingering particularly on the 1988 uprising, the 2007 Saffron Revolution and the November 9 2015 victory landslide of the NLD party. More specifically, the paper will draw a comparative analysis between the role of the Burmese Sangha in its leading opposition role in the 2007 saffron revolution and that of the the secular pro-democracy movements in 1988 (the students, San Sun Kyi’s NLD party and the international collective pressure over a shift towards democracy), reaching the conclusion that, all things being equal, religious actors have been the most significant variable inducing the military regime to open up to reforms. In the second part, the paper will try to assess the inherent features that made religious actors play such a decisive leading role in democracy fostering despite its institutional position of conflictual integratation within the Burmese government of the Tatmadaw, which is considered by Toft, Philpott and Shah not an optimal position to realize effective changes. To achieve this purpose, this paper will try to triangulate the significance of the independent variable of religious actors upon the dependent variable of positive democratic reform by studying the transformations in the institutional relationship between the government and the Sangha.
The contemporary history of the movements towards democracy in Burma begins because of astrological and superstitious reasons. Since its achievement of independence from Britain in 1962, Burma had been led by General Ne Win as a one-party State endeavored to commit its way towards socialism following a Soviet-oriented plan of nationalization of industries with the aim of becoming an autarky system, i.e. not relying on international trade or aid. The political mismanagement of the socialist policy implementation turned out to be disastrous for the Burmese economy. By 1985, the immense amount of national public debt crippled more than a third of the country’s GDP with its only annual interest rate ratio (Aungh-Twin, 2012, pp. 254-256). Due to the economic instability of the country, Ne Win tried to refer to the Burmese traditions to find a solution against what he perceived as being a grim omen, and relied on his astrologer counselor’s advice to demonetize 60 to 80 percent of the currency value, the Kyat, to issue currency bills multiples of nine, considered by many a sacred number and a positive karma bringer (McCarthy, 2008, p.101). The country’s mismanaged economy was given a final blow by Ne Win’s bad policy making and citizens living in very poor conditions, seeing all their savings vanishing all of a sudden, felt the drive of hunger and frustration to express their strong dissent to the regime in mass demonstrations. The demonstrations were triggered by university students, who started manifesting their unease and discomfort committing unlawful acts of arson and vandalism near the Rangoon University of Technology. The military reaction was swift: countless students were arrested and beaten and one was killed in a retaliatory shooting.
The government harsh overreaction to minor protests mixed with economic unease, and students of other universities in Rangoon started clustering together committing hostile acts of protest which the military regime perceived as very threatening. The reaction was even more ruthless: the army was dispatched in major swathes of the city and slaughtered hundreds of students (Aungh-Twin, 2012, pp. 256-257). The government’s violent reaction unleashed a more violent counter-reaction: a national strike led by students as well as the working class was announced on the first week of August, in which also many Burmese monks participated breaking their sacred vows of non-political activism. Seen the unpopularity of the regime’s moves, Ne Win promised to resign. Meanwhile, the wide spread demonstrations, which reached the peak in the 8 August 1988 (also written 08/08/88 in the calendar, meaning a numerically auspicious day for the protesters), threatened to hurl the country into chaos and anarchy ( Aungh-Twin, 2012, pp. 258). Arguing to have the duty to defeat the threat of anarchy and further adducing the willingness to protect the rights of non-Buddhist minorities, general Saw Maung plotted a coup d’état with the acquiescence and cooperation of a resigning Ne Win. Ne Win willingly stepped down, and a new military rule, formed by 19 senior official of the army was established: the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The organ used the excuse of the protests and the strong grip of the military force (tatmadaw) to establish temporary martial law and rule by decree (McCarthy, 2008, pp.300-301). All the student manifestations were crushed, and the tatmadaw managed to restore order through a bloodbath.
Subsequently, the public discomfort and dissent with the regime crystallized into a more organized political opposition movement: the National League for Democracy (NLD). Led by the former dissenter generals Aung Gyi, Tin U and San Suu Kyi, the activist daughter of one of the country’s greatest Burmese military heroes, the NLD epitomized the only legitimate source of political discontent which managed to gather most the politically marginalized and disenfranchised electorate under the wide umbrella of the will of democracy. The figure of Aung San Suu Kyi was pivotal in drawing a parallel consensus to the SLORC. Suu Kyi was the daughter of a national hero, a very eloquent, passionate and taboo-breaker speaker and, also, a legitimate representative of the most appealing side of western democracy because of her long studies in the UK. This formidable character managed to epitomize all the secular opposition forces (the students, the political activists dissenting to the regime, and the international Western consensus), proving herself to be the greatest threat to the regime. The SLORC well understood Suu Kyi’s imminent threat, and decided to put her under house arrests with the charge of being subversive to public order (Augh-Thwin, 2012, pp. 263-265).
To finally appease the steadily growing public unrest to the military junta’s government, general Saw Maung induced public elections in the May 1990 constituent assembly, confident to win in a system of public consensus. The general’s calculations were distant from reality, and the NLD party won 392 seats out of 492 in a landslide victory. Students and workers cheered in the streets, their blue collar images blending with the saffron robes of the many monks taking part in the joyful demonstrations. Saw Maung’s response was quick and effective: he decided to refuse step down from the prime-ministership, publicly clarifying that the constituent assembly was gathered only to understand the trends of the general will of the people. The voice of the people, promised Saw Maung, would be heard and seriously taken into consideration by the government which will enact it throughout the gradual implementation of reforms (Matthews, 1993, 419-420). Small protests of monks and students burst again in Rangoon and other major cities and were followed by the usual repressive reaction, in which the tatmadaw shot a monk to death along with several students. The event stirred the religious community and countless monks rebelled in the streets of Mandalay, the second Burmese city in size, importance and population . The religious community was so outraged by the bold ruthlessness of the government, which did not even pay respect to the heart of the Burmese traditions, that the major religious leaders called upon a religious boycott, in which the monks were forbidden to accept alms from the soldiers and the government. This move was deeply symbolic, and can be compared with the western conception of religious delegitimization of a political regime through excommunication. The regime was deeply shaken by the subversive initiative, and decided to elaborate a strategy of carrot and stick in its relationship with the Sangha. Therefore, the SLORC tightened its control over the Buddhist community issuing a strict ethical standard of conduct for the monks, imposing severe punishments against the violators thereof, and decreed in 1992 that the only legitimate Sangha organization would be the Union of Myanmar Sangha Organization , elected personally by the government. (McCarther, 2008, pp.301-302).
By enhancing its control over the Sangha and expelling all the dissident monks, the SLORC also tried to manipulate the strong public consensus given by the Buddhist ethical values, and tried to marginalize the secular forces of the NLD by depicting them as sacrilegious and profane. To do this, the government started an epic propaganda campaign of Buddhist nationalism, spending large amounts of assets in the upkeep and construction of pagodas (Theravada Buddhist temples and Burmese loci of religious cult) and providing funds to Buddhist education and formation. This way the government hoped to create a sense of national identity based on the state promotion of Buddhist religious value in the civil society, which overlapped with a de facto support for the military government (Cheesman, 2003, p. 56). The government complete U turn in political program due to propaganda was both clumsy and ironic: to efficaciously marginalize the secular pro-democracy forces, the government in 1992 had to appeal to the Burmese Buddhist values and subsidize and control the Sangha, completely going against their early 1988 program of protection of religious minorities. (McCarthy, 2008, p.303).
The strong dichotomy between the repressive SLORC with its nationalist propaganda on the one side and dissident monks belonging to the outlawed religious community, international journalists, social activists and the NLD on the other created two different perceptions of the same country given by two different names: Burma and Myanmar. The first word depicts the vision of all the dissident forces, which strongly portrayed the country as a nation locked up in an authoritarian dark cage represented by the SLORC and advocated a united identity of the many forces opposing the regime fighting for peace, equal opportunity and democracy. The first picture of Burma was the one legitimized by the Western international eye through the international press, which gradually enhanced the Western pressure on the Burmese regime towards a democratic opening. The second world was the reality in which the everyday majority of poor farmers, peasants and citizens were embedded, i.e. the Myanmar reality of the SLORC, in which the government propose the image of ”another” Burma by appealing to the Burmese tradition, mainly communicating in Burmese language and outlawing the English language as well as shutting off the international opinions (Aung-Thwin, 2012, pp. 368-269). Despite the government unpopularity, the tatmadaw rule managed to gain the upper hand and defeated the last ripples of the huge wave of the 8888 protests. From 1995 onwards, the military junta employed the strategy of increasing religious integration, de facto attempting to institutionalize an osmosis between the government and the religious community: soldiers were portrayed by the media while attending religious ceremony in pious demeanour, bestowing alms, robes and asset donations to the leading sayadaw(religious leader) of the Union of the Myanmar Sangha Organization to increase the hti (moral legitimacy or charisma, positive karmic merit), and attending numerous lectures on the Paritta texts (sacred Buddhist precepts) by the recognized Sangha(McCarthy, 2008, p.305).
In 1997, the SLORC changed name into State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), hinting at the new achieved social order the regime could boast. To celebrate the newly acquired equilibrium and tie itself to the ancient kingly traditions, the SPDC initiated a new intense program of public infrastructure building to realize the construction of the future capital that would replace Ragoon: Naypyidaw , which means ”Kingly residence” (Shah, Stepan, Toft, 2012, p. 230). The immense proportion of expenditures for the ambitious capacity building program was again the main cause of great economic indebtedness for the country: 2% of the GDP was employed overall to cover the building expenses, becoming an increasing burden on the shoulders of the lower strata of the population. Because of mass indebtedness and due to the several IMF admonitions, the SPDC tried to reduce its public debt through an increase in indirect tax revenue by artificially intervening on the prices of domestic goods such as oil, jade, timber and gas. The clumsy economic intervention brought about an economic disaster similar to the 1987 one, where natural gas prices increased six-fold, the price of fuel and diesel doubled and the price of the other goods far outreached the budget of the average citizen(McCarthy, 2008, p.307). Protests resumed subsequently on the 15th of August 2007 as a manifestation of the indignation spurred by the public awareness that, even if the Burmese country was immensely rich in gas, the latter would always be out of the reach of the majority of the population. The protests were again initially led by the members of the 8888 generation student movement, in which some 500 activists marched in Rangoon, and were repressed as usual by the police force, who detained several students and activists. Things however unfolded in a different way than in 1988, as religious-led pacific demonstrations against the unbearable cost of living outburst in Pakokku, a very well-known Buddhist enclave. The tatmadaw response was overwhelming and disproportionate: the army stormed in the enclave, attacking unarmed monks. The national and international shock was intense: photos and videos of unfairly assailed and beaten monks, who in the Burmese society represented the moral, ethical and social authority of the sacred, spread into the net and caused wide public and international unrest (Shah, Stepan & Toft, 2012, p.231).
The public outrage for the mistreatment of the traditionally highly estimated Buddhist clergy allowed a real religious opposition movement to gain momentum: almost every Sangha in the country gathered in the Alliance of All Burma Monks (ABMA). On the 15 of September, ABMA declared a religious boycott, which consisted in forbidding the monks to accept alms and subsidies from the army. The act of overturning the bowl (pattam nikkyjjana kamma) is very symbolic in the politics of the country, and sinks its roots in the ancient Burmese traditions. The Burmese culture envisions the religious community as the maintainers of the karmic equilibrium and granter of karmic merit, and depicts the act of giving charity to the begging monks as the highest act of blessing and good auspicious (Shah, Stepan & Toft, 2012, p. 231). Because of this cultural reason and for the high international media coverage, the impact of the images of monks-led protests was unparalleled: thousands of monks marched in the streets of the major cities in the country, their saffron robes echoing back to the spilt blood of the thousands of victims beaten, abducted, mistreated and violated by the military, and mixing with the glowing yellow and red of the leaves of the trees: even nature itself was sympathetic with the monks’ indignation.
The protests reached a third phase when a numerous group of Buddhist monks were mistakenly allowed by the military to visit NLD leader San Suu Kyi’s on the 22nd of September. That event was the greatest precipitant of the revolution: the sacred and the secular held hands one another to jointly, quietly and solemnly denounce the evil deeds of the authoritarian government. Few days after, hundreds of thousands of monks and secular civilians, activists and dissenters marched in all the major cities of the country, marking the greatest challenge to the military regime since its creation in 1962. Even if the military junta was very clumsy in economic management, it was complementarily efficient in facing the threat: on 26 September the tatmadaw opened fire on the protestors and raided into monasteries, civil houses and public venues. Thousands of monks were detained and at the same time a great propaganda campaign was launched, questioning the sanctity of the protesting monks. The violent repression in Rangoon achieved the goal: in a short time, the streets of the cities became desert while the population, the monks and the international indignation had to subdue to the intensity of the military’s threat and use of violence (Selth, 2008, pp. 282-283).
In 2007, the tatmadaw managed to successfully ward off the subversion of the wide-scale protests. However, they came out of the political battle with a weakened credibility, legitimacy and popularity: the incoherence of their decades of program fostering the thriving of religious community did not logically fit with the suppressive, patronizing attitude towards them in the revolution (McCarthy, 2008, p. 311). In fact, a thread of coherence can be spotted in the tatmadaw’s repressive tactics:the military’s reaction somehow differed from a complete ruthless act because of the exceptional foe they found standing against us: the monks. The military was initially very cautious in reacting against the saffron-robed marching priests, as their silent protest was very different than that of an anti-regime opposition party. Everywhere they went, the monks never uttered disrespectful words towards the authority, but only chanted meekly Buddhist prayers and mantras. Such was the awe-inspiring authority of the religious protestors that initially the tatmadaw tried to be as careful as possible in the use of violence. Effectively, during the first days of the marches, the military allowed the peaceful demonstrations to occur and even yielded to the moral authority of the monks, who knelt in front of the soldiers as if revering distinguished guests, permitting them to keep marching unhurt (Hlaing, 2008, p. 137). Subsequently, as the protests kept mushrooming because of the military hesitation, the tatmadaw saw its survival at risk and had to resort to terror, and managed to do it efficiently and quickly. However well performed could the military counteractions be and the tatmadaw armor of violence be, the ripples of the Saffron revolution remained alive in the memory of the people and of the international arena, and managed to usher in the winds of democratic change. In 2008 a referendum for a new constitution was set forth. The subsequent constitution was accepted by the 92% of the population, and contained in its preamble liberal principles shared by nowadays’ western democracies: the ultimate sovereignty of the people, the reiteration of the existence of a multi-party regime and of the legitimacy of democratic elections, support for racial and social equality, freedom and justice (Phy Thaw, 2008).
Although the statements of the preamble are very general and vague in their practical application and notwithstanding the arbitrary reservation of one quarter of the parliament seats for the military, the constitution was deemed a great leap forward to a democratic opening. The more democratic framework of the 2008 constitution paved the way for the twilight of the SPDC and more concrete steps towards open and fair elections. A nominal civilian government was elected in 2011 with Thein Sein, one of the former generals of the tatmadaw rule, as president. Unexpectedly, Sein’s mandate acquiesced to the will of the people for liberal and democratic reforms and enacted them with quiet determination and overall spontaneity: he allowed the liberation of thousands of dissidents previously imprisoned, brought the NLD back to the official political arena, pledged in 2012 at the UN to pursue a road of ”irreversible change” towards reforms (2014). Thein Sein’s actions culminated with the elections held the 8th of November 2015, in which The Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has achieved an overwhelming victory. The vote, considered by the majority fair to a good extent, ended nearly 50 years of military authoritarian rule and gave Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD the possibility to choose a president in full autonomy (Fisher, 2015).
The history of Burma’s quest towards democracy is dense and complex, and worth analyzing in depth. From 1988 to nowadays, Myanmar has undergone two major anti-government demonstration moments, has changed three regimes, four governments and has embraced a new constitution. The analogous initial pattern of development the two pivotal moments of protest, namely the 8888 uprising and the Saffron revolution, is also very interesting. Both of the revolutions had the same precipitants: they both started because of an economic mismanagement due to a clumsy, inexperienced moves by the same military regime. Both of them were organized and initiated by the same secular forces of the ’88 generation and the NLD members. In either of them, the government’s response was violent and repressive to the extent that it managed to silence the revolts and regain control. However, the event of the August 1988 went down into history as an uprising, whereas the 2007 one as a fully-fledged revolution. The difference in the two events has been both in terms of the sheer scale of the protests (thousands of people in the first, hundreds of thousands of people in the second) and in the subsequent aftermaths in terms of democratic achievements springing from them. The 1988 uprising was completely and successfully repressed by the tatmadaw, which tightened its grip over the numerous Sanghas in the country to best ideologically oppose the liberal NLD and managed to skillfully establish a regime based on wide-scale media indoctrination and hostility towards dissenters and objectors. The 2007 Saffron revolution was a direct continuation of the stifled 1988 uprising, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians, NLD activists and supporters and monks took to the streets, united by years of frustration and intolerance towards the regime; although the tatmadaw managed to fend the danger off initially, in less than a decade the country underwent the major reforms which people fought for in the revolution.
If the two events have such a great variability in outcome but the same initial precipitants and actors (economic mismanagement and the 88 generation), the two major variables whose change in value can explain the difference in outcome are the technological upgrade and degree of involvement of the religious actors and obviously a multiple degree of interaction between these two and the secular pro-democracy forces. Firstly, the technological upgrade allowed the international community to assist to the full build-up of the brutal repression of what was perceived as being peaceful, legitimate demonstrations with an unprecedented degree of vividness. Images and short video tapes of monks wrapped in saffron robes being abused, mistreated and humiliated captured by mobile phones and journalist cameras and posted in the internet within minutes from their occurrence. In 1988 the international arena was not even fully aware of the Burmese struggle towards reform, let alone the outcome of the protests. In 2007, the world could assist in live stream to the appalling development of the protests in Burma and knew the causes thereof in a much more significant way because of the mass advertizing the assignment of the Nobel Peace Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi (Rogers, 2008, p. 1). The second difference consisted in the change in degree of religious involvement in the revolution, was much more intense than the role of the monks in the uprising. While the 1988 uprising was mainly student-led and the religious community played only a minor supportive role, the Saffron revolution was instead organized by the entire religious community (ABMA), and derives even its name from the glowing orange colors filling the streets of the major cities and belonging to the endless flow of protesting monks. (Rogers, 2008, p. 2).
From the historical and factual analysis, it can be safely argued that the final outcome of the response variable (implementation of democratic reforms) was correlated with positive change in the two variables of technological upgrade and degree of religious involvement (from supportive to leading), and their degree of interaction between themselves and other variables already in the play, such as the secular forces. The technological upgrade of 2007 directly influenced the increase in international pressure towards the Burmese regime (US and EU sanctions, virtual and practical support of the international community for the Burmese democratic quest), whereas the participation of the full religious community, which represents the bulk of Myanmar’s traditional moral authorities, and the subsequent memorable meeting between the monks and Aung San Suu Kyi emboldened the many (hundreds of thousands) agrarian peasants to take into the streets and fight for the cause along with the monks and the secular opposition forces. Finally, the revolution had the chance to fully blossom because of the initial degree of hesitation and acquiescence of the military with the monks: as people saw that the military did not step in to physically intervene in ending the demonstrations, the already animated and overheat citizens were given the final boost to participate to the protests in mass. This discussion shows uncontrovertibly how the leading role of religious actors in the protests, combining itself with the secular forces and the international consensus, managed to break the wall of indifference and alienation erected by the military junta and stir up real and concrete changes. Now that the influence of the religious actors is assessed, the next questions to ask are how come have religious actors managed to succeed in achieving changes where other equally motivated forces have previously failed.
The religious community has drawn its significant political strength, popularity and social importance from centuries of old traditions and cultural perceptions institutionalized by the same state they ended up fighting against. For centuries, Myanmar has had the highest concentration of exercising Buddhist monks and believers in one country. At the time of the unfolding of the Saffron revolution, there was a monastery in every village of the country and the monks amounted to more than 400000 individuals, equaling in numbers the size of the military force (Beyond a Spiritual Calling, 2014). The central aspect of religion which has permeated Burmese traditions for a long time is also due to the pivotal role of the Sangha in administering and granting access to public education. Before the creation of the all-encompassing nation states, Burmese pre-colonial systems made the tacit pacts with the religious community, granting it the means of survival such as alms, construction of religious venues and protection in exchange for the promotion of the state in the religious education. Because of this tradition, the word ”school” and ”monastry” (ausmif) are the same (Cheesman, 2003, pp. 48-49). Finally, the Sangha has always developed in a very decentralized and autonomous way, outside the state. The state had difficulties and disincentives to control monks both ideologically and logistically as the structure of a monastery resembles a microcosm of society, with its structure, power hierarchies, fixed doctrinal values and worldviews (Hlaing, 2008, pp. 134-135).
The importance of religious values, deeply embedded in the hearts and memory of the Burmese citizens, the monopoly of religion over education and the decentralized and autonomous status of the Sangha, were significantly looked upon by the tatmadaw rule, especially in its political campaign against the NLD party from 1996 onwards. In that period, the tatmadaw embarked on a process of monopolization and regulation of religion in order to both legitimize its rule and appease a potential enemy threatening the junta’s existence. As a result of this strategy, the generals became much more careful in respecting traditional Buddhist sacraments, encouraged religion at all levels of society and provided economic and financial aid to the religious community in an unprecedented way (McCarthy, 2008, p. 305). The conclusive analysis allows to discern a singular pattern of change in religion’s institutional relationship with the state: in pre-colonial times, religion developed in what can be called as ”loose, gentle integration”, i.e. was financed by the state but was also left thriving in its own autonomous microcosm. After the colonial rule, i.e. from 1962 onwards, the Sangha saw the strengthening of the state being directly proportional tightening of the state’s grip over religious institution the many reasons outlined above. The process noted is thus one from a decentralized integration to a more tightened central state regulation of the religious community. Contemporarily to the process of further integration, the conduct of the Sangha in the promotion of democracy has been that of an indisputable leadership. Moreover the religious leadership in coordinating pro-democracy forces has led to the effective democratic transition consisting in the 2010 controversial elections and subsequently the ones open and free of 2015.
In conclusion, Burma is a very peculiar case study in relation to Toft, Philpott and Shah’s argument since the country has achieved a preliminary transition towards democracy as a direct consequence of the significant leading role of the Sangha in the Saffron revolution, along with the pressure towards democratic opening of the international arena and the pivotal role of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party. Religious actors can therefore be the colorful well of freedom even if deeply integrated with the state they are fighting against. The case can therefore be defined, as stated in the introduction of the paper, as an anomaly in God’s Century’s argument. However, it is misleading to understand that the nature of such an isolated and unique case like Myanmar can be detrimental to the validity of Toft, Philpot and Shah’s paradigm, which remains legitimate for most of the case studies belonging to the third wave of democratization. However, it can be stated that the presence of an anomaly needs an improvement in the paradigmatic model, whose many assumptions in the selection of the data and in the choice of variables characterized by multicollinearity might be counterproductive to its soundness. What can therefore be drawn from the case study is the suggestion to slightly reform the model, building in variables which could reduce the degree of multi-collinearity between political theology and institutional relationship in the description of the behavior of a religious actor and its impact on the success of the achievements in democratization.
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