Question and proposition
Here is the question: as a Buddhist, can I support the armed resistance of the People’s Defence Force against the February 2021 coup d’état launched by Myanmar’s military junta? More broadly, considering reverence for life, are there circumstances in which a Buddhist may use force of arms?
I have been wrestling with these questions and this is the conclusion I have reached. Facing a military junta that recognizes no limits in the use of fear, intimidation, and violence against its own population, Myanmar’s peoples have the right to respond in whatever ways they deem appropriate: this includes dialogue, negotiation, active nonviolence, and armed resistance—whichever blend of strategies they feel will lead toward freedom and a democratic society.
I am called to support Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG)—a representative government in exile—and the People’s Defence Force (PDF), its military wing. Born to an immigrant Jewish family, I ask myself what steps I might have taken against the Nazis during the years of the Holocaust. Having seen firsthand the fear and repression in Myanmar, I wonder what I would do if that were my homeland? I like to think that I would have the courage to resist and—with my fellow citizens—the wisdom to see what forms of resistance might be effective.
History and perspectives
The 2021 coup and its aftermath are the latest in a string of military takeovers in Burma/Myanmar, dating back to the end of World War Two. Myanmar’s military junta—the Tatmadaw—is doing its best to scatter the embers of emerging democracy. The junta negated the results of the November 2020 national election just one day before a new parliament was to be sworn in. Elected members of parliament, ministers, President Win Myint, and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi were detained and subsequently charged with serious crimes against the state. Many of them, including Daw Suu, remain in prison. A death toll in the thousands steadily rises from unprovoked attacks, atrocities, and human rights violations in all corners of the country.
Shortly after the coup, the NUG established a representative government in exile, with offices in Australia, the Czech Republic, France, Norway, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other nations. In May of 2021, the NUG announced the creation of the PDF as its designated military wing, charged with initiating “defensive war” to resist and overturn the military junta.*
Poets, activists, and students have fled the cities to take part in the PDF. Many monks have disrobed to join the resistance. One poet said: “We have a very clear political goal. That’s how we hold nonviolence in our minds. . . . Nonviolent resistance and human rights activism is still in my heart.”
Initially, I hesitated to support the PDF. I had similar doubts earlier. Thirty-five years ago, the 1988 coup and the reversal of electoral victories in 1990 united thousands of activists with ethnic armies in an unsuccessful effort to gain their rightful democratic mandate. Before it was overrun by the Tatmadaw in the 1990s, I visited the rebel encampment, Manerplaw, on the Moei River bordering Thailand. I came to understand that resistance was both necessary and inevitable. Win or lose, it was the people’s choice, not a matter on which those of us observing from a safe distance could make pronouncements or judgments.
From an orthodox Buddhist perspective, taking up arms—even in defense—would usually be understood as a violation of the precept against taking life. Many Buddhists, particularly those of us in the West, like to think of Buddhism as absolutely nonviolent. But there are canonical texts that are ambiguous on the question, and others that recognize the real-world necessity of a defensive military, while proscribing aggressive or expansionist action. In the Pali text Questions of King Milinda, the following exchange takes place between the monk Nagasena and King Milinda:
“Have rival kings ever risen up to oppose you, O king?”
“Yes they have.”
“Was it only then that you made preparations for battle?”
“Not at all. All that had been done beforehand in order to ward off future danger.” — (Mp. PTS I.81)
In the Spring 2014 issue of the journal Inquiring Mind, Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote a strong introductory essay, “War and Peace: A Buddhist Perspective.” In this piece, Bhikkhu Bodhi reviews a number of the canonical sources I allude to above, and asks a series of difficult questions:
Suppose we are living in the 1940s when Hitler is pursuing his quest for global domination. If I join a combat unit, is my participation in this war to be considered morally reprehensible though my purpose is to block the murderous campaign of a ruthless tyrant? Can we say that fidelity to the Dharma obliges us to remain passive in the face of brute aggression, or to pursue negotiations when it’s plain these will not work? Wouldn’t we maintain that in this situation military action to stop the aggressor is laudable, even obligatory, and that a soldier’s actions can be judged morally commendable?**
As I follow the disturbing news from Myanmar, I cannot see how a nonviolent movement by itself could unseat a junta that for more than 50 years has used its massive resources and powerful weapons against its own people.*** The junta has again and again shown itself impervious to appeals on the grounds of basic humanity and common morality.
I direct a small non-profit, the Clear View Project, which supports Buddhist-based humanitarian relief and social change in troubled regions of the world. As a matter of policy, we do not support armed activity. This has meant avoiding initiatives by the NUG, and its armed wing the PDF. But as the body count in Myanmar rises and the Tatmadaw expands its indiscriminate attacks on civilians across Myanmar, my non-violent principles seem insufficient. This does not mean ignoring effective tools of non-cooperation—including sanctions, civil disobedience, and other methods of active non-violence.****
In this samsaric world, non-violence is not an absolute principle, but a strategy for which one needs to be courageous and thoroughly trained. Mahatma Gandhi himself said: “I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence . . .”
This is not a comfortable resting place. Each of us needs to look deeply at our world, reach our own conclusions, and, of course, do all that we can to accomplish the boundless bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings.
There are significant examples of armed violence in the 20th and 21st centuries instigated by Buddhists or complicit with Buddhist institutions: Japanese imperialism, the Singhalese-Tamil civil war in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist-Muslim conflict in southern Thailand, and of course the genocidal repression of the Rohingya in western Myanmar. While such activities are often contextualized as “protecting the Dharma,” just under the surface they reveal the entanglement of religion and the nation-state—an unholy alliance. I’ll consider these movements in my next article for this column.
Meanwhile, here is an open letter to US President Biden calling for sanctions against corporations selling jet fuel to Myanmar’s military.
Note that Bhikkhu Bodhi’s article led to challenges by another well-respected Theravada teacher in the West, Ajahn Thanissaro. Their provocative series of letters can be found here: https://buddhistuniversity.net/content/essays/war-and-peace_bodhi-geoff
*** The 2023 Myanmar military budget is US$2.7 billion—more than a quarter of the national budget and targeted almost entirely at Myanmar citizens.
**** For an interesting outline of direct nonviolence, see Prof. Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of nonviolent action, clearly there are methods some would consider “violent.” https://www.brandeis.edu/peace-conflict/pdfs/198-methods-non-violent-action.pdf
Hozan Alan Senauke
Related features from BDG
Peace, Planet, Pandemic, and Engaged Buddhism: From a Divided Myanmar to a Divided World
Myanmar: A Month into the Coup
The Other Shoe Drops: Reflections on Myanmar’s Latest Coup
A Reflection on the Intellectual and Socio-Cultural History of Buddhism in Myanmar
Sea of Suffering: The Rohingya and the Conundrum of Buddhist Terror
Buddhistdoor View: Reconciling Nationalism and Buddhism
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Engaged Buddhism: INEB Launches Sangha for Peace to Tackle Regional Religious and Ethno-Nationalist Tensions
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UPDATE: INEB Calls for Reconciliation in Myanmar as Pro-democracy Protests Turn Violent