Tuesday, May 6, 2008


More of the Same
As if the tornado isn’t enough, the Burmese people are about to be subjected to yet more bulling by their military overseers – they must vote for a draft constitution that most have not seen and that all know wont make any difference at all. Whatever the outcome, the military will continue doing whatever it wants. Burma has one of the worst government in the world. However, it might be worth pointing out that it has always had bad governments. I don’t mean your run-of-the-mill incompetent, cruel and tyrannical monarchs that used to be common everywhere. I mean really bad! Apart for one or two exceptions like Mindon Min, nearly all Burma’s kings were or quickly became vicious, paranoid megalomaniacs. Most died either in battle or at the hands of scheming offspring or courtiers. It was the custom that the first act of a new king was to murder all his brothers and sisters. As kings usually had many wives and therefore numerous children, this could mean the death of dozens of people. The last king, Thibaw, murdered about 150 of his siblings and their servants. He had spent much of his youth as a monk!! Burmese kings were also excessively and aggressively expansionist. Hardly a decade in Burmese history went by without a major war and these wars were fought with incredible ferocity. The fact that all of the troops were Buddhists and most of the lands they conquered were Buddhist, counted for nothing. Monks were butchered, nuns were ravaged, temples were looted and burned with the same murderous abandon. The sack of Ayutthaya in 1767 is a well-known example of this but there were many others known only to specialists in Burmese history. In the past, the main aim of conquest was either strategic or more commonly, to increase the king’s tax base. The British in India, who monitored Burma’s numerous wars in Arakan, Tripura, the Shan states and Assam through the late 18th and early 19th centuries, could never understand why the Burmese would conquer a new territory and then utterly lay waste to it – burn all the crops, poison the wells, set fire to the forests and then massacre all the inhabitance.
When not making war, crushing rebellions or purging their courts, Burmese kings spent their time erecting pagodas and lavishing wealth on the Sangha. This piety also went hand in hand with cruelty and megalomania. King Bodawpaya for example, wanted to build the largest stupa in the world. The country was stripped of its wealth and thousands were dragooned into forced labor gangs where many died through mistreatment and privation. The situation became so desperate that a cleaver astronomer convinced the superstitions king that if the stupa was finished his dynasty would be finished too. Work stopped and the enormous Mingun Pagoda sits there half-completed even today. No later kings finished it because you don’t get any merit doing anything to something that belongs to someone else. Like several other king Burmese kings, Bodawpaya claimed that he was Maitriya, the coming Buddha. Of course, rulers in the ancient world often claimed that they were deities, manifestations of deities or anointed by deities; the Pope and the Dalai Lama being the only two left. Such claims were a political expedient, an adjunct to polity. A good many Burmese kings made similar claims but they seem to have genuinely believed their twisted grandiose fantasies. Certainly all of them sat in their palaces believing that they were omnipotent cakkavtais, Universal Monarchs.
The massacre of Aung San, his whole cabinet and three others in 1947 was very much in accordance with Burmese political tradition. So was U Nu’s squandering of the country’s recourses on Buddhism during the brief period of democracy in the 1950’s. And so are the sinister brutal generals who misrule Burma today.
Burma is and always has been a land literally imbued with Buddhism. So how come it seems to have had and still has, so little impact on its rulers? Is it that the Dhamma never really penetrates below the gilded expressions of piety, and that as soon as people have power they do whatever they want? Is it that their understanding of concept of merit makes them think that they can safely counteract any evil they have done by feeding monks or building pagodas? Is it that the teaching of acceptance encourages them to put up with things non-Buddhists would never tolerate? Is it that these tyrants are not really Burmese but are shipped in from another country or perhaps from another planet? Is it…? I don’t know what it is! But I do think that Western Buddhists might do well to abstain from claiming that the traditional Buddhists countries were spiritual paradises and that traditional models of Buddhism are worth emulating or even worth praising.

1 comment:

boyadine said...

the chessboard is a reflection of the fact that kings keep their bishops closest to them in order to effectively control their armies..