Myanmar’s generals, facing a democratic revolt, attempted to establish legitimacy by embracing Buddhism. Junta members gave lavishly to monks, funded monasteries and spent tens of millions of dollars restoring some of Myanmar’s Buddhist temples. In 1999, the generals regilded the spire of Shwedagon with 53 tons of gold and 4,341 diamonds. An earthquake shook Yangon during the reconstruction, which senior monks interpreted as a sign of divine displeasure with the regime.
The military lost all credibility during the Saffron Revolution in 2007, when troops shot dead protesting monks, defrocked and imprisoned others, and shut down dozens of monasteries. Monks appeared on the streets with begging bowls turned upside down—a symbol that they would refuse alms from soldiers. This seldom-invoked punishment was tantamount to excommunication.
Thein Sein, Myanmar’s new reformist president, has tried to repair the relationship. One of his first conciliatory acts was to reopen monasteries shut down by the junta. Among nearly 1,000 political prisoners he freed in January and February 2012, many were jailed monks who had participated in the Saffron Revolution. Senior monks say, however, that the damage will take decades to undo. “Daw [an honorific similar to ‘Madam’] Suu is released, which is good, and the government is clean, but still relations are not good,” I was told by Su Rya, the 37-year-old abbot of the Kyeemyindine monastery in Yangon, which played a leading role in the 2007 protests. “Even five years later, we still remember what happened,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi has invoked Buddhism repeatedly in her calls for peaceful protest and passive resistance to military rule. But like all religions, Buddhism is not free from violence. In June, the worst ethnic and religious clashes in decades erupted in coastal Rakhine State between Buddhists and stateless Muslims—whom the government has classified as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived in Myanmar for generations. Triggered by the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl and the lynching of Muslims in revenge, the violence—in which dozens died and thousands have fled—reflects the loosening of dictatorial controls in democratizing Myanmar, and a new freedom to organize along ethnic and religious lines.
When I met Aung San Suu Kyi after her release from house arrest, she spoke at length about the role that Buddhism had played during her confinement. It had given her perspective and patience, she said, an ability to take the long view. This was especially important during the last seven years of her imprisonment, when her principal nemesis was Gen. Than Shwe, an erratic, superstitious leader who harbored a deep antipathy toward her, and even reportedly used black magic rituals against her. “I don’t want to portray [Than Shwe] as a brutal, mindless personality, because I don’t know him well enough,” she told me back then, carefully. Than Shwe’s resistance to reform, and harsh suppression of the pro-democracy movement, often tested her Buddhist equanimity. “I felt...intense irritation and impatience,” she told me. “I listened to the radio every day for many hours, so I knew what was going on in Burma, the economic problems, the poverty, so many things that needed to be rectified...I thought, ‘Why are we wasting our time?’” Then she would turn to vipassana, and “24 hours later . . . those feelings would subside.”
Than Shwe, who ruled the country with an iron first from 1992 to 2011, was not known to meditate. But he visited Buddhist temples often and lavished money on them, following the advice of soothsayers, who assured him that such “merits” would bolster his power. Like many of his predecessors, Than Shwe fused his Buddhism with belief in nats, or spirits, and yadaya, magic rituals performed to ward off misfortune. Such superstitions are thought to derive from an ancient form of the religion that long predated the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, introduced by Burma’s King Anawrahta in the 11th century.
Than Shwe was a frequent visitor to Bagan, the ancient capital sprawled across an arid plain on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River, about 400 miles north of Yangon. Burma’s King Anawrahta and his heirs constructed thousands of Buddhist temples and shrines here between the 11th and 13th centuries—a golden age that ended in 1287 when Kublai Khan’s Mongol warriors conquered the city.
On a hot morning, I mount steps to the plaza of Sinmyarshin Temple, an ornate 13th-century structure with a stupa sheathed in gold leaf. Than Shwe visited the temple frequently and paid to regild it in 1997. “Than Shwe’s soothsayer advised him to adopt Sinmyarshin after consulting his astrological chart,” my guide tells me. Inside, Than Shwe restored 800-year-old frescoes depicting the Buddha’s life.
In May 2009, Than Shwe’s wife, Kyiang Kyiang, attended a rededication of 2,300-year-old Danok Pagoda outside Yangon and placed a jewel-encrusted hti, or sacred umbrella, atop the spire. Three weeks later, the temple collapsed, killing about 20 workers who were rehabilitating it. “It is a sign that [Than Shwe] has done so many evil things that he no longer has the ability to make merit,” said U.S. anthropologist Ingrid Jordt at the time. Many Burmese believe that Than Shwe was so shaken by Danok’s collapse that, soon after, he released Aung San Suu Kyi and decided to step down—as a means of escaping his karmic destiny.
During the darkest days of the dictatorship, after the arrests of most secular political leaders in the 1990s, it was the monks who led resistance to the junta. These “sons of Buddha” could organize discreetly inside their monasteries and spread pro-democracy, anti-regime sentiments to the people. Perhaps the most charismatic was Ashin Gambira, now 33, a leader of the Saffron Revolution. After the junta crushed the uprising, Gambira’s monastery in Yangon was shut down and the monk was arrested and sentenced to 63 years in prison. He withstood four years of torture and beatings and was freed on January 13. Gambira promptly resumed his harsh critiques of the government. He then broke into three monasteries that had been sealed by the army in 2007 and also traveled to Kachin State in northern Myanmar to draw attention to human-rights abuses allegedly being carried out by the army in a war against ethnic separatists that resumed last year after a 17-year cease-fire. Both times he was released after a night in jail.