A Struggle for Authority
By Gustaaf Houtman 13 September 2017
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the Saffron Revolution, a series of mass protests led by Buddhist monks against Myanmar’s military government. In this interview from November 2007, anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman explains how the ruling generals’ claim to legitimacy is based on false documents.
Independence hero Gen Aung San saw the Sangha as having a key role in guiding the nation. The current struggle between the Sangha and the military is a fight the junta is likely to lose.
You say the military rulers have no legitimate title to govern Myanmar—why?
Every government, to rule effectively, needs a minimum of goodwill and cooperation from the population it aspires to rule. The various military regimes of Myanmar over the last half a century have squandered any goodwill they earned by persisting in attempting to legitimize themselves—not by means of elections—but by sheer force and by projecting the “desire of the people” framed within a hollow account of the role of the army as central to Myanmar’s history.
The army is caught up in a network of lies of their own making. They tolerate no dissent and have silenced intellectual life. Instead of holding them to account, it is disappointing to see how inaccuracies are being perpetuated as history, sometimes even by reputable, well-meaning academics.
Why is Aung San so important to Myanmar people?
Aung San is a hero-martyr widely revered in Myanmar as particularly astute and effective in wrestling national independence from the British and from the Japanese. The nation celebrates episodes in his life through national holidays and his image used to be on every banknote. Even today, six decades after his assassination, we see Aung San’s image carried by protestors. Because his personality is of such mythical proportions, the army turned him into a myth of their own in order to justify military rule.
In your book Mental Culture you say Aung San’s legacy was manipulated by the army and challenged by his daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Yes, I argued that Aung San’s popular legacy was a unifying factor for successive political parties and governments right from immediately before national independence in 1948 until 1990, when the rumor spread that Aung San’s image on a new banknote had been doctored to look like Aung San Suu Kyi’s. Because his personality is of such mythical proportions, the army turned him into a myth of their own in order to justify military rule.
Once Aung San Suu Kyi challenged the military over their interpretation of her father, however, the search was on for a substitute unifying symbol, preferably impersonal and so easier to control.
The army replaced Aung San with a hastily cobbled together idea of national culture: we have seen a large-scale program of Myanmafication, including an invented state-sponsored idea of Myanmar culture (yes, in the singular) under the post-88 military regimes.
Aung San’s image on the banknotes was substituted with impersonal objects: notes brought into circulation after 1990 have Aung San replaced by the chinthe, the mythical lion guardian at the foot of pagodas, which is also used as the symbol of the dreaded Union Solidarity Association (USDA) and army units. Anyone who does not support the army wholeheartedly risks molestation by the USDA.
To justify this state of affairs, falsification of history has taken place on a grand scale. Whole populations are being displaced and Pagan and other historical sites have now been irretrievably destroyed.
In a chapter entitled “Aung San’s Way: The Blue Print and the Japanese Occupation of Burma” you say his popular image was subverted by the military to serve its own interest. What is your evidence for this?
The army that is in control of Myanmar today traces itself back to Aung San’s first visit to Japan between January and February 1940, where the army was founded. This period is of considerable historical significance.
After Aung San found himself stranded in Taiwan in search of support from the Chinese for help in the struggle for national independence, he was then smuggled into Japan unofficially by a renegade intelligence-led faction under Col Suzuki without support from the Japanese Imperial army.
Since secrecy was of the essence at the time, There are not many formal historical documents left regarding the founding of the Myanmar army. One document, however, has been widely proclaimed as Aung San’s from that period, namely “The Blue Print for a Free Burma.” This is claimed not just by the regime, but even by some academics recently. It is usually referred to as an example of how Aung San Suu Kyi could only have misjudged her father’s politics: namely, where it is asserted that Myanmar needs to set aside parliament in favor of authoritarian one-party rule. This document clearly subverts Aung San Suu Kyi’s claims to follow up on the true political intentions of her father that she claims the army has misrepresented.
However, this document is falsely attributed to Aung San. It was not composed by Aung San at all, but by this intelligence-led faction for the purpose of gaining support from the Imperial Japanese army.
The Blue Print first came to be attributed to Aung San under the machinations of Dr Maung Maung, who was behind its first publication in 1957 in the Yangon-based Guardian (of which he was a founding editor) long after the Japanese occupation was over, and long after Aung San had been assassinated.
Its publication took place at a time when the army was developing a program of psychological warfare operations to influence and gain control over public opinion.
Aung San, however, had asserted a firm denial of ever writing down his own plan while in Japan, saying instead that Col Suzuki dictated a plan, which he then asked Aung San to write down in his own handwriting. Aung San said he never knew what happened to the document.
It is a tragedy that a military regime so proud of indigenous heritage should proclaim to be inspired by documents written by the WWII foreign occupiers of Myanmar that Aung San had worked so hard to eject.
So you are saying the military’s rule since 1962 has been illegitimate?
Well, this is just one instance of deliberate falsification of a critically important episode in the biography of Aung San, and of a critically important moment in national history, both of which have been rewritten to favor military rule. What the army cites in its favor turns out to be a document that prepares for a Japanese invasion of Myanmar.
That such blatant lies are permitted to carry through from propaganda into scholarship and then into the historical record are a matter of concern: how many more such falsifications are there? As I have pointed out, the army has persisted with the Blue Print even after its first publication in 1957 and with a substantively different variant published in the army’s official record in Myanmar in 1998, which eliminated, among other things, centrality of the Japanese to Myanmar affairs and condemnation of the monarchy.
Scholars must dig much deeper and assess what the army has presented as history. This is difficult because the regime limits access to scholars favorably disposed towards them. It is disturbing that even reputable intellectuals uncritically circulate lies such as these because it undermines the calls for democratic reform in and effectively legitimates the regime.
If Aung San was not in favor of authoritarian rule, what did he support?
Aung San did not envisage the army at the center of the political order. The army has falsely used Aung San to legitimate themselves in history politically. As I have argued elsewhere, Aung San originally aimed for socialism, but after the Japanese occupation he called for democracy first.
You are on record that the monastic order is the only Myanmar institution that remains independent from, and to a certain extent ungovernable by, the military regime. Why should this be so?
The Buddhist liberation rhetoric that underlay the anti-colonial struggle back in the first half of the 20th century resurfaces during crises. Monks continue to have an influence on the regime, if only because soldiers’ wives seek merit and protection for their husbands. Also, once the 1990 elections were over, the regime stalled in handing over power to the NLD, to which monks responded by offering to host the first democratic parliament since 1962 in one of their monasteries.
Today, after eliminating so heavy-handedly all civil opposition, only monks remain with any sense of organizational independence—resulting in direct conflict. I am not sure how many monks are among those who have been quietly cremated by the regime recently, but The idea that the country can ever be governed or developed by an army so cruel and so out of touch with the people suggest to me that their position is becoming untenable.
But surely, secular politicians, such as Aung San, never approved of Buddhism as a political instrument?
Approving of Buddhism as a political instrument is one thing: understanding by means of Buddhist concepts how disorder arises and order may be established, and what kind of political intervention might be necessary, are another.
To proclaim that Buddhism here serves as a political instrument would be to grossly oversimplify what has been going on. In raising fuel prices to unaffordable levels, the regime has made it impossible for the laity to support Buddhist monastic practice and so has politicized Buddhism.
In his essay on “Various Kinds of Politics,” Aung San describes how politics was invented by human beings so as to contain deterioration in the social order caused by the arising of mental defilements and selfish behavior.
Here elimination of mental defilements by Buddhist practice is simply another way of resolving disorder. Indeed such practice is characterized as prior to politics: so the presence of successfully practicing monks are broadly seen as ensuring necessary conditions for people to respond to political measures. The first king was elected by the people for his good morality, concentration and understanding (indeed he was characterized as a Buddha-to-be), so that he could intervene wisely in any disorder that arises from our conditioned lives in loka or samsara (i.e. by helping contain the worst excesses produced by our mental imperfections that lock us into the cycle of rebirth).
Aung San looked at these notions and ended up defining politics as dealing specifically with loka and samsara, as is commonly done by Myanmar speakers and political leaders generally (See, for example, the Myanmar biography of Ne Win).
Aung San condemned selfishness in politics (in particular the magical variety of loki pyinya that top army echelons seek today) and was well aware of the critical role of the monastic order in stabilizing society. This is why Aung San called for monks to preach unity and dispense metta as the ‘highest form of politics.”
This is indeed what the monks did on this occasion, namely to go out onto the streets reciting the Metta Sutta, sending loving-kindness to everyone, including soldiers. The Buddha recommended reciting the Metta Sutta en masse for situations in which peaceful Buddhist practice is threatened. So what the monks did was not a political protest, but simply a quiet and peaceful assertion of their right to return to the normalcy of their Buddhist practice without interference for the benefit of everyone.
Aung San said that monks work for the benefit of both this mundane existence (loki) and the supramundane (lokuttara), which makes nonsense of the regime’s recent threat against monks “interfering” in the lokaaffairs of ordinary laity: since their practice is now threatened, they have a perfect right, indeed a duty, to go onto the streets en masse reciting the Metta Sutta.
You often refer to loka. How does this relate to politics?
Yes, it takes a narrative shift to understand why the realm of politics should be conceived of in the Myanmar vernacular in terms of loka and samsara. Loka refers to conditioned existence in either a particular or a general sense.
The regime has been attempting to legitimate itself within, and demonstrate its control over loka largely by means of force, magic, numerology and the pretence of possessing some superior supernatural agency, which were all condemned by Aung San.
After 1988, the regime sought to play itself up as Buddhist and embarked on reconstructing pagodas all over the country, but particularly in Pagan—an army in defence of a holy land. However, any merit they have built up restoring pagodas has now been undone by the arrest, torture and, seemingly, the killing of monks, which constitute an enormous sin in Myanmar society.
You say the current junta has inadvertently politicized the monks by assuming it has a monopoly over loka?
Aung San Suu Kyi’s politics is often characterized as Buddhist, which is generally not a point made in relation to Aung San.
However, in my analysis of Aung San’s communications, I demonstrated that for Aung San to be considered secular did not mean that he abandoned Buddhist ideas in his politics the way it is widely thought. It is just that in his English communications he did not address the same sensibilities or the same audience as in his Myanmar communications, which has led scholars relying on the first to oversimplify his politics.
Aung San brought into play the most valuable and complex ideas in the Myanmar language to convince Myanmar of the nobility of his struggle: metta, byamaso taya, loka, nibbana, samadhi, and many other terms. He conceived of, and attempted to gain respect for, his political aspirations in a vocabulary that he shared with his people and pitched this as high as he could. On the other hand, he simultaneously sought to impact the colonial regime by mastering the intricacies of the English language.
Aung San sometimes declared emphatically that politics is not about nibbana, but he also proclaimed that politics should not be dirty and encouraged people to be self-critical.
In proclaiming to have a monopoly over loka, the present military regime has politicised monks and ensured that they will surely continue to have a prominent role in Myanmar politics. Does this not parallel the moment the army of Mara, realising that the Buddha’s teachings would lead all people away from his control of loka, (as subjected to the cycle of rebirth or samsara), decides to wage war on the Buddha to prevent this from happening?
 As included in Mental Culture chapter 6 – on military authority… p 159 (see also p 218):
“General Saw Maung, in his first public address on 12 September 1988, justified the SLORC’s seizure of authority. Due to the unruly conditions, he said, the army was unable to ‘assist the people with cetana’. He appealed primarily to the monks, secondarily to the general population and thirdly to the army. He proclaimed that the State had agreed to conduct multi-party general elections ‘in accordance with the request made by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee Sayadaws on 10 August 1988, and in conformity with the demands made by numerous organizations’. He concluded by asking that the elections be free and fair, and that army members should not use their authority or rank to influence the elections.[FN9]
[FN9] Saw Maung (1990:5–6,13–15).
Aung San. Nainganyei amyo myo (Various arts of politics). (Dagon Magazine, February-March 1940/November 1948. Later published in Mya Han 1998:89-113 and Mya Han 2000:50-61.
Houtman, G. 1990. Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics. ILCAA Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia & Africa Monograph Series 33, Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1999.
Houtman, G. Aung San’s lan-zin, the Blue Print and the Japanese occupation of Burma. Chapter 8 in Kei Nemoto (ed). Reconsidering the Japanese military occupation in Burma (1942-45). Tokyo: ILCAA, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, pp 179-224 (including an English-Burmese bibliograpy of Aung San’s communications (pp 213-224).
Myá Han 1998. Bogyok Aung Saní sapei lekya [The writings of General Aung San]. Rangoon: Universities’ Historical Centre, 1998. (Though published by the foremost historical research group, this has two separate censorship permissions, one for the cover and one for the text).
———. 2000. The writings of General Aung San. (Translation into English by retired Ambassador Thet Tun). Rangoon Universities’ Historical Research Centre
Saw Maung, U. 1990. State Law and Order Restoration Council Chairman commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services General Saw Maung’s addresses (12.09.1988–09.01.1990). Rangoon: Ministry of Information.