Use and abuse of Buddhism in geopolitics

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Myanmar’s military junta leader, Gen MinAung Hliang on July 21 consecrated the world’s biggest seated Buddha statue—made of pure marble—in Napytaw, the political capital of the military. It is 19 metres in height, 4 metres taller than the Buddha statue at the Todaiji temple in Japan’s ancient capital Nara. The entire project built on a sprawling 226 acres with many facilities for visitors is estimated to have cost USD 30 million, in an economically impoverished country.

The aim, of the junta which threw out a democratically elected government in a coup on February 1, 2021, in the creation of this edifice, it was claimed, is ‘to foster peace and prosperity for the country’.

The Maravijaya Buddha statue is said to be the world’s highest sitting marble Buddha image according to local media-+

The coup, however, sent the vast 55 million populous country into revolt with people from all walks of life taking to the streets and later going into jungles protesting the ouster of the National Democratic League leader Aung Suu Kyi, other leaders and their imprisonment.

The junta leaders have lost control of the governance of vast swathes of the countryside and have been fighting rebels with air attacks from Russian-built fighter jets and helicopters, according to reports from UN observers.

This month an ‘amnesty’ was granted to Suu Kyi along with 7,000 prisoners held for various offences. If the thinking of the junta was that it would show their humane attitude in the wake of the consecration of the marble statue, it does not credit the prowess of military thought. The 79-year-old heroine was convicted of 19 offences in kangaroo trials conducted by the military behind closed doors and her lawyers were forbidden to communicate with anyone. The amnesty granted her clemency in five of 19 convicted offences reducing her term by 6 years with 27 years more to go.

Gen. Hliang pledged elections to be held in one year after taking over power but early this month, elections were postponed and the state of emergency extended. He said that ongoing violence was the reason, naming many states and provinces where violence raged.

The junta has not only failed in controlling the countryside but urban areas as well. The Deputy Director General of the Elections Commission, Sai Kyaw Thuh was shot dead in July and a statement of responsibility had been issued by an urban guerrilla group.

Meanwhile, the ASEAN of which Myanmar is a member is still attempting to make the junta accept its 5-point plan to end the crisis. This plan was submitted to the junta soon after the coup two and a half years ago. But the junta refuses to accept it, for it will be the beginning of its end. The plan calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities by both sides, negotiations to be brokered by a special envoy to resolve the dispute and continued supply of commodities to the affected areas.

Indonesia, the current chair of the group, and Malaysia are calling for united action by the group but Thailand which shares a 2,400km border with Myanmar has initiated talks with the junta.

The United Nations has passed many resolutions warning of the development of an international crisis in South East-Asia and the United States recently clamped down sanctions on two of Myanmar’s state banks that were funding the purchase of arms and military equipment for the armed forces from Russia. But the US did not impose sanctions on Myanmar’s gas and oil projects from which the junta gains much income. The exception was perhaps the fallout of such sanctions on the civilian population.

Myanmar thus has become a country which is nodded at with sympathy by the United Nations, the United States and ASEAN but no one does really help. The ‘Non Aligned countries’ does not seem to be aware of its plight although its leader, India, shares a common border with it but keeps its distance probably because of the Rohingya crisis and the Muslim factor has implications both internally and externally for the BJP’s Hindutva leader Narendra Modi.

Being a Theravada Buddhist country, it appears to have common idiosyncrasies of present-day rulers, particularly military rulers.

Military rulers of Myanmar have a marked inclination to build pagodas and Buddha images like our only ex-military man who became president Gotabaya Rajapaksa did with his army, building a dagoba—the equivalent to a Myanmar pagoda—only slightly less in height than the venerated dagoba of Dutugemunu quite close to the sacred premises. Rajapaksa also made his addresses to the nation on TV with the sacred dagoba in the background. Buddhist military rulers perhaps see themselves as ancient monarchs building Buddha statues and/or pagodas as a part of royal devotion.

Buddhism has been of use in politics and geopolitics in many ways. Narendra Modi flaunts the Dhamma Chakra—the Wheel of Eternal Truth—in the Indian national flag to show that it was India that gave the World, Buddhism. True, but Buddhism in the land of the Buddha went extinct centuries ago and is practically extinct now, apart from archaeological remains and other replicas.

Is the spirit of the Buddhist doctrine embodied in Narendra Modi’s Hindutva? Minority communities of India will answer that best.

More important: Does Sri Lanka recognise the Myanmar junta that holds the 55 million people ( 89 per cent Buddhist) under their jackboot?

Already the Myanmar junta is using the marble statue of the biggest sitting Buddha to invite Sri Lankans as guests. The junta is using the soft power of the marble edifice to gain credibility in Lanka.

(The writer is a former editor of The
Sunday Island, The Island, and consultant editor of the Sunday Leader. He can be contacted at