Take up arms ? Coping with the crisis in Myanmar

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Question and proposal

Here is the question: as a Buddhist, can I support the armed resistance of the People's Defense Forces against the February 2021 coup launched by the Myanmar military junta? More broadly, given respect for life, are there any circumstances in which a Buddhist can use force of arms?

I have been struggling with these questions and this is the conclusion I have reached. Faced with a military junta that recognizes no limits to the use of fear, intimidation and violence against its own people, the people of Myanmar have the right to react in any way they see fit: this includes dialogue, negotiation, active non-violence and armed resistance… whatever mix of strategies they believe will lead to freedom and a democratic society.

I am called upon to support the National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar, a representative government in exile, and the People's Defense Force (PDF), its armed wing. Coming from a Jewish immigrant family, I wonder what action I might have taken against the Nazis during the Holocaust years. Having witnessed the fear and repression in Myanmar, I wonder what I would do if this was my home? 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.

Hozan Alan Senauke. At clearviewproject.org

History and prospects

The 2021 coup and its aftermath are the latest in a series of military coups in Burma/Myanmar dating back to the end of World War II. Myanmar's military junta, the Tatmadaw, is doing its best to scatter the embers of the nascent democracy. The junta canceled the results of the November 2020 national elections just a day before a new parliament was to be sworn in. Elected MPs, ministers, President Win Myint and State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi have been arrested and later charged with serious crimes. against the state. Many of them, including Daw Suu, are still in prison. A death toll in the thousands is steadily rising due to unprovoked attacks, atrocities and human rights abuses in every corner of the country.

Shortly after the coup, the NUG established a representative government in exile, with offices in Australia, Czech Republic, France, Norway, South Korea, United Kingdom, United States and in other countries. In May 2021, the NUG announced the creation of the PDF as a designated military branch, tasked with unleashing a "defensive war" to resist and overthrow the military junta.*

Poets, activists and students fled the cities to participate in the PDF. Many monks stripped naked to join the resistance. A poet said: “We have a very clear political objective. This is how we keep non-violence in our minds. . . . Nonviolent resistance and human rights activism are always in my heart.

Initially, I was hesitant 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 militants with ethnic armies in an unsuccessful effort to obtain their legitimate democratic mandate. Before it was overrun by the Tatmadaw in the 1990s, I visited the rebel encampment, Manerplaw, on the Moei River on the Thai border. I came to understand that resistance was both necessary and inevitable. Winning or losing was the choice of the people, not a matter on which those of us watching from a safe distance could make any pronouncements or judgments.

From an Orthodox Buddhist perspective, taking up arms – even in self-defense – would generally be understood as a violation of the precept against taking life. Many Buddhists, especially those of us in the West, like to think that Buddhism is absolutely nonviolent. But there are canonical texts which are ambiguous on the question, and others which recognize the real necessity of a defensive army, while proscribing aggressive or expansionist action. In the Pali text Questions from King Milindathe following exchange takes place between the monk Nagasena and king Milinda:

“Did rival kings ever arise to oppose you, O king?
“Yes they have. »
“Was it only then that you made preparations for battle? »
" No way. All this had been done in advance in order to ward off future danger.
— (MP.PTS I.81)

In the Spring 2014 issue of the journal curious mind, Bhikkhu Bodhi has written a solid introductory essay, “War and Peace: A Buddhist Perspective”. In this article, Bhikkhu Bodhi reviews a number of canonical sources to which I have alluded above and asks a series of difficult questions:

Suppose we are living in the 1940s as Hitler continues his quest for world domination. If I join a combat unit, should my participation in this war be considered morally wrong when my goal is to block the murderous campaign of a ruthless tyrant? Can we say that loyalty to the Dharma compels us to remain passive in the face of brutal aggression, or to pursue negotiations when it is clear that it will not work? Wouldn't it be argued that in this situation military action to arrest the aggressor is laudable, even obligatory, and that a soldier's action can be judged morally laudable?**

Photo by Irrawaddy. At twitter.com

While I follow the disturbing news from Myanmar, I fail to see how a nonviolent movement alone could overthrow a junta that for more than 50 years has used its massive resources and mighty weapons against its own people.** * The junta has again and again shown itself insensitive to appeals based on fundamental humanity and common morality.

I run a small non-profit organization, the Clear View Project, which supports Buddhist-based humanitarian relief and social change in troubled areas of the world. As a matter of principle, we do not support armed activities. This meant avoiding the initiatives of the NUG and its armed wing the PDF. But as Myanmar's death toll rises and the Tatmadaw expands its indiscriminate attacks on civilians across Myanmar, my principles of nonviolence 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 must be courageous and well trained. Mahatma Gandhi himself said, “I believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. . .”

It is not a comfortable resting place. Each of us must look deeply into our world, draw our own conclusions, and of course do all we can to fulfill the boundless bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings.

Photo by Irrawaddy. At twitter.com

Closing remark

There are significant examples of armed violence in the 20th and 21st centuries instigated by Buddhists or accomplices of Buddhist institutions: Japanese imperialism, the Sinhala-Tamil civil war in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist-Muslim conflict in southern Thailand, and of course the genocidal repression of the Rohingyas in western Myanmar. While such activities are often contextualized as “Dharma protection,” just below the surface they reveal the entanglement of religion and the nation-state – an unholy alliance. I will consider these moves in my next article for this column.

In the meantime, here is an open letter to US President Biden calling for sanctions against companies selling jet fuel to the Myanmar military.

* People's Defense Force


Note that Bhikkhu Bodhi's article led to challenges by another highly respected Theravada teacher in the West, Ajahn Thanissaro. Their series of provocative letters can be found here: https://buddhistuniversity.net/content/essays/war-and-peace_bodhi-geoff

*** Myanmar's military budget for 2023 stands at $2,7 billion, more than a quarter of the national budget and is almost entirely earmarked for citizens of Myanmar.

**** For an interesting overview of direct nonviolence, see Professor Gene Sharp's 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action, there are clearly methods that some would consider 'violent'. https://www.brandeis.edu/peace-conflict/pdfs/198-methods-non-violent-action.pdf

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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