September 11, 2007 / 12:07 PM / 12 years ago

FACTBOX-Politics and religion mix for Asia's activist monks

(For related story see [ID:nBKK173222] or BC-MYANMAR/MONKS)

Sept 11 (Reuters) - Buddhist monks in army-ruled Myanmar are threatening to shun the military unless the junta apologises for a crackdown on monks who joined anti-government protests last week, media reports said on Tuesday.

Here is some background on monk activism in three Buddhist majority countries in Asia.*


— BUDDHIST POPULATION: 89 percent (38/47 million)**

— POLITICS: Myanmar’s monasteries are said to be the country’s most organised institution after the military. Buddhist monks have spearheaded protests against British colonialism and military dictatorship in the past, forming extensive Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA) at the turn of the century.

Monasteries played a prominent part in a 1988 rebellion against the military rulers in power since 1962. Some 90 monks are still in prison for their 1980s activism.

In 1990 thousands were detained after many monks refused to perform religious rites for soldiers or their families following military crackdowns on the democracy movement.

— CONTROVERSY: Monks are highly respected in the devoutly Buddhist nation. Using force against them is unpopular, but monasteries have been put under close surveillance since a sudden rise in fuel prices sparked demonstrations in August.


— BUDDHIST POPULATION: 69 percent (14/20 million)

— POLITICS: Monks have contested elections since the 1940s and have protested government moves to placate Tamil Tiger rebels fighting the Sinhalese majority for a Tamil homeland over the past two decades of civil war. In 2004, nine Buddhist monks entered parliament after the exclusively-monk-led political party the JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya, or National Heritage Party) fielded more than 200 monk candidates.

— CONTROVERSY: Some Buddhists decried the monks’ entry into party politics. The JHU’s affiliation with Sinhala nationalist groups has also provoked controversy, as did a proposed anti-conversion bill to stop "unethical conversions" among Buddhists and Hindus.


— BUDDHIST POPULATION: 95 percent (61/65 million)

— POLITICS: Outspoken individual monks have long commented on public life in Thailand: In the late 1970s popular monk Kittiwutto Bhikkhu, a supporter of the right-wing activist Nawaphol group, infamously said that killing Communists was not a sin. In September 2005, influential monk Luang Ta Maha Bua said then-leader Thaksin Shinawatra was trampling on the country’s monarchy and religion. Thaksin was then criticised for gagging the press after he sued a newspaper which published the monk’s provocative sermon, rather than the monk.

— CONTROVERSY: In May 2007 hundreds of orange robed monks and nine elephants marched across Bangkok to demand the country’s new, post-coup, constitution recognise Buddhism as the official religion. The weeks of rallies and hunger strikes outside parliament that sometimes blocked traffic and drew thousands of monks and religious activists until late June were ultimately unsuccessful in forcing a constitutional amendment.

* Most Buddhists in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Cambodia follow the conservative Theravada, or southern school of Buddhism.

** All population and religion estimates from the CIA World Factbook.

Sources: Reuters, CIA World Factbook

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