Peace, Planet, Pandemic and Engaged Buddhism: from a Divided Myanmar to a Divided World
Vahujana hitara, vahujana sukhara!
Dear Ajarn Sulak, Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, Venerables and kalyanamitra from the International Network of Engaged Buddhists – INEB, I am glad to see all of you again. I am very grateful to Venerable Pomnyun Sunim and Jungto for allowing us to be in this beautiful training centre and for providing warm hospitality for all of us. I am very grateful for the generosity of the donors and the volunteers too.
This is the first conference since the last biennial conference at the Deer Park Institute in Bir, India, in 2019. COVID-19 started spreading, around the end of 2019, and it turned into a deadly global pandemic the following year. Sadly, we saw loss of millions of precious lives including our loved ones, as well as the suffering brought to us by the lockdowns and economic breakdowns. I am sure many of us are touched by these tragic experiences. Similarly, within the past three years we saw how climate change affected millions of lives, as well as violent political turmoil and wars. Despite these challenges, all of us are here meeting again. All still alive, and continuing our mission to bring about positive changes in the society and the world. It is indeed a blessing to see each other again and work together again.
It is an honour for me to give a key note thinking-piece for this conference. Thank you very much for this opportunity! Although I feel underserved, I would like to offer some of my thoughts related to the key topics of the conference. To be honest, these are more questions from a Puthujjana than the answers to the problems that concerns us. These questions trouble me for months and years. And to some extent, these are also the questions the generations leading the Myanmar Spring Revolution are grappling with. Indeed, they are questions around social justice and Buddhist ethics. Some of us may resonate with me because the questions I have are link to our roles, as engaged Buddhists, either as individuals or institutions, in the quickly developing threats from conflicts, climate change and the current and future pandemics. For the remaining time, I would like to go through some thoughts on the key themes of our conference “peace, planet and pandemic”, weaving between the local and global perspectives, from the divided Myanmar to the divided world.
Recently, when I re-read the book Dharmic Socialism by Phra Dharmakosacarya Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, I noticed that the editors of the English version commented how timely the book was as humanity needed to change its course from destruction and annihilation by the looming nuclear wars. The book was first published in 1986. In three years, this book will be 40 years old. And yet, the concerns for peace seems to be timeless. As if the history repeated again, we are gathering to talk about the tumultuous politics, conflicts and how we can perhaps prevent them. Myanmar is literally burning while we are talking here. An aerial bombing by the military junta a few days ago instantly killed 60 people, wounded hundreds in the northern Myanmar. One of the victims is an acquaintance. For decades, the constant risk of war in Korean Peninsular is a living nightmare of our brothers and sisters in Korea. The war in Ukraine is escalating every day and there is the highest prospect of nuclear war in 60 years, which President Joe Biden of the United State has warned an approaching “nuclear Armageddon”.
Wars were waged because of different positions in ideologies, territorial claims, desires to access and control resources, sometimes because of the ego of the leaders or their hatred or desire to beat a people into submission. Some wars were waged because of sheer greed to plunder a country, a land or because of the imperialist desire to dominate through brute force and hegemony.
At the same time, violent armed conflicts happened because of an enabling environment and the ecosystem benefiting from it. They are what Hannah Arendt would call ‘Banality of Evil.’ They may be white collar workers like some of us. They may go to their offices 9 to 5, and then return to their family as a loving father or mother. But they may be the same people supporting these wars knowingly or unknowingly. Behind every war, there are businesses and industries directly benefiting from wars or authoritarian regime such as Myanmar. Many of you will remember the US logistic giant Halliburton and its associates link to the war in Iraq. They benefited 39 billion US dollars from their contracts with the US government. In total, contractors including private security, logistics and reconstruction earned 138 billion dollars from the Iraq war alone (Fifield 2013).
Myanmar Brewery, which is owned by Myanmar military has collaborated with Kirin Beer from Japan. One of its most famous products, Myanmar Beer brought 22.7 millions income just from the first 3 months of 2020 (JFM 2020). The investors of Kirin include prestigious investors from all around the world, such as the Norwegian Sovereign Fund. Norwegian government is one of the biggest donors of the multilateral Joint Peace Fund that supported the failed Myanmar peace process. Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, a state own business with deep link to Myanmar military, has worked with Total, Shell, Woodside and Posco Daewoo. For 2019, the income from Total is 257 million US dollars (JFM 2021a). With such disposable income at their whim without any concern for accountability, Myanmar military can do whatever please them, including that of the Rohingya genocide, and the current war crimes against Myanmar people. The UN system is utterly useless to stop such brutality, including that of Russian invasion to Ukraine.
My point is for any war in the world, there are business interests as well as businesses bankrolling the war. And we need to hold them accountable. Some international governments are handing out peace funds and peace prizes with the left hand while funding wars or selling weapons with their right hand.
Let us see who has sold, or is selling weapons to Myanmar! From 1990-2016, the biggest weapon suppliers to Myanmar military is China, Russia, Israel, Ukraine and India (Asrar 2017). That is correct! Until before the most recent Russian invasion, Ukraine supplied armoured vehicles and missiles to Myanmar military, that were used during their campaign against Rohingya and other minorities. In 2019, an amphibious LPD warship from South Korea was transferred to Myanmar Navy, with a price tag of 42.3 million US dollars. The warship can carry 3 helicopters, 16 tanks and armoured vehicles, and over 500 soldiers. This type of warship is used to conduct military operations in the river deltas. The contract was negotiated in 2017 while the genocide was ongoing and it was concluded after 2019. The ships is already in use by the Myanmar military. Now, the Korean police is at the advanced stage of investigating Posco International, Daesun Ship Building and Engineering, and Korea’s Ministry of Defense regarding the alleged violations of Korea’s Foreign Trade Act for selling a warship to Myanmar(Myanmar Now 2022).
I apologized for all the details. But these are to highlight how seemingly harmless businesses such as a beer company or an energy company can fuel the war and aggravate suffering of people. You would not be surprised the arm suppliers to Myanmar also include some European countries such as France (JFM 2021b). France, China and Russia, 3 countries out of the permanent 5 from the UN Security Council members are suppling weapons to the genocidal military in Myanmar. How on earth Myanmar people believe these countries want peace for Myanmar? How on earth UN Security Council will fulfill their mandate for the global security?
This is an experience from just one country. I wonder what other countries would say. I think there will be no great difference. My question to all of us is what can we do in such situation? As individual, as institutions, as movements, as engaged Buddhists how can we address the evidently contradictory roles played by UN Security Council and its permanent members? How can we hold them accountable? If the UN systems don’t work, what could be other alternatives? At the same time, how can we hold the weapon companies accountable? We are dying by the millions because of wars while they are reaping billions of profits and they don’t need to be accountable for a single life killed in wars, beyond their PR campaigns and so called “corporate social responsibility”.
Another key concern in terms of peace and stability, is the rise of what people call far rights, right wing nationalism, and I call fascism. Some of these fascist political movements took the form of religious nationalism, such as Mabatha in Myanmar and Hindutva in India. The rise of the far rights are very apparent in Europe and in the US too. Italy has just installed a prime minister who idolized Mussolini. Polarization caused by political, social, and economic inequalities are the main reasons, as we know. These contestations often took violent forms. We do not need to recall our painful memories of the Holocaust or the WWII. How would the inward-looking, delicate, non-violent, meditating Buddhism address these violent forces? Apparently, liberal electoral democracy alone cannot solve the challenges posed by fascism. I think our commitment and moral responsibility is calling us to take on this issue. What kind of preemptive collective measures can we take to stop fascism from advancing?
Now, please let me move to the issue of planet and climate change!
I would not go into details about what is climate change and how it is affecting humanity and the planet. Many of us are familiar with the issue and it is one of the repeated key themes in the INEB conferences.
Here, I would like to highlight a few points for us to consider when addressing the climate change. We all know how our way of conducting economies, our patterns of producing and consumption need fundamental changes. Not the quick fixes, definitely not the capitalist solutions which are being proposed as technological fixes will solve the problems. It is also our attitude and value that needed serious re-examination. Phra Buddhadasa says:
“Those who hold the, ‘eat well, live well,’ view do not have any limits. They are always expanding until they want to equal the gods (d’evata’). . . .Those who hold the ‘Eat and live only sufficiently’ view represent moderation, whatever they do, they do moderately. This results in a state of normal or balanced happiness (prakati-sukha). They will have no problem of scarcity, and there will be no selfishness.”(Buddhadasa 1993)
The master’s comment is in stark contrast with the consumption and consumerism which drive the growth economy. His comments disagree with the proponents of free market economy, neoliberal capitalism. As we can also see and learn from Jungto society, mindful consumption is an important practice we all can learn from.
At the same time, we must be cautious that climate change is turning into a politic and an industry in its own rights. It is a billion-dollar business including renewable energy solutions, carbon capturing projects, climate smart seeds/climate smart agriculture, and many other green solutions. Some of these solutions are not wrong in itself but many initiatives are causing harms to communities, especially for those in poor countries or poor agrarian communities. If we are not careful, we will fall into victims of the capitalist solutions for climate change. Some of these good-intended but poorly thought through or implemented projects are called as greenwashing or being named as green-grabbing.
A few years ago, a national park in northern Myanmar was expanded with the support from an international conservation group. It caused so much pain for the ethnic minority people there. There are many literatures highlighting how renewable energy policies in developed countries caused land grab for palm oil, sugarcane and maize productions, especially in poor countries with very little land tenure security for local farmers. Climate smart seeds or climate smart agriculture technologies are controlled by corporates, not the farmers. In Myanmar, controversial hydropower dam constructions were shoved under the renewable energy proposals in the Nationally Determined Contribution – NDC, following the Paris climate agreement. I wonder what other countries in this conference have to say about their experiences.
Many of us are promoting agroecological farming practices, Food Sovereignty and farmer’s movements to address the issue of climate change and food security. Many of us know that farmer’s agrarian justice, food justice initiatives must go hand in hand with climate justice. In addition to that, I would add land justice is a very important issue. We must be cautious to look at not only the physical land grab but also how land is being defined, and who is controlling the meaning making. This is because if someone can control the meaning of land, they can change it to grab the land. Some did that through changing law and policies. During Myanmar’s experiment with democracy, we have 2012 vacant, fallow and virgin land law. But who defines what is vacant, fallow or waste land? In 2016, during NLD’s government rule, they changed the law and rejected customary land practices. Within two months after the revised law was enacted, when the improbable deadline to apply land registration was expired, millions of small holder farmers became landless, legally speaking. Over 47 million acres of land which is defined by the state as “vacant, fallow and virgin”, which just mean that an undocumented land used by generations of small farmers who practiced customary land tenure, are now ready to hand over to the companies who can pay the price.
This is the biggest legal land grab in Myanmar history, and a state’s encroachment over the rights of the indigenous people and their self-governance. Changing the land laws, giving land registration and land lease is how land has been taken from the farmers who are using and caring it for generations. Now they have a piece of paper with limited duration for access and limited rights. This land commodification is what is called market-assisted land reform. In the climate change politics, small farmers are being blamed as carbon producers or polluters, while big agribusiness are being promoted for their “efficiency”, and therefore given priority to get access to land. That is a widespread global policy which we must be very careful.
Land is not just for agriculture or any kind of production. It has many other functions such as social reproduction, culture and spiritual values. Rights to land is right to life itself.
I hope INEB can engage more on the issue of land rights.
Fundamental to agroecological farming to address climate issues, we must remember that the struggle of farmers are not technical or bureaucratic. Rather, it is political and we need a political solution. We are not together in this, when it comes to climate change problems. Poor people suffer more. Therefore, any proposal for climate solution must recognize their voice and their rights to represent themselves.
Now please allow me to move to my comments on Pandemic!
Rob Wallace, an epidemiologist and an evolutionary biologist combined study of epidemic with political economy and social studies when he investigates how certain viruses emerge, how they managed to quickly spread, and what are the social, economic conditions that allow pandemics to happen. His studies find the capitalist mass production of food, especially poultry and pork are key areas of concerns (Papas, Willmeng, and Kwon 2021). When structural adjustment in Africa forced industrial agriculture expansion into deep forest, the sensitive ecological balance has broken and reserves of new pathogens are being exposed. That’s how Ebola’s emergence has linked with economic policy and capitalizing of agriculture. When big agribusiness and monoculture took the land and the mainstream food production, rural farmers were forced to engaged in marginal food sector such as wild-food. Meat produced by the corporates and big farms are selling next to wild animals and bush meats.
Wallace has written a book with a provocative title “Big Farms Make Big Flu” in 2016. Since then, he predicted pandemic, in this mode of capitalist food production, and people’s mobility, is inevitable. It is not if but a matter of time. For now, he warned that we are not getting rid of COVID-19 pandemic yet, as many of us wanted to believe. He suggests that we need to do more than vaccination. In terms of controlling the spread of virus, he sees the need to use non-pharmaceutical solution such as test, track and isolate, and most importantly provide support to poor wage workers whom we inappropriately called “essential workers”.
Unless we change our way of production, circulation and consumption of our food, there will be pandemic of one kind or another, or worse there can be a combination of one or more pandemic, climate disaster and political instability or war. This point sounds like an alarmist call, however from Myanmar’s COVID-19 experience combined with conflict and violent coup, we know that the possibility is very real.
INEB has been working with various partners across the region on organic agriculture and agroecological farming. To address the agribusiness model that produce pandemics, we must take our food sector seriously. Myanmar with its primitive health sector survives the pandemic, largely because of sharing economy, moral economy and a culture of caring. I am sure many of you have great stories to share with us which come out of our collective struggle against the global pandemic and its broader consequences.
For the conclusion, I would like to discuss;
Confronting difficult questions posed to engaged Buddhists
How would engaged Buddhism address the dilemmas, contradictions and paradoxes within Buddhism and its different sects? The issues I am going to raise are nothing new, yet they persistently keep confronting us. What can we learn from these common issues? How can engaged Buddhists address them, which may in turn help us understand the main theme of our conference “Peace, Planet and Pandemic”.
The first issue is related to how we understand and apply the Buddhist concept of Karma. The second issue is how Buddhist choose between non-violent and violent means, and how do we understand them. I can tell you that, these are fundamental questions coming out of confrontation with the most violent repression in Myanmar’s history while being a practicing engaged Buddhist. With the current deadly coup in Myanmar and the subsequent revolution and resistance, many Buddhist monks, as well as Christian priests, or Muslim leaders, are fighting against injustice while risking their own lives. Some monks disrobed and carry weapons to fight.
At the same time, there are senior Theros, including the renown Sitagu Sayadaw, and their followers are openly supporting the Myanmar military and the coup. They believe that the Myanmar military is the only one capable of protecting Buddhism. How can the Sangha support such unspeakable violence? This irreconcilable moral destitution of towering Buddhist leaders, makes millions of Buddhists feel the earth beneath their feet had shattered. Young Buddhists have started questioning the relevance of Buddhism, and the monastics in their lives. Dismayed by corruption and wealth of some monks, young people are contemplating lay people led Buddhist order. Sadly, for them, Sangham are no longer a Saranam to take shelter. Young women are asking why would they follow a religion that consider them as “dirty”, and treated them with contempt. Compare to men, women are the one regularly faithfully donating, supporting Buddhism. Women’s body are dirty. Bhikkhunis are not welcome. But their donations are welcome. How long can such contradiction maintain in the long run? What good could the discrimination and exclusion of women among the Sangha bring to Theravada? With the ongoing revolution, established ideologies and values are crumbling down. A new Myanmar is quickly emerging. Is Theravada in Myanmar ready to reform or risk extinction?
Before and after the violent military coup in Myanmar in 2021, we have seen an unholy alliance between Buddhist nationalists and the Myanmar military.
Although majority population in Myanmar are Buddhists, we have a long-standing concern about a Muslim take over which is being introduced to us as small kids. Although it is unsubstantiated, the concern is widespread. Being a pariah country under the socialist dictatorship for decades that practiced a closed-door foreign policy may have exacerbated religious conservatism, xenophobia and islamophobia. Whenever something shameful involving Buddhist clergies happened, we would shrug and blamed the “bad apples”, the individuals. That it has nothing to do with Buddhism. Gradually, questions were raised if Buddhism as an institution is potentially responsible in helping successive military regime in Myanmar to claim political legitimacy. Finally, if the concept of Karma, or at least Myanmar the way Theravada Buddhism interpreted and taught, is being used to justify culture of impunity.
In Myanmar Theravada tradition, or at least the majority Buddhists understood and practice, Karma is a determinism, preset from the good or bad karma one accumulated in past lives. This position creates two main problems. One is victim blaming. If a person suffers from an injustice or an affliction, say for example, sexual violence, it is because of the bad karma the person committed from the past lives. The second issue is justice and accountability. This way of karmic position sees the wheel of Karma will take care of the wrong doing of a person, so there is no need to seek justice. Punitive justice is seen as an undesirable “revenge’ instead of a deterring action. Instead of seeking punishment, the victim is advised to forgive and move on. There are many cases of mismanaging domestic abuse, or sexual violence through traditional arbitration or local justice systems dominated by this Buddhist worldview. Many military dictators have enriched themselves with the wealth plundered from the country. However, the soldiers who risked their lives at the frontline considered that they deserved it because of their good karma. Why should we be complaining, right? People do go to court or seek other alternative justice, but these are most prevailing attitude of the general public when it comes to seeking justice and accountability. The question now is, in this way, has a teaching of Buddhism unwittingly strengthened culture of impunity in Myanmar?
In the book Rethinking Karma: the Dharma of Social Justice, editor Jonathan Watts writes;
“This lack of engagement with social injustice has created a moral myopia within traditional Buddhist societies towards the fundamental forms of structural and cultural violence underpinning the more visible acts of violence and oppression. The common understanding of karma often serves to perpetuate structural and cultural violence, such as sexism, classism, and political oppression.”(Watts 2014)
How is your own experience in your own country, society? How do engaged Buddhists approach justice and accountability? How do we address impunity? Shouldn’t Karma, which means action, be reconsidered as our own agency to break the structural, cultural violence?
Venerables, Ajarns and kalyanamitras . . . Some of you might have visited Myanmar and met my friends and colleagues there. Many of these young Buddhists who are trying their best to foster social change in their community are now joining the revolution. Some of them took non-violent actions but many are now in the armed movement. Some become high ranking revolutionary military officers. It is sad but I can tell you I am very proud of them. My respect to them has never changed. Young people are forced to choose this path, not because they enjoy violence. In these days, I am re-examining my own positions a lot. I thought I would rather die than being forcibly recruited to fight a war. Growing up in the frontlines, I am no stranger to conflict and I hate war. But now I am asking myself, what I would do if violenced knocked on my door. If my loved ones are the victims of a brutal military campaign, will I flee, will I pray and meditate or will I take arms to protect them?
Since the time of Buddha, there are apparently wars. How do Buddhists engage in violence? Any killing or harming other of beings, not only human beings, is considered as Akusala – unwholesome. And yet, in our daily lives, at least we enjoy eating meat. We let the poor people, the butchers, commit the killing. We outsource bad karma to the lower castes or classes. Let the poor people sin and suffer in their later lives! And we get away with that. How does that work? How do Buddhists reconcile such dilemma and contradiction?
In his interview with Insight Myanmar Podcast, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi raises the following questions related to the gray areas of applied Sila and moral dilemmas faced by Myanmar in crisis:
“[In] going against the precept, you’re doing so because there’s an overriding moral obligation or commitment under that situation, to protect the life of people in danger. This doesn’t involve reinterpreting the precept such that it loses its moral force; it’s understanding there are different moral obligations in play. . . For example, what does one do if you were to find yourself in a “kill or be killed” scenario? What types of force are permitted if this is might be the only way to stop rape? Or torture? Or death of children? And if one decides to use force in such circumstances, what will the karmic consequences be? And can one commit violence without having ill will?”(Insight Myanmar Podcast 2022)
The revolution in Myanmar has dramatically changed Myanmar society. That’s what a revolution should do. It is not all about bad and tragedy only. It is tragic but many stars shine their lights out of this deep darkness too. In times of great suffering, there is also great compassion, great sacrifices. In such time, many contradictions, difficult questions and taboos in Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar that have been swept under the carpet for too long have come out in the open. Young people are not taking such nonsense anymore. We Buddhists either confront the difficult questions and seek understandings, if not answers, or we risk losing this whole generation. That could well be the end of Buddhism in Myanmar. I know I am being dramatic, but it almost becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy Myanmar Buddhists are afraid of.
We, the older generations, owe the young these answers if we want to see our lineage and teaching continues. Many times, Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa reminds us that Buddhism should be relevant to the modern world. When it comes to difficult questions, reformation and reinterpretation, Phra Buddhadasa Bhikkhu never shies away. He reimagined a new political system bravely and brilliantly. The aame can be said with Dr Ambedkar and the Dalit’s movements. There is so much we can learn from the Ambedkarites.
Confronting with the key issues raised by this conference, peace, planet and pandemic, there is so much needed to be done. We need mass mobilization, mass movements. We need solidarity beyond our narrow scope of nation states. I lost my words to express how grateful I am for the solidarity, compassion and generosity shown by INEB and Jungto for Myanmar and other members of INEB, who are in need.
Let me conclude this session with this final quote! In his recent interview with the Buddhist Door, Venerable Pomnyun Sunim said we must still keep doing the right things we are already doing without expectation or attachment or weather our actions will come to fruition or not. He says:
“No matter how beautiful the Buddha’s teachings are, they are effectively useless unless they can lead people to lift themselves out of their suffering”.(Ven. Pomnyun Sunim , Buddhist Door Global)
Let us work together to help ourselves, our planet and other beings! Thank you very much for your attention!
Asrar, Shakeeb. 2017. ‘Who Is Selling Weapons to Myanmar?’ Al Jazeera, September 16.
Buddhadasa. 1993. Dhammic Socialism by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.Pdf. Europa Press Co.Ltd.
Fifield, Anna. 2013. ‘Contractors Reap $138B from Iraq War’. CNN, March 19.
Insight Myanmar Podcast. 2022. ‘Episode #104: The Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi Returns’.
JFM. 2020. ‘Human_rights_activists_respond_to_Kirin_sales_surge_EN.Pdf’.
JFM. 2021a. How Oil and Gas Majors Bankroll the Myanmar Military Regime. Justice for Myanmar.
JFM. 2021b. UN Security Council Members Complicit in Arms Sales to Terrorist Myanmar Military Junta. Justice for Myanmar.
Myanmar Now. 2022. ‘Korean Police Investigating Illegal Sale of Warship to Myanmar’. Myanmar Now, October 19.
Papas, Mike, Cliff Willmeng, and Tre Kwon. 2021. ‘Capitalism Breeds Pathogens: An Interview with Epidemiologist Rob Wallace’. Left Voice, July 9.
Watts, Jonathan S., ed. 2014. Rethinking Karma: The Dharma of Social Justice. Silkworm Books.