Notes on the Coup in Myanmar: Karmic Kingship, Legitimacy, and Sovereignty

Protester holds signs featuring images of Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing during February 14, 2021 protest in Myanmar. Via Wikimedia Commons. Photo Credit: MgHla (aka) Htin Linn Aye.

For more than half a century, Myanmar’s military generals have based their political legitimacy on the claim that they were protectors of the realm, caretakers of Buddhism, and defenders of the people’s sovereignty in the evolution toward self-governance. In Burmese Buddhism, power is thought to be activated through moral acts and prior karmic inheritance that transforms the self and reality. Political authority is thus a sign of personal karmic election. Pre-colonial ideas of classical Buddhist kingship have endured throughout post-Independence political arrangements, as every ruler has sought to demonstrate their standing as a spiritually potent (hpoun) sovereign. From this principle emerges the notion of karmic kingship, a concept that can help us interpret current events in Myanmar.

An Unstable Diarchy

Myanmar’s fragile ten-year experiment with democracy appeared to draw to a shocking close in the pre-dawn hours of February 1, 2021. Following an electoral repudiation of the military’s (Tatmadaw’s) proxy Union Solidarity Development Party in the November 2020 elections, commander-in-chief, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, on the back of the claim of a “stolen election,” invoked Article 417 of the Constitution and imposed martial law. Although Article 417 states that only the President can declare a state of emergency, the military appropriated this right for itself in the name of protecting the people’s sovereignty. Min Aung Hlaing contends that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party have been insufficiently committed to democracy. If necessary, he announced, the Constitution itself could be revoked.

Myanmar’s democratic Constitution was drafted by the military government in 2008 subsequent to the Saffron Revolution, in which the military violently suppressed monks’ protests. These events were followed soon after by the devastating Cyclone Nargis.

Cyclone Nargis resulted in more than 140,000 deaths. The event was made by interpreters to conform to folk beliefs that natural disasters are a consequence of the actions of evil kings who disrupt the moral order and law (Dhamma). Sovereign and state are held to be in alignment; karmic effects of a king’s actions are visited upon the people. The storm was interpreted as a cosmic repudiation of General Than Shwe in particular, who had earned the nickname “Monk-killer Than Shwe.” Rumor had it that at any moment he might be swallowed up by the ground and dragged down to the hell realms.

The General did not take these prophesies lightly. On the advice of his personal astrologer,[1] a constitutional referendum was rammed through with a hasty election before the “waxing of the next moon”—even while the dead remained unburied and hundreds of thousands more were displaced and starving. Rumor and gossip, which had become the media for vox populi during half a century of repression, averred that the karmic stores sustaining Than Shwe’s power had “dried up,” and with it his legitimacy to rule. Than Shwe countered these claims with merit-making activities, pagoda construction, and offertories to the Sangha (monks). He had these efforts reported upon ceaselessly in the national news media. Rumors also circulated that the General was resorting to black magic rites and “reversal of karma” rituals (yadaya) in the attempt to rejuvenate and sustain his power stores.

It is in the context of these events that the 2008 Constitution needs to be understood, i.e., as a desperate attempt by the military to stabilize its power at the very moment they had lost their mandate as legitimate representatives of the moral karmic order. The claim, in 2008 as today, that they alone can grant or revoke democratic civilian power-sharing is as much a statement about the de facto truth of ongoing military might as an assertion of the karmic legitimacy of its leaders.

The Constitution, which was to enshrine the people’s sovereignty, therefore unsurprisingly contained the caveat of mandatory power-sharing with the military. It gave the appearance of a transition away from military rule, while in reality it was a re-entrenchment of power by alternate means. In result, after 2008, rulership of the country could be described as an unstable diarchy: not one government, but two, each with its own portfolios, registers of authority, and claims to legitimacy.

Competing Sources of Legitimacy

Ostensibly, shared civilian-military rule after 2008 meant a stepwise lessening of authoritarian rule. Western observers tended to regard the post-2008 period as an almost inexorable transition to democracy. The country was now “open for business,” as President Obama declared; the long-frustrated hopes of a subjugated people would be realized at last. In practice, politics proceeded as usual in conformity with Burmese Buddhist principles concerning the sources of power and conditions for political legitimacy. Through these means, and by periodic threat of force, the military managed to maintain its grip on the leash of fledgling democracy. Today as well, the country’s political future remains subject to the politics of legitimacy defined by the attempt of those vying for power to demonstrate karmic election to worldly authority.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s political worldview has, because of this unobvious context, often been misinterpreted by outside observers. By now it should be more evident that she has been negotiating between two divergent models for political legitimacy and sovereignty. On the one hand are western principles of human rights and democracy, on the other is karmic kingship.

During her house arrest between 1989 and 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was extolled as a symbol for human rights and democracy and as a witness to their ongoing violation under authoritarian rule. For the Burmese Buddhist majority, the desire for freedom from military rule has not always been identical to the desire for democracy, however, as western journalists have assumed. Generations had grown up isolated from the world under authoritarian rule; their imaginations of freedom drew more proximally from Buddhist sources than from western ones. Exposed as a student at Oxford to western democratic ideals, as a politician Aung San Suu Kyi sought to translate and align these to domestic Burmese Buddhist political culture. Attempting to thread that needle while remaining subject to the military’s de facto minority rule required skills of statecraft that apparently exceeded her capabilities.

Upon ascent to political power, Aung San Suu Kyi undertook a pragmatic approach to instituting a shared framework of the rule of law and establishing its procedures in Myanmar’s Constitution. Her aim to change the Tatmadaw-scripted Constitution, and indeed to “send the military back to the barracks,” put her in direct competition with the Tatmadaw’s design to retain power. Her efforts to solidify her personal power and that of her NLD Party proceeded on the one hand through the ballot box. On the other, she had to vie in the accustomed Burmese Buddhist pattern of elite rivalry among political contenders for the right to rule through demonstrations of their karmic accord with moral Buddhist order.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s effort to carve out more space for civilian representation in government with the eventual goal of reforming the 2008 Constitution and subordinating the military required broad public support from the majority Burmese Buddhist public whose devotion was not primarily to democratic ideals but to the universalistic ethic of Dhamma, the moral law. This split goal or orientation resulted in the compromise the world witnessed as Aung San Suu Kyi’s tacit endorsement of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state. Apparently, Aung San Suu Kyi compromised democratic principles of human rights in the belief that only once the Bamar majority became free of military power could ethnic minority freedoms be addressed.

Protestor holds up three-finger salute during a protest against the military coup in Myanmar. The three-finger salute originates in book and film series The Hunger Games as a signal of rebellion against tyrannical rule. It was also widely used during protests in Thailand in 2014 and has been a popular symbol throughout Southeast Asia. Via Wikimedia Commons. Photo Credit: VOA Burmese.

The power struggle between the Tatmadaw (military) and NLD (civilian) governments evolved into an elite struggle with its own political dynamics that locked them in an arrangement of preserving the existential status of the other in order to preserve themselves. This is because it was the military that ultimately afforded civilian governance the space to operate, while the civilian government gave democratic and political legitimacy to the military in the international sphere. This would explain why Aung San Suu Kyi has been willing to speak in support of the military, even going so far as to shield them at the International Court of Justice on charges of genocide.

On the populist side, Aung San Suu Kyi abjured human rights in favor of espousing illiberal popular beliefs about the priority of protecting the religion against imagined enemies such as the Muslims and Rohingya—a classic obligation of a Burmese Buddhist king. (Although, it should be noted, that this particular nationalist and xenophobic version of Buddhist “caretaking” was not a necessary condition of Buddhist statecraft. Rather, it was a strain promoted and enflamed by the military who sought to present themselves as Buddhist defenders and to divide support for Aung San Suu Kyi either by exposing her as insufficiently Buddhist in her desire to promote Democracy or to expose her to the International community as insufficiently democratic in her desire to promote Buddhist nationalism.) To this extent, Aung San Suu Kyi participated in the logic and practice of karmic kingship. In order to maintain her political power, she prioritized protection of the Buddhist realm in order to sustain support of the majority she required to rule by democratic criteria of the sovereignty of the people.

The rivalry with military leader Min Aung Hlaing was also personal. Voters in the 2020 elections sought to shift the balance of power decisively toward civilian rule, and for a time Aung San Suu Kyi looked poised to succeed at shifting the balance of power to the favor of her ruling party. Min Aung Hlaing, who in July faces mandatory retirement from his position as head of the military, reportedly approached Aung San Suu Kyi requesting that she offer him the presidency in the new Parliament (a role decided upon by Parliamentarians and not by popular vote). She reportedly rejected his request, effectively blocking him from achieving any path to political power either within the military or the government. The move humiliated the General. Moreover, with his name specifically targeted in the ICJ Report as responsible for crimes against humanity, the status of his family’s vast (ill gotten) businesses was likewise threatened. He was politically, personally, and financially cornered. The only path forward was to revoke democracy and presume the path of a world conquering king.

Where Does Karmic Kingship Come from?

Pre-colonial political culture saw the rise and fall of kings as directly related to the store of their hpon, a karmic source of spiritual potency accumulated through meritorious deeds supporting the religion and the monkhood, sangha. The sovereign was mimetically equated with the Buddhist state such that Myanmar’s 800-year history of kingship was simultaneously a history of the preservation and expansion of the Buddha’s teachings and sacred realm, the sasana.[2]

Following the rupture of Buddhist kingship under British colonialism, Burma’s (later Myanmar’s) governments all sought political legitimacy in Buddhist monarchical terms, continuing the moral order and causative criteria that had governed Burmese Buddhist ideas of power and authority for centuries prior. In modern times, too, the association of royal symbols with modern statecraft is not just a pairing in the metaphorical sense. Each of Myanmar’s post-Independence military rulers have laid claim to being reincarnations of previous Myanmar kings or bodhisattva kings prophesized to come; in other words, they have acted as pretenders to the throne.

The first post-Independence prime minister U Nu’s vision of a Buddhist welfare society, for instance, drew on ideas of bodhisattva kings whose future Buddhahood certified their worthiness to rule. Drawing on cultural myths and symbolism of the Ashokan Buddhist kingship model in which the state was expanded through conquest, pacification, and Buddhist conversion, U Nu’s military successors drew on a kingship model as well; the state saw its role in terms of unifying and protecting those seen as belonging to the greater Burmese Buddhist order. Dissemination of Buddhism is a virtuous, legitimate undertaking for a king, and the unification (and subordination) of peoples to a national idea of Burmese Buddhist identity was iterated in this model.

Conclusion

Myanmar has a long way to go before it can complete the unfinished business of nation-state building that will entail integrating the various ethnic minorities in a federal democracy, defining who is a citizen, establishing the conditions of authority, and affirming the rule of law. At stake in the current confrontation are the rules of the political game itself, about what kind of political system Myanmar is to have. What we are seeing is not just a contest between authoritarianism and democracy, which it also is, but a contest between two distinct ideas of sovereignty, one based on the will of the people and the other based on the idea of karmic kingship.

Ingrid Jordt
April 6, 2021

[1] See also Andrew Selth, Interpreting Myanmar: A Decade of Analysis.

[2] For more background information on this topic, see Aung- Michael Thwin, Pagan: The Origins of Modern Burma,  and Ingrid Jordt, Burma’s Mass Lay Meditation Movement: Buddhism and the Cultural Construction of Power.