Democracy Lab

Buddhist Monks Behaving Badly

The boys in saffron are marching again. But this time there’s nothing that's noble about it.

The thousands of Burmese monks taking to the streets in protest against military rule in September 2007 became one of the defining images of the last decade. Five years later, the monks have been marching again. But this time around it's not human rights and democracy they've been calling for, but the deportation of 800,000 ethnic Muslims from Burma.

Their demands come in the wake of failed attempts by President Thein Sein to garner international support for the resettlement of the Rohingya, the beleaguered ethnic minority who were involved in heavy rioting in western Burma three months ago. Images of hundreds of monks joining civilians as they marched in support of Thein Sein's policy -- ironically the largest protests in Burma since 2007 -- have shocked those who revered the men in saffron robes as bearers of a democratic ideal untainted by politics and self-interest and as immune to government trickery.

But recent months in Burma have shown that our depictions of the pro-democracy movement are not as black and white as we led ourselves to believe. In contrast to five years ago, when monks rallied against the manipulated brand of "nationalism" that affiliated the political opposition with foreignness, they now support it. "Democracy is not fully practiced in our country yet," said the leader of the protests, Wirathu, after police attempted to disband them last week. "We can't even support the president freely."

That statement is one of many examples of the glaring irony surrounding the anti-Rohingya movement. Ashin Htarwara, head of the All Burma Monks' Representative Committee, said in an interview in July that Rohingya were "taking advantage" of the "humane" treatment offered by Arakanese "to commit murder, rape and robbery. I would like to urge those people [Rohingyas] to go back to their native land."

Amid all this, the role that the president, a former top general, played in the bloody crackdown on monks in 2007 appears forgotten, as do the parallels between the former junta's treatment of monks and its attitude towards the Rohingya (both are communities that at one time or another were targeted by the military as a threat to "national unity").

The concept of nationalism, and how the Burmese regime has deployed it over the years to divide and rule the opposition, is key to understanding the crisis surrounding the Rohingya. The nationalist discourse was used to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the regime branded a foreign stooge, and the generals cited local traditions and customs as a way of accusing the outside world that it did not "understand" Burma during times of heavy repression.

The anti-Rohingya lobby, which includes prominent dissidents in Burma and abroad who claim the minority are illegal Bengali immigrants and thus not worthy of citizenship, has essentially adopted the same tactics. But the more recent involvement of monks adds another dimension, reinforcing as it does the allegedly intrinsic ties between Buddhism and Burmese national identity. Historically the two have always been close. Burmese saw their country as an arena in which to preserve the teachings of Buddha as they faded from India. In the 1920s, the anti-colonial struggle was taken up by powerful monks like U Ottama, thus transforming it into a religious one akin to India's. This helped to politicize Buddhism. Dissidents also sought solace in belief during times of heavy oppression. Suu Kyi meditated for hours each day during her years under house arrest, as did jailed dissidents, including monks, who were subject to routine bouts of torture.

These monks apparently see the Rohingya -- or, more accurately, any distinct ethnic group that solely practices Islam -- as a threat to Buddhism, the political opposition's most precious mental refuge. Heavy censorship in Burma has meant that the global perceptions of Islam that formed in the hysteria following 9/11 have been hard to correct; for many Burmese, the Muslims of western Burma remain aggressive proselytisers intrinsically linked with terrorism. Islam then becomes a threat to the supposedly morally superior way of living under Buddhism (the contradictions of a "moral" anti-Rohingya lobby notwithstanding).

This all feeds nicely into the regime's effort to turn Burmese against one another, both justifying heavy-handed rule over society and ensuring that the cohesive anti-regime front of yesteryear is weakened. Moreover, tight restrictions on the movement of Rohingya around Burma ensures they are out of view of the vast majority of the citizenry, thus making the propaganda that much harder to combat. The more simple-minded "nationalists" accordingly see a concentration of disaffected Muslims -- whose darker skin adds to their sense of foreignness -- as an inevitable spawning ground for extremism.

Burmese academic Maung Zarni has written recently of "the careful construction of an iron cage -- a monolithic constellation of values, an ethos -- that locks in and naturalizes a singular view of what constitutes Burma's ‘national' culture." This iron cage needs to be opened, following Suu Kyi's famous call in 1988 for a "revolution of the spirit, born of an intellectual conviction of the need for change in those mental attitudes and values which shape the course of a nation's development."

These protests show, however, that while small material gains may have been made in the past year, the illiberal and intolerant psyche of Burma remains. Protest leader Wirathu epitomizes the contradictions present among the pro-democracy forces calling for the expulsion of the Rohingya. His Masoyein Monastery in Mandalay has long been a hub for political organizing against the regime, and, less than a year ago, its leaders rallied crowds to press Thein Sein for an end to civil war in Burma, surely the clearest manifestation of ethno-religious hostility.

Yet Wirathu was arrested in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim literature, and the monks he has led at the recent protests held placards that read: "'Not our race, not our blood, not our children -- Drive out the lowlife Bengali Kalars from our country." ("Kalar" is a racial slur used in Burma for people with dark skin.) These are powerful battle cries from the same people who have campaigned for an end to conflict.

It is, in fact, the very prospect of the democratic transition demanded by monks in 2007 that has, in large part, fuelled the violence and animosity. The country's elite, sensing that their political and economic interests are at stake, have tried to reassert their power by propagating the fear that national unity is under threat. The monks have become willing pawns in this.

"The violence between Rakhines [Arakanese] and Rohingyas in Arakan State is an example of how dictatorships all over the world use and rely on conflicts to stay in power," writes former monk Ashin Gambira, a leader of the September 2007 uprising, who has criticized the anti-Rohingya protests. "Everybody lives in fear and distrust of the other. Everyone sees the other with a suspicious mind. With this pressure, the people are defeated."

This band of monks who took to the streets in Mandalay earlier this month by no means represent the community as a whole, but they do correct the assumption that the Buddhist monastic order is always a peaceful one. Like any religion, Buddhism, too, can fuse with militant nationalism to combustive effect. In Burma, the spirit of xenophobia encouraged by General Ne Win after the 1962 military coup has had half a century to fester, thereby amplifying hostility towards other belief groups.

Sri Lanka has seen similar malevolence among monks, who have been behind sporadic attacks on Muslim shrines and mosques over the past year. A militant monks' political group, the Jathika Hela Urumaya party, has a widespread following, and is led by Rathana, branded a "war monk" by the media for his relentless support of the state army's hugely controversial assault on the Tamil Tigers.

The influence of the monastic community in Burma is similarly huge, meaning that even moderates who take the protesting monks' words as gospel could be emboldened to join the campaign. This is a dangerous prospect, for these monks, who see their cause as a democratic one, seemingly adhere to the vision of a racially pure Burma. "When a mob protests against an ethnic group, then it is no longer a citizens' protest," Maung Zarni notes. "It is a Nazi rally."

The Mandalay monks' stance on the Rohingya is antithetical to democracy, and, like a parasite, its members feed off the by-products of Burma's historic isolation: fear of "the other," as well as the conviction that diverging belief systems inevitably cause conflict. The demonstrating monks have discredited themselves in the eyes of many observers, yet the positive reputation they still enjoy in Burma risks lending the campaign a perverse legitimacy among those who have internalized this facile nationalism.



Democracy Lab

India, Meet Icarus

Why no one should be surprised that the emerging economic superpower is getting cut back down to size.

Did you hear the good news? India's economy grew at an (annualized) rate of 5.5 percent in the second quarter of 2012 (the last period for which data is available).

But wait: India averaged 8.1 percent growth from 2004 through 2011 -- a period that included the global recession. What sort of Pollyanna is ready to give high marks for 5.5 percent?

This modest number did, in fact, beat growth in the first quarter of 2012. But the real story here is how rapidly expectations have evaporated that India's day in the sun had finally arrived. With hindsight, it's not difficult to explain the slowdown: Interest groups that have more to lose than gain from rapid growth have managed to reassert their veto power over dislocating economic reforms. And in India's messy, corrupt (albeit democratic) political system, it is very difficult to take back the ground lost to defenders of the status quo.

Indian politics isn't about to change. A big question, then, is whether India's brand of governance is really compatible with a return of eight-percent-plus growth, or whether the world's second largest country is going to have to make the journey to affluence one fumbling step at a time.

It's easy to forget that India was the poster child of failed development strategy. From independence in 1947 to the late 1980s, it averaged just a shade more than two percent annual growth, barely enough to offset population growth. Pretty much everyone agreed long ago that the Indian economy had potential -- fine elite education, a culture of enterprise, a wealthy diaspora eager to prove itself back home, and a common language that happened to be the language of international business. But it was horribly burdened by a venal bureaucracy, a hopelessly overtaxed infrastructure, and (worst of all) an ideology of self-reliance and central economic planning that had largely isolated Indian markets from global competition.

It's also easy to forget that India's economic breakthrough was virtually an accident: In 1991, facing a foreign exchange crisis created by currency mismanagement, the government appointed an apolitical technocrat, Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, with the goal of giving India a more credible façade for international lenders. Singh grabbed the mandate and ran with it, devaluing the rupee, cutting confiscatory tax rates, opening the door to import competition, and reducing regulation of large enterprises to a level closer to, say, Europe, than to Cuba.

The economy responded with such alacrity to newly unleashed market forces that pragmatic politicians saw a future in defending the reforms. And with GDP doubling in the first decade under Singh, and more than doubling in the second, the idea took hold that the Indian economic juggernaut was unstoppable. But it was never that simple, as recent growth rates clearly show; contrary forces were building. To understand why, consider a little perspective.

The great majority of Indians are much better off today than they were four (or fourteen) years ago. Gross Domestic Product per capita income, measured in terms of today's purchasing power, has quadrupled between 1991 and 2011 to a respectable $3,600. What's more, the distribution of income did not change radically. India's GINI coefficient (a technical measure of inequality) hardly budged; neither did the percentage of India's income going to the bottom-fifth of the population. But rapid change did make great wealth more conspicuous -- especially in cities. According to Forbes, India has 55 billionaires (in U.S. dollars), most of whom do not hide their good fortune.

Moreover, income inequality between cities and the countryside has increased substantially. By no coincidence, one-third of all Indians (400 million people) who disproportionately reside in rural areas survive on less than $1.25 a day in terms of purchasing power.  

What's more, Indians have little sense that the reformers are on the side of the poor. Big business was relieved of smothering regulation; yet for most of the population, daily life is still under the thumb of a corrupt, nitpicking bureaucracy that routinely sells services (education, welfare benefits, rule of law) that are supposed to be free.

Then there is the wretched state of India's infrastructure. Everybody suffers from congested transportation, unreliable electricity, and hit-or-miss communications. But the poor (and, for that matter, the new urban middle class) suffer far more than big business and the wealthy, who have backup generators, private aircrafts, and dedicated telecom lines.

A few more words about corruption. India ranks 95th on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, behind such paragons of virtue as Liberia, Sri Lanka, and Jamaica. That hasn't stopped businesses that can afford to grease the palms of politicians and senior bureaucrats from progressing; indeed, it helps them by raising the barrier to would-be competitors who don't have the cash or the knowhow to spread the baksheesh.

But it is ferociously frustrating to everybody else: According to the World Bank, India ranks 182nd (that's right, 182nd) on a list of 183 countries in terms of the difficulty of enforcing contracts. And the resulting pent-up fury has recently fueled a powerful populist reaction to the social displacement that is inevitable in a rapidly growing economy. As a result, pro-growth elements in the current ruling coalition (led by now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) have been severely weakened.

Consider the issue of foreign investment in retailing. Singh wanted to allow foreign "big box" retailers like Walmart and Tesco to set up shop in India fuel the spectacular sorts of efficiency gains in consumer services that have swept through India's business-service sectors -- and to reduce the portion of crops that rot on the way to market. But the coalition required support from Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal who came to power defending farmers against attempts to take over their land in order to build an auto factory. Banerjee also proved to be an equally tenacious defender of shopkeepers as well as incumbent wholesalers who controlled the movement of fresh food from rural areas.

The rejection certainly jolted the perceptions of foreign businesses, which had begun to regard India as a must-invest economy, like China and Brazil. It wouldn't be a make-it-or-break-it issue -- if it didn't reflect the larger reality that the country's economic culture isn't yet up to the challenge of supporting Asian-tiger rates of growth.

This is neatly illustrated in the confluence of factors that have limited the growth of manufacturing in India. Every East-Asian economic success story has been built around manufacturing exports. But, in spite of its vast supply of cheap, surplus labor and relatively strong management, only about 15 percent of Indian GDP is in manufacturing.

One of the most striking obstacles are the rigid labor laws created by independent India's first governments. South Asia's manufacturing juggernaut is fed by an endless, rapidly-churning supply of unskilled rural laborers seeking a better life in cities. But in India, once a worker is hired by a medium- or large-sized business, it's almost impossible to fire him or her. So multinationals selling labor-intensive goods ranging from shoes to low-end consumer electronics are now gravitating to countries like Vietnam, where labor is malleable and where 40 percent of the GDP consists of manufactures.

Nor are labor laws the only obstacle. India, home to 1.2 billion in a land less than one-third the size of the United States, is a very crowded country; not surprisingly, siting a factory can be a legal and political ordeal. By World Bank tally, India ranks 181st out of 183 countries in difficulty of obtaining a construction permit. (As alluded to above, Mamata Banerjee rose to power by stopping construction of a factory that was slated to build Tata Motors' ultra-cheap, breakthrough car, the Nano.)

Even if one manages to find a place to build a big business facility, there's the problem of supporting infrastructure. India's roads, rail lines, and electric power and port facilities are all overtaxed. This factor alone can spell the difference in competitiveness in global markets that favor flexibility, speed, and just-in-time inventory policies.

And why, you might ask, is Indian infrastructure inferior to that of potential rivals? One factor is the legendary inefficiency of its state-owned enterprises, which serve political constituencies rather markets. Another is the inability to build new rail corridors through densely-populated regions, which channels low-cost rail traffic into high-cost truck traffic. Yet another factor is the failure to attract capital from foreigners who are wary of the uncertain legal climate -- especially when it comes to big, high-profile projects that are catnip to corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

All that said, the Indian economy is not about to fall off an economic cliff, or even return to the pre-1980s "Hindu rate of growth"-- it still has much going for it. But these days, development specialists are more likely to cite economic institutions -- regulation, rule of law, entrenchment of local interests ---than logistics or education or natural resources in explaining why economies succeed or fail. And from this perspective, there's no mystery why the Indian economy has downshifted. Indeed, the better question is, how has it managed to get this far?    

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