Buddhism still largely shapes people's politics in Myanmar. Photo: Chris Beckett on flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisjohnbeckett/

Buddhism still largely shapes people’s politics in Myanmar. Photo: Chris Beckett on flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisjohnbeckett/

As Myanmar prepares for historic polls in November, moral ideas of citizen-led social assistance continue to loom large.

With Myanmar’s historic November elections fast approaching, prospective candidates are touring the countryside in boisterous campaigns aimed at winning the support of millions of undecided voters.

After decades of authoritarian rule aimed at ring-fencing everyday people from contentious politics, political parties are rising to the challenge of popular sovereignty with rousing rhetoric and promises of change and development.

Yet behind the spectacle of campaign convoys and stirring speeches, what constitutes ‘politics’ for many remains deeply rooted in moral ideas of social action and citizenship popularised under authoritarianism and embedded in Buddhist spirituality.

The depth of this Buddhist social action is evident in the work of local welfare groups that the regime permitted to develop during the dark days of the 1990s – on condition that they remain ‘apolitical’. These nodes of social action flourished as everyday people sought opportunities to develop their local communities amid the otherwise limited space for civil action under the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

A study conducted in 2006 – prior to the commencement of liberalisation in 2011 – found more than 214,000 local self-help groups operating a range of services including clinics, funeral associations and tutoring services in every corner of the country.

The convenient fiction that these groups eschew politics collapses when volunteers begin to talk about the intentions and broader objectives of their social work.

“Happiness is limitless when you save lives”
A recent visit to a local blood bank in Taungoo, a mid-sized town of around 160,000 people in Bamar-majority central Myanmar, provides a vivid insight into this sociology of Buddhist-imbued welfare.

Two students from the newly formed Taungoo University welfare group lay on wooden beds in the donation room, squirming a little when looking at the needles stuck into the crest of their arms. The nurse tried to settle them, explaining that it’s natural to feel a little woozy when giving blood.

Accompanying the students was a volunteer from Byama-So, a local welfare association that runs Taungoo’s largest blood bank registry along with a suite of other social services including cost-price funerals and free ambulance transportation.

Throughout the 45 minutes or so of their donation, this volunteer – a trader who took the morning off to meet the students and provide encouragement – played an essential role in helping to support, and also to frame, their experiences of blood giving.

What does it feel like to give blood?” I asked one of the students. The volunteer quickly interjected:

It feels fantastic! It is essential that they give blood… People need blood to continue their lives. By giving blood, your happiness is limitless because you save lives!

The students donating nodded weakly, watching 450 millilitres of their rare AB blood slowly trickle into bags propped up on wooden blocks on the floor.

Similar encouragement came from another student who donated the week prior and sat beaming at the end of his friends’ bed, loading photos of the students to their group’s newly established Facebook page.

The volunteer from Byama-So quietly explained the importance of his role. “If they come alone”, he told me, “they get a bit scared and decide not to donate.” He then returned to enthusiastically encouraging them, emphasising the contribution they are making not just to patients in need of their blood, but also to spreading what is referred to in Burmese as ‘parahita seit’ – ‘social assistance mind’, or more figuratively ‘social consciousness’.

This scene occurs more than ten times a day at Taungoo General Hospital’s blood bank. Its protagonists are motivated by a deeply Buddhist conceptualisation of obligations to the polity that plays an essential role in systems of health, education and subsistence across the country.

‘The value of life’ and Buddhist moral citizenship
Embedded in this social action is a thick conceptualisation of the central role of Buddhist citizens and welfare groups for welfare provision. Citizenship isn’t framed around claiming ‘human rights’ from the state, nor of ensuring citizens receive the public goods to which they are entitled – recurring features of civil society and political discourses in neighboring countries such as Thailand or India and around the globe.

Entitlement is absent in this discourse, replaced by an appeal to a Buddhist volunteer mindset and identity founded on socially meritorious actions – like donations of blood, money or time.

And despite filling the vacuum left by the absence of government welfare in one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, very little is expected from the state. Rather, volunteers and beneficiaries of Buddhist welfare groups promote a social mindset that sees morally upright citizens as the source of welfare-related social action.

“The virtues of social work are essential”, a volunteer for another local welfare group tells me. “Through our work we are creating a mindset of concern for each other, without discrimination of age, gender, ethnicity or wealth. This is much needed at this time in Myanmar”.

What is interesting is that volunteer action is focused more on inputs of assistance than outputs or outcomes of aid. There is no attempt by any of these organisations to measure how many patients’ lives are saved by the free pharmacy, or the number of blood recipients who recover after a transfusion. The focus is virtuous social action, in this instance the ‘joy of saving lives’, as seen in the blood bank.

Myanmar 2015. Kalay. Aye Thar Yar village. Myanmar Red Cross local volunteers distributing hygien kits and shelter kits to flood affected people in Aye Thar Yar village. MRC local volunteers have been helping around the Kalay township area since the monsoon floods hit the area end of July.

Myanmar Red Cross local volunteers distributing hygien kits and shelter kits to flood affected people in Aye Thar Yar village during the 2015 floods. Photo: IFRC on flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/ifrc/

There is a digital dimension to all this as well. The moral subjectivity of Buddhist imbued self-help, which emphasises ‘the value of life’, occurs daily both offline and online.

Take Facebook for example, where Buddhist social action can be compared to extremist violence committed by groups such as Islamic State in the Middle East.

“Muslim’s don’t value life in the same way that we do”, lay people and monks repeatedly tell me. Such claims are also used to justify the need for a widely-criticised package of laws recently passed by Myanmar’s Parliament regulating inter-faith marriage, conversion and reproduction.

Established and nascent political identities
These ethical considerations and notions of citizenship – despite successfully defining the parameters of ‘the political’ in new and often problematic ways – do not necessarily lead to support for any major political party.

As a result of the frequent suppression of compassionate social action during the authoritarian period, even those who offer their time for welfare projects linked with Buddhist nationalist group ‘Ma Ba Tha’ often retain a deep affection for Aung San Suu Kyi and her opposition National League for Democracy.

This is due to what they see as her ongoing sacrifices “for the good of the nation”, and despite campaigns by some Ma Ba Tha branches suggesting the NLD does not “protect nation, faith and religion”.

Meanwhile, major donors of both the local NLD and the USDP fund a broad cross-section of Taungoo’s Buddhist welfare groups, pointing to a pragmatic political economy of patronage that cuts across opaque partisan lines.

Perhaps as a consequence of the divergent streams of this complex sociology, many of those who offer their time regularly at Buddhist-imbued welfare groups are as yet unsure as to which party they will lend their vote to at the upcoming November 2015 elections. Some express little interest in voting at all, seeing the election simply as a struggle for power between largely immoral, self-interested politicians.

Regardless of how welfare networks seek to directly influence voter opinion in the run up to November’s elections, it is clear that protection of Buddhism and its special status in Myanmar is of deep concern for many of these groups and the likely millions of citizens with whom they have regular moral and material interaction across the country.

In the context of a ‘thin’ welfare state, thick conceptualisations of citizenship, sovereignty and ‘politics’ are emanating from this moral sociology of non-state welfare. These groups and networks could thus usefully be considered ‘informal’ political institutions, essential to the everyday interactions from which political imaginaries are frequently generated amid political transitions.

The interaction between political institutions and these ‘informal’ institutions rooted in the legacies of a weak authoritarian state are likely to be essential to understanding electoral outcomes in November as well as the evolving notions of citizenship, entitlement and political culture more broadly in Myanmar’s nascent democracy.

Gerard McCarthy is a doctoral candidate in the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, currently conducting fieldwork in central-east Myanmar. This post is extracted from two papers presented at the Myanmar/Burma Update in Canberra, Australia (June 2015) and the International Conference on Burma Myanmar Studies in Chiang Mai, Thailand (July 2015).

This article is cross-posted with the Asian Studies Association of Australia’s blog, ‘Asian Currents’.