Why the world’s most generous country may yet be democratic

Myanmar was declared the most generous country just two days after an election moved it closer to democracy. A spirit of egalitarian giving lies behind its steady progress toward freedom.

AP Photo
Buddhist monks walk to collect alms in Yangon, Myanmar, Nov. 11. Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has won her parliamentary seat, leading a near total sweep by her party that will give the country its first government in decades that isn't under the military's sway.

On Nov. 10, just two days after Myanmar (Burma) held an election that marked a new triumph in democracy, a survey was released with news that this Southeast Asian nation, among the poorest in the world, is also the most generous. Nine out of 10 Burmese give money to charity while half volunteer for good causes, according to the London-based Charities Aid Foundation.

This giving spirit has played a critical role in the ongoing struggle of the people of Myanmar to eventually be free of military rule. It is reflected in their daily practice of giving food to Buddhist monks, who walk barefoot door-to-door in maroon robes, carrying begging bowls in order to receive alms from believers. The people support the monks in their work of studying scripture and in their prayers. Numbering close to 500,000 in a country of 51 million, the monks hold a close connection to the people. This provides them with a special legitimacy to determine the country’s future, as they have often done throughout Burmese history.

Although apolitical most of the time, the monks played a leading role in the democratic uprisings of 1988 and 2007 that helped shake the generals who have ruled Myanmar since 1962. They helped forced the regime to gradually allow more freedom and grant more power through elections. For years, many top military officers were boycotted by monks in the daily practice of almsgiving, a shunning known as “turning of the bowl.” This moral rebuke “effectively removed the spiritual condition sustaining the regime’s power,” writes scholar Ingrid Jordt, a former Buddhist nun in Myanmar and now an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin.

The military tried to counter the majority of monks who favor democracy by trying to control the Sangha, or central authority of the monkhood. And in recent years, the military top brass were also closely tied to a small group of extreme monks, known by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha, who created a political alarm over the 5 percent of the population that is Muslim, known as the Rohingya. During the election campaign, these monks were active in opposing Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.

The Army’s efforts did not work very well. The NLD’s victory in the Nov. 8 parliamentary elections was really a win for the egalitarian nature of Myanmar’s culture of Theravada Buddhism. The people’s daily generosity of giving and volunteering helped sustain a desire for compassionate rulers who are peaceful and meet the needs of all the people. If the NLD can now gain enough influence over the remaining power of the generals, that desire might be fulfilled.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why the world’s most generous country may yet be democratic
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/the-monitors-view/2015/1111/Why-the-world-s-most-generous-country-may-yet-be-democratic
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe