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.

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