Expanding and restricting democratic participation in the Theravada Buddhist world
Democratic trends in Theravada Buddhist countries in South and Southeast Asia have shifted markedly in recent years, with Thailand once again coming under military rule while Myanmar has increased the scope of its civilian governance, albeit with its military continuing to play a strong role in politics. All of the Theravada countries in the region (including Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia) display some democratic processes and institutions, alongside some persistent non-democratic practices. But when we begin to examine the ways in which political figures in these countries have understood and theorized about democracy, a complex picture emerges of notions of democracy that have been strongly influenced by moral ideas connected to Theravada Buddhism. Rather than attempting to categorize democratic, autocratic, or “-with adjectives” variations, I look particularly at the ways in which various contemporary thinkers and politicians have argued for the expansion or restriction of popular political participation. I argue that all of these notions can be positioned in relation to a fundamental ambivalence in Theravada Buddhist political thought: are human beings capable of moral perfection and self-rule or is their characteristic self-centeredness inevitably in need of a stronger authority, provided by either religious or political leaders?
Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College. He has published articles on Buddhism, ethnicity, and politics in Myanmar and his analysis of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar (co-authored with Susan Hayward), Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar, was published in 2014 in the East-West Center Policy Studies series. His next project is a comparative study of Buddhist political thought across the Theravada world. Matt is one of the co-founders of the Myanmar Media and Society project and of the Oxford-based Burma/Myanmar blog Tea Circle.
This talk is part of DPIR's Political Theory Research Seminar Series.