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Religion and National Unity

U NuU Nu's personal commitment to Buddhism was a decisive influence in his career as prime minister. The cdonnection of Buddhism to welfare state socialism, which had been developed by earlier Burmese thinkers, formed the basis for his rejection of Marxist socialism. In his words the doctrine of Karl Marx was "less than one-tenth of a particle of dust that lies at the feet of our great Lord Buddha." The identification of Buddhism and other religions with national development was stressed in a 1954 report on the Pyidawtha program: "The new Burma sees no conflict between the religious values and economic progress. Spiritual health and material well-being are not enemies; they are natural allies."

Like the pacific King Mindon, U Nu took seriously Buddhist prohibitions against doing harm. He was often accused of indecisiveness and an unwillingness to deal firmly, or ruthlessly, with his opponents. Buddhism formed an important element in his neutralist foreign policy, which evolved after 1949. U Nu also used the symbols of Buddhism and popular religion to strengthen his rule and foster national unity. As a Buddhist ruler, perhaps even a "Buddha-in-the-making" he participated in meritorious public acts, such as giving offerings to the sangha, building or restoring pagodas, venerating relics (including those brought from abroad), liberating animals, and cleansing and adorning Buddha images. He sponsored religious ceremonies, including those dedicated to the nats, Burma's national spirits, and took time off from his duties as prime minister to meditate at monasteries or holy places like Mount Popa.

U Nu took seriously the ruler's traditional role as promoter and defender of the faith. In 1954-56 he held the Sixth World Buddhist Council, commemorating the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha's attainment of nirvana. Like King Mindon, sponsor of the fifth council, he called together thousands of monks and lay scholars to study and revise the Tripitaka: Mindon's revisions were compared with texts brought from Ceylon, Cambodia, Thailand, and the West. Government and AFPFL funds and labor were used to build the Kaba Aye (World Peace) Pagoda and the Maha Pasana Guha (Great Sacred Cave) in Rangoon, where the council was held.

Although U Nu drew on Buddhism both as a personal faith and as a basis for national unity, in contrast to Aung San's more secularist approach, he was careful to respect the rights of minority religions. In 1953 he refused to impose a ban that many Buddhists urged on the slaughtering of cattle by Muslims during a religious festival; this, he thought, was oppression of a minority by the majority, regardless of his personal feelings about the killing of animals. His suggestion that Christian and Islamic religious instruction be given along with Buddhism in state schools aroused the animosities of politically active monks in 1954. U Nu's reaction was to ban all religious instruction in government schools, a move that precipitated demonstrations by the sangha and laity throughout the country. He was forced to capitulate -and allow only Buddhist instruction; one observer suggested that he was in a sense the victim of the very sentiments that, as a patron of Buddhism, he had fostered.

The most heated issue, however, was a proposed constitutional amendment making Buddhism the state religion. U Nu had committed himself to this as early as 1954 and strove to convince Christian, Muslim, and animist leaders that this would not lead to the oppression of their communities. There were violent confrontations, however, particularly between Buddhists and Muslims. On August 17, 1961, U Nu proposed the amendment in parliament, and it was passed and promulgated by August 26. Another amendment, however, was passed soon after; sponsored by U Nu, it guaranteed the minority religious communities the right to teach and propagate their faiths, a measure that provoked a violent reaction on the part of the political monks.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2011 12:16:48 ZULU