The Kings of Buddhism explores the consequences of state regulation and protection of a country’s majority religion. Sterken argues that religious liberty or the lack thereof results from rational interest-based calculations of both religious and state actors. Using insights dating back to Adam Smith, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson, Sterken argues that centuries of state support for Theravada Buddhism has corrupted the Myanmar religious marketplace. At the expense of religions and the society, Myanmar’s kings and military rulers have protected and regulated religion to enhance their own political survival. The consequences of state and religion entanglement include 1) a state supported religious monopoly, 2) corruption, regulation, and repression of Theravada Buddhists, 3) repression and violence against religious minorities, 4) perpetual conflict and violence, 5) a corrupt religious economy, and 6) a corruption of truth. The consequences of state control are stark and should serve as a warning to all who would seek to entangle religion and the state.
Robert E. Sterken Jr. is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Tyler. Sterken’s research is focused on religion and the state in Southeast Asia. He is the author of Teaching Barefoot in Burma, Bill Ratliff: A Profile of Courage and Leadership in American Politics, and numerous articles and chapters. In 2015-2016, Sterken was a Fulbright Scholar at Yangon University and the Myanmar Institute of Theology. As a Fulbright Specialist in 2018, Sterken taught religion and politics at Jilin University in Changchun, China, where he was awarded Jilin University’s Distinguished Visiting Professor Award.
Making Buddhism an official state religion, protecting it, and discriminating against other organized religions and animist spirits have contributed to long decades of perpetual conflict and violence. Sterken acknowledges that Buddhism in Myanmar (also known as Burma) has been the dominant creed for a millennium. But, as he makes clear, only the presidency of U Nu from 1948 to 1962 and the autarkic dictatorship of Ne Win from 1962 to 1988 gave ambitious abbots and their monasteries the stamp of national, authorized "firms." This imprimatur means injustice to all but Buddhists and the "political othering" of non-Buddhists.… Today, opposition to the military junta that ousted an elected civilian government in 2021 mostly reflects outsiders against an autocratic center. Sterken’s view is that Myanmar would advance if it broke ties with the Buddhist "firm" and allowed all religions to compete for followers and favor. Recommended. Graduate students and faculty.
Myanmar has long been fraught with mass atrocity crimes related to religion and extremist-nationalist politics. Sterken's book delves deep into the dynamics of religion, power, and politics in Myanmar, with lessons that may someday help prevent future atrocities.
In an impassioned critique, Sterken demonstrates the baleful consequences of mixing politics and religion throughout Burma’s tumultuous history, beginning from the eleventh century and continuing on to the present day. Most observers would assume Buddhism to be a doctrine that always encourages its adherents to favor tolerance, non-violence, and peace. Sterken does not contest such an interpretation but cites many authorities—from Western political philosophers to contemporary Burmese monks and lay people—who warn that state intervention in religious matters invariably corrupts both the preferred faith and its state sponsors. The violence and tragedy that continues to afflict Burma to this day provides ample evidence in support of Sterken’s claims.