Three young monks in orange robes sitting on some stairs

Monks and Politics in Theravada Southeast Asia

Wednesday 21st October 2015, 2.00 - 4.00pm; Room B.13, 32 Lincoln's Inn Fields (32L)
Speaker: Dr Matthew Walton; Chair: Dr Kirsten Schulze

Monastic engagement with politics has been a recurring phenomenon in the modern era in Theravada Buddhist countries. Challenging the idealized (and too often unquestioned) image of monks as detached from the world and its problems, monks have participated in politics in a variety of ways, including direct electoral engagement, mobilization and protest, joining ideological movements, and social service work, sometimes in support of and sometimes in opposition to political authorities.

This talk examines the ways in which thinkers and writers in Theravada countries have justified or criticized monastic engagement in politics, through two types of examples. First is the mobilization of monks in times of crisis (or perceived crisis), where they have argued that the usually-latent political force of the sangha (monkhood) can be legitimately deployed in defense of the religion or nation. Second is the more everyday political action, often channeled through social or religious activity and explained as part of the traditional vocation of the monk.

Through these examples, I will argue that, while the issue of monastic engagement with politics will remain an essentially contested question, examining monks’ arguments in particular contexts can reveal changing dynamics in the institution of the sangha and creative reinterpretations of monks’ self-understanding of their vocational role.



Matthew Walton is the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.



Kirsten Schulze is Deputy Director of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre and Associate Professor in International History at LSE.