In a recent interview with the BBC, Thant Myint-U, the Burmese-American head of policy planning in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs, asserted that since 1962, when General Ne Win took power, the Burmese Sangha has been increasingly under the sway of the military and has not been an active force for political change.

I was more than surprised to hear this, partly because in most Buddhist countries the Sangha orders of monks and nuns have played significant roles in opposing violence and injustice.

Even more surprising, though, was Thant Myint-U’s denial of their struggle against dictatorship in Burma. especially as his grandfather was U Thant, the UN Secretary-General throughout the ‘60s. When U Thant died in 1974, his body was returned to Burma for burial. The internationally recognised statesman was greatly revered by his Burmese countrymen, and his funeral became an occasion for mass protest against the military government. Hundreds of monks attended these rallies, some praying over U Thant’s body and others joining in shouting the slogans “Down with the fascist government! Down with one-party dictatorship!”

After several tense days, the military government declared martial law, which the protesters defied by continuing their demonstrations. Dictator General Ne Win finally sent armed troops into the streets with the order to open fire. In the violence that followed, hundreds of students were killed. Soldiers also bayonetted several monks, then arrested and imprisoned six hundred others.

Throughout the ‘70s the Sangha had regular run-ins with the dictatorship, and individual monks as well as entire monasteries suffered gravely as a result. Numerous monks and novices were arrested, derobed and imprisoned; monastic property was confiscated and several monasteries were shut down, all in an effort to intimidate and silence the Sangha.

But this coercion and outright violence did not have the effect the regime hoped for. When Burma experienced its extraordinary people’s revolution in 1988, the Sangha came out in full force, staging demonstrations of their own while organising and keeping order at other marches. The rallies spread across the country until millions of people united in a general strike in August 1988. During that month and the next, several hundred monks and thousands of other demonstrators were gunned down in the streets. When General Saw Maung took over in September, a thousand monks fled into the jungle, fearing reprisals. Those reprisals came, in increased surveillance of monasteries, harrassment and the arrests of hundreds of the Sangha. The monks U Kowainda and U Koweinda, both young men, were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for their roles in the demonstrations. They both died in prison, most likely from injuries sustained during torture.

Today the Sangha is the only institution in Burma that remains independent from, and to a certain extent ungovernable by, the military regime. Partly this is because the Sangha is viewed, even by members of the armed forces, as separate from regular Burmese society, and worthy of profound respect. There are over 400,000 monks and 40,000 to 70,000 nuns in Burma; roughly the same number as there are soldiers in the military. In his book Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics, anthropologist Goustaf Houtman writes, “With its roots deep in every village, where people have integrated support for the Sangha into their everyday lives, and with a long history of monk mobility all over the country, the Sangha exercises a formidable influence on political opinion.” This mobility also helps to make the Sangha difficult to govern in the regime’s habitual way. Monks can travel great distances without the surveillance that is a routine part of life for ordinary Burmese people.

Buddhism is not the only religion practised in Burma, but it is the most prevalent and deeply rooted. Buddhism and Burmese politics have been intertwined since ancient times. The Sangha often exercised a moderating influence on the kings of old, interceding on behalf of prisoners and encouraging mercy toward captured enemies, as well as acting on various occasions as emissaries of peace. The monks also wielded a powerful tool of karma when the men of worldly power refused to behave themselves. Pattam nikkujana kamma – overturning the bowl – was used when members of the laity, including the king and his vassals, contravened Buddhist tenets or acted disrespectfully toward the Sangha. The monks literally turned their alms bowls upside down, refusing to collect offerings from the guilty ones, effectively cutting them off from merit-making for this life and future lives. To the Buddhist mind, such a punishment is truly devastating.

In 1990, for the first time in history, at a meeting of over seven thousand monks in Mandalay, the Sangha Union invoked pattam nikkujana kamma against the military and their families. They took this unprecedented step after soldiers once again opened fire on monks who were commemorating the democracy uprising of 1988.

The refusal to collect alms and perform religious ceremonies for the military spread from Mandalay to Rangoon, then across the country. In desperation, the regime called in Thai monks to accept alms donations and perform funeral rites. At the same time, the generals were also busy meting out severe punishment to dozens of monks and several abbots.

Throughout these decades of intimidation, murders and arrests without due process, the Sangha has persevered. While it is true that the military has won over some prominent abbots with lavish gifts – bribes for their public support – most monks remain faithful to the life of poverty and service that drew them to the monastic order in the first place.

They study the scriptures and keep the precepts that call for them to act humbly and peacefully, showing metta (compassion) for all beings. They help novices and lay people to understand the teachings of the Buddha, and they act as trusted counsellors for entire communities. Some monasteries are like orphanage-schools, where thousands of poverty-stricken children live and receive basic education.

The abbot of one of these orphanage-monasteries once told me that his most political work was teaching children to read. In a country where literacy rates have reached record lows, this is very political work indeed. The Sangha also teaches hundreds of thousands of people vipassana meditation – a practice that sustained every one of the political prisoners I interviewed in the research for my novel The Lizard Cage, set in a Burmese prison.

The struggle for freedom has been both a spiritual and a worldly affair for the Burmese Sangha. Its historical readiness to get involved in the politics of dissent disproves airy-fairy western notions of ethereal Buddhist detachment from real life. That readiness, and the common sense (“right thinking” in Buddhist terms) and sheer bravery that necessarily accompanies it, strikes me as very humanist.

It was monks, most notably U Wisara and U Ottama, who started the anti-colonialist movement against the British, in part because the colonists showed constant disrespect towards Buddhism. One of the most grating ways the colonial masters flaunted their disrespect was by refusing to remove their shoes before entering temples and pagodas.

Little did the English gentlemen and ladies know that the Sangha would translate the insult to Buddhism into a grave assault against the very essence of Burmese-ness. In doing so, they provided a whole generation of young revolutionaries with a framework and a vocabulary for their political activities.

General Aung San was a member of that generation. By 1947, he had become the architect of Burma’s independence. He compared the freedom of democracy with loki nibbana – a kind of mundane, worldly nirvana. (Remember, you cynics: at that time, everyone still had high hopes for democracy!)

The beloved general’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, has followed in his footsteps. After the Dalai Lama, Daw Suu Kyi is arguably the most famous Buddhist figure in the world. In her writings and speeches, she regularly describes the way in which different Buddhist practices and institutions are comparable to those of democratic government.

We cannot, of course, allow this catalogue of examples of brave Buddhist resistance to obscure other less admirable, less humanistic aspects of the religion. Our respect for Buddhist monks in Burma can hardly be allowed to inhibit our distaste for the fatalistic concept of reincarnation and the panoply of animist superstitions that characterise many Buddist cultures. Nor should our admiration for the huge courage of Aung San Suu Kyi allow us to overlook the central Buddhist belief in the inferior nature of women.

In early Buddhist writings, as in the Bible, women are vilified as dangerous sensualists in thrall to their bodies. When his closest disciple Ananda asked how monks should conduct themselves regarding women, the Buddha replied, “Act like you don’t see them.”

Though Burmese Buddhist nuns have a much higher status than the Buddhist nuns of other countries, they are still not considered to be equal in virtue and wisdom to monks. Because of restrictions on the orders, “real” Theravada nuns, bhikkunis, have not been ordained for almost a thousand years.

So donating food and robes to women’s monasteries – and all the Sangha, women included, rely on the donations of the laity for the necessities of life – does not carry the same karmic weight as donating to a men’s monastery. And the two Sangha universities in Burma accept only monks as students, not nuns. Nuns are also required to abase themselves before monks by bowing down and speaking humbly.

But at least the Buddha also said that women have the same potential as men to become arahants – enlightened beings. That is what a nun in Mandalay told me, after explaining that she had joined the monastery because her husband was not very nice to her. With a quiet smile, she also showed me a translation of a poem by Mutta the nun, from the Therigatha, written in the sixth century BC:

I am free I am free I am free from
the three crooked
things: mortar, pestle, and my
crooked husband.
I am free from death and all that
dragged me back.

Karen Connelly’s latest novel, The Lizard Cage (Harvill Secker), has been shortlised for the Orange New Writers Prize