New Social Movements: Christian and Buddhist Movements --Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2001 »2001 4 »New Social Movements Christian And Buddhist Movements Philippines Thailand Sri Lanka

Kathleen Nadea

How effective have local, bottom‑up efforts to protect the indigenous life ways of the Philippines proven to be? Clearly, grassroots efforts like the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) are more effective than abstract theories. Religion as an aspect of ideology calls for examination of its historic and structural relations to indigenous social life. Otherwise, students of the anthropology of religion run the risk of losing contact with their partners of study, by creating theories with no concrete relation to them. The first part of this paper reflects on the alternative thrust of BECs in relation to the whole arena, its roots and origins, of development presently occurring in the Philippines. The second part of this paper offers similar religious, liberation movements in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

The Basic Ecclesial Community movement traces its origins to (1) the early church of Jesus Christ, and (2) the Filipino struggle for liberation from colonial and neocolonial dominance during the Spanish colonization (1565‑1898), the United States colonial period (1898‑1946), and subsequent domination by the Filipino elite. There is a long history in the Philippines of religious clergy and Christians who have joined the revolutionary struggle. For example, the Christians for National Liberation, which consists of an ecumenical and mass base of Christians, was established to support the revolutionary struggle against Martial Law, however, since the toppling of the Marcos dictatorship, the question of armed struggle has become a subject of controversy among members and allies of the National Democratic Front in the Philippines. Nationalist Christians and their allies have long opted for the parliamentary road to struggle whenever possible. Liberation theologians (e.g., Cosmao, Gaspar, Pieris) and BEC organizers agree that they are indebted to nondogmatic and creative Marxism rather than to the more dogmatic orthodox Marxism because the former provides a fresh way to analyze and redress social problems. Liberation theologians have modified Marxist tendencies in BEC praxis because they see dogmatic Marxism as more of a hindrance than an aid to improving people's everyday lives. Meanwhile, BECs favor poor people by providing an alternate method to restructure Philippine society. This paper suggests that the primary objectives of participants in this movement are instrumental not ideological, aiming, first, to improve socioeconomic and cultural circumstances in the face of poverty, and second, to defend and protect basic human rights in the face of violence from a multiplicity of government forces and real estate and development agents.

On the one side, Philippine landlords and elite officials continue to use the military and their government connections to keep poor farmers and laborers under control and surveillance. On the other side, many of the nation's poor have turned to churches to redress felt wrongs. In response, local churches in the ecumenical movement have polarized into a conservative faction of religious leaders largely concerned with preserving the status quo and a justice‑oriented faction of leadersdirectly involved in the liberational movement to improve the conditions of the impoverished majority. The poor have mostly been with the institutional church, but BECs have become more or less a metaphor for the unrest of church leaders themselves. Moreover, although the local government provides financial incentives to areas where internationally tradable goods can be produced in exchange for foreign currency, it has neglected spending on social services and agriculture. This policy affected adversely both the Philippine's poor and the natural environment. By contrast, the local BEC movement offers an alternative, bottom‑up development strategy attractive to the poor because their way of life is under siege.

Clearly, there is a need to look at BECs in the wider contexts in which they are grounded, to distinguish differences between them. Some BECs may innovate fresh ideas and cultural productions in praxis (e.g., engage BEC theory in practice as when farmers join hands together to develop organic farming techniques for the sake of making their particular communities more self‑sufficient and self‑reliant. For details see Nadeau 2001). Others are best seen as Bible sharing groups. There is much more on‑the‑ground variation between BECs than is currently acknowledged. Ideally, BECs encourage the poor to rely on their own authority and cognitional autonomy to solve their problems free of outside theories that have no concrete basis, although they do not always do so. These communities, like many small communities, are vulnerable to counterproductive tendencies such as gossip, backbiting, suspicion, and envy. Some of the BECs are subject to manipulation by conservative clerics and lay workers who may use concepts from liberation theology to assert the church's institutional authority symbolically and materially‑‑as when the conservative hierarchy attempted to co‑opt the BEC movement by downplaying it's role as a transformative force for social change.

Foreign funding agencies need to become more aware of the differences between BEC models and more wary of government and church officials' assessments of them. Liturgical and developmental BECs may emphasize economic development but not social, cultural, and ecological development. By contrast, liberational BECs are more effective modelers of sustainable development with their multi‑level focus on issues of class, gender, culture, and ecology. These communities aim to effect changes in people's everyday lives (better health, satisfying work, a safe environment), although they are still young and it is inappropriate to quantify and measure their accomplishments in terms like improved incomes and diets. Some liberational BECs in the Philippines have partially opted out of the dominant international and local economic system to develop self‑reliant and ecologically sustainable communities for themselves. These modelers of resistance are not totally dependent on the axioms of capitalism but have opted out because lack of financial resources leaves them no alternative. Organizers in these communities develop and adapt their organizing skills and ideas on the basis of fresher experiences and realities. However, liberational BECs are vulnerable to internal divisions connected to divisions between nongovernmental organizations with whom they are working, which' implies that organizers need to focus more on their clients' agendas than their own. While outside observers have reported on the Philippine government's efforts to control such movements as the BECs, few have sufficiently addressed the gross violations of human rights that currently occur there.

How, then, has the example of the Philippines shed light on the viability of current and popular paradigms (e.g., liberation theology) applied to Third World circumstances?

To begin with, Philippine communities are developing new and innovative models. While no single development model can be applied cross‑culturally, a variety of innovative social experiments already exist. As Fabian (1983 cited in Escobar 1995) insists, it is important to look horizontally at these development alternatives in relation to the whole field of development as it is presently occurring. Religion does not always serve as a tool of the ruling classes or as an instrument of exploitation, as orthodox Marxist frameworks would have it. This hypothesis that religion can aim to liberate has been substantiated byway of Althusser's theory Q 970) that practice needs to connect to real indigenous social structure rife with counterproductive tendencies and not to an abstract ideological object on some universal level. A social structure is not some amorphous category existing outside of the minds of the people who live within it. Rather, it exists in the cognitive structures of these same men and women. BECs are practically oriented to people aware of some of the dilemmas (poverty, dislocations, violence) that modernity can bring and who are consequently appropriate modelers from whom fresh ideas and cultural productions might emerge. As with the history of the Philippines under the colonialists and the more modern repression of the BEC movements, the application of conventional development paradigms to the situation on the ground grossly overlooks the human suffering and displacement the situation currently promotes.

Other Asian Liberation Theology Movements

South and Southeast Asia currently are seeing numerous religious movements similar to the BEC movement in the Philippines. Some Buddhist monks in Thailand, for example, are involved in ecology and development activities that coincide with an emphasis on Buddhism's this‑world teachings (Lakanavichian 1994). Such is also the case for some Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka (Pieris 1988). Islamic intellectuals are similarly contextualizing Koranic teachings in today's Indonesia (Woodward 1993). Cultural tolerance, religious pluralism, and the practical concern for equity and social justice are synthesized into a unifying theme in these movements that seek to develop peripheral communities into self-reliant communities of interpretation and action. These movements typically lack substantial financial resources and are hesitant to impose top‑down development schemes. To constructively understand them, such movements need to be studied specifically in relation to the wider societies in which they are grounded.

The various Asian religious movements that resemble the BEC movement have emerged in reaction to a type of development ideology associated with authoritarian state technocratic socialism and capitalist technocracy. I have argued that this type of development ideology is also present in the Filipino Christian churches, which reflect the conflicts of the West. But the justice oriented and environmentally concerned side of these Christian churches represented in the BEC coalition are closer to the more indigenous Asian religions than to Christian fundamentalism when viewed from the theological standpoint that creation is an open process for which we share responsibility for the future (Lovett 1986; Pieris 1988; Gosling 1990).

According to Pieris (1988, 32) the anti‑religious roots of capitalism and authoritarian state technocratic socialism hinder advocates of these ideologies from seeing into the (religious) depths of human nature. Hence, an Asian method of development and liberation relies on tools of social analysis in conjunction with psychological introspection suited to integral (social, cultural, political, economic, ecological) Asian traditions. Not coincidentally, this is the method used by liberational BEC practitioners in the Philippines. Both Buddhists and Christians adhering to this method reject the class mores of feudal societies and capitalist societies in favor of the communitarian mores of the democratic socialist experiments in Asia. Some Thai Buddhist monks, for example, have long been involved in ecology and development activities. By the 1970s, some of them were already being labeled Communist insurgents for their reforestation and agricultural‑development work, by government officials and other leading elites with an interest in local logging and associated industries. Pongsak, the abbot of Wat Palad near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, is one example of such a monkwho has continued to work with villagers to reforest and irrigate rapidly desertifying land in the face of obstacles such as police raids (Brown 1992, Ch. 8). Many Thai Buddhist monks who engage in social work originally come from poor rural families. They avail themselves of a monastic education to obtain degrees at large urban Buddhist universities. As part of their degree program, they are expected to participate in development projects in rural communities. Some of these projects were financed in the 1970s and 1980s by the Thai government, in an effort to help counter insurgency efforts along the Kampuchean and Laos borders and to provide alternatives to opium production in the north. But many monks remained in the villages long after graduation, because they became increasingly immersed in the social, cultural, political, economic, environmental, and ecological aspects of sustainable rural development (Gosling 1990:105; Brown 1992, Ch. 8).

Similarly, some Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have participated in a village self‑help movement referred to as the Sarvodaya. The Sarvodaya movement emerged in 1958, under the guidance of professor Ariyaratne, when a group of Nalanda College students decided to get in touch with their cultural roots by living with and learning from local farmers. Their experiences were so rewarding that their ideas became popular with other students who followed them. The movement spread rapidly. Today, it has a network of more than 4000 towns and villages operating health programs, educational programs, agricultural projects, and small scale industries. These programs have done well not because organizers employed solutions coming from above, but because they were willing to listen to and learn from the local people. They recognized that their greatest resources come from the spirituality and culture of the local people. And, they practiced everywhere Gandhi's teachings of active non‑violence as a revolutionary means to struggle for social change.

This Gandhi‑inspired development movement provides an indigenous alternative to the top‑down development program of the local government. Since 1958, the Sarvodaya movement has grown from a small group of pioneers working alongside the outcast poor to a people's self‑help movement that by 1992 included over 4000 towns and villages operating programs for health, education, agriculture, and local industry. Its program emphasizes the full range of human well‑being: the needs of the whole person must be met, needs that include satisfying work, harmonious relationships, a safe and beautiful ‑environment, a life of the mind and spirit, and food, clothing, and shelter.

Lastly, the Sarvodaya movement finds inspiration in a glorious past. Long before the arrival of the European colonizers, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, had developed an extensive and elaborate irrigation system of reservoirs and canals. This irrigation system was built around a network of temple communities that were overseen by monks. Beginning with a head monk of a high temple situated on a peak near a major water source, monks based in every community circling this mountainous island collaborated to determine when, and whose agricultural fields would be watered first, so that every community was ensured an ample supply of water and bountiful harvest (Ariyaratne and Macy 1992, 78; for an Indonesian example, see, Lansing 1999).

The economic aspect of development cannot be separated from social, cultural, political, and ecological aspects of development. Capitalist and technocratic socialist models of development that solely emphasize production and exchange of goods are inadequate models when looked at from the Sarvodaya perspective (Ariyaratne and Macy 1992).


The alternative perspectives of village self‑help movements in Thailand and Sri Lanka correspond to the liberational BEC perspective in the Philippines. Some of the conjunctural possibilities for the investigation of such alternatives from an anthropological perspective have been made, while, non­dogmatic and creative Marxist frameworks provide room for alternative researches that can guide social policy. For this reason, church workers involved in social justice and sustainable ecology movements, like the Philippine's liberational BEC movement and village self‑help movements in Thailand and Sri Lanka, have found it useful to employ selective post‑Marxist concepts in their analyses. They have selectively combined schools of thought in a distinctively indigenous fashion. The liberational BEC movement is an instance of this kind of new social movement that is grounded in theory and practice.


Ariyaratne, A., and J. Macy.
1992 "The Island of Temple and Tank, Sarvodaya: Self‑Help in Sri Lanka" in Buddhism and Ecology, edited by M. Batchelor and K. Brown. London: Cassell.
Brown, K.
1992 "In the Water There Were Fish and the Fields Were Full of Rice" in Buddhism and Ecology, edited by M. Batchelor and K. Brown. London: Cassell.
Escobar, A.
1995 Encountering Development, The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
Gosling, D.
1990 "Religion and Environment" in Sustaining the Earth, Response to the Environmental Threat, edited by D. J. Angell, J. D. Comer, and M. L. Wilkinson. London: Macmillan.
Lakanavichian, S.
1994 "State and Buddhist Influence in Resource Conflicts and Conservation in Northern Thailand." Paper presented to Local Peoples and Sustainable Resource Management in Southeast Asia Conference organized by the Program for Southeast Asian Studies at Arizona State University.
Lovett, B.
1986 Life Before Death, Inculturating Hope. Quezon City, Phil.: Claretian Publication.
McCoy, A.
1982 "A Queen Dies Slowly: The Rise and Fall of Iloilo City" in Local Trade and Global Transformations, edited by A. McCoy. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
Nadeau, Kathleen
2001 Liberation Theology in the Philippines: Faith in a Revolution. Westport, C7: Praeger Publishers.
Pieris, A., S.J.
1988 An Asian Theology of Liberation. New York: Orbis Books.
1992 A Captive Land, The Politics of Agrarian Reform in the Philippines. Manila: Ateneo De Manila Press.
Woodward', M.
1993 "Textual Exegesis as Social Commentary: Religious, Social, and Political Meanings of Indonesian Translations of Arabic Hadith Texts." TheJournal of Asian Studies 52(3): 565‑83.
Youngblood, R.
1990 Marcos Against the Church, Economic Development and Political Repression in the Philippines. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.