A Coup Can’t Destroy an Ideology: The Future of Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar

By: Andrea Malji

March 12, 2021

Buddhism, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Myanmar Coup

The February 2021 military coup in Myanmar prompted multiple intersecting concerns. Foremost, did the coup represent a return to the repressive military rule that governed Myanmar from 1962 to 2011? Had the democratic progress from the past decade been eliminated? What did it mean for minorities, specifically the Rohingya, who did not experience the benefits of democratization? For the Rohingya, what good were free and fair elections if genocide was still allowed to happen?

For the Rohingya, what good were free and fair elections if genocide was still allowed to happen?

The state of Myanmar has never been particularly welcoming to groups that are not from the dominant Bamar Buddhist ruling class. There have been several ethnic-based insurgencies throughout the country since independence. The Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Rakhine (previously Arakanese), and Shan have all fought in varying capacities against the state, most of them seeking independence or autonomy for their group. The state has generally responded harshly, causing widespread death and displacement. The 2011 democratization efforts created excitement about the potential possibilities for a newly liberalizing country. While some political and economic advancements were made in the past decade, minorities—particularly Muslims—faced further erosion of their human rights and freedoms. 

Muslims within Myanmar have faced marginalization for many years. Many modern Burmese citizens believe most Muslims, specifically the Rohingya, are invaders that should have left along with the British at independence. However, Muslims have a long-established history in Myanmar. There is evidence that Muslims have been present in Myanmar since the ninth century, arriving in the region originally as traders. Islam was also well established in the state of Rakhine, where the majority of Rohingyas reside. In the fifteenth century, King Saw Mon Narameikhla cultivated Islam within the kingdom of Arakan (present-day Rakhine) by building mosques and adopting Persian script. 

Many modern Burmese citizens believe most Muslims, specifically the Rohingya, are invaders that should have left along with the British at independence.

During the colonial era, the Muslim population in Myanmar increased dramatically amid British policies that promoted internal migration. Hindu and Muslim migrants throughout the British Raj moved to Myanmar to work in agriculture, business, and bureaucracy. As anti-colonial protests increased, non-Burmese settlers faced targeted pressure to leave. Amyo (nation), batha (individual belief or religion), thathana (religious institutions) became the rallying cries of the independence movement. The phrase reflected a desire for Bamar Buddhism to be a central component of modern nationhood. Muslims were specifically targeted during the anti-colonial protests because of their perceived inability to assimilate and their broader threat to Burmese identity. Many Muslims and Indians subsequently fled Myanmar, but to many, Myanmar remained home. 

During the reign of the junta, the regime restricted the rights of Muslims through various measures, such as removing them from the taingyintha (national races), stripping their citizenship, resettling Bamar Buddhists into Rohingya villages, placing restrictions on Rohingya movement, restricting access to primary and higher education, and placing restrictions on intermarriage and birth rates. The quality of life for the Rohingya also dropped, resulting in low levels of education and poor health outcomes. Once the state began liberalizing in 2011, it appeared that a new era of freedom and openness was on the horizon. However, for the Rohingya, an increasingly existential threat materialized through Buddhist nationalism. In addition to numerous social and economic challenges, the Rohingya now increasingly encountered violence and property destruction from Buddhist militias and the state.

For the Rohingya, an increasingly existential threat materialized through Buddhist nationalism. 

Two Buddhist nationalists organizations, the 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion) became increasingly popular following the democratic reforms. Both organizations were led by Buddhist monks and originated in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Although the promotion of Buddhism was said to be their central aim, anti-Muslim sentiment was the driving force. Both organizations participated in boycotts of Muslim businesses and lobbied for increased restrictions on Muslim freedoms. The nationalist organizations held close ties to the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a military proxy party. In 2015, the USDP-led parliament passed the 969/Ma Ba Tha-backed legislation known as the “race and religion laws,” which aimed to limit any potential growth of the Muslim population through conversion, interreligious marriage, polygamy, and birth. 

The legislative restrictions targeting Muslims were accompanied by growing divisiveness on social media platforms. In 2018, Facebook acknowledged its platform was used to incite violence in Myanmar. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi attempted to quell the growing influence of Ma Ba Tha by banning it in 2017. However, the ban did little to stop the broader ideology from achieving widespread support. To make matters worse, the NLD also actively participated in anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions, including banning Muslim candidates and dismissing reports of atrocities toward the Rohingya. 

The NLD also actively participated in anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions, including banning Muslim candidates and dismissing reports of atrocities toward the Rohingya.

Following increased anti-Muslim rhetoric, Buddhist mobs began attacking Muslim villages in Rakhine and Muslim enclaves throughout Myanmar. Security forces not only failed to provide any safety for the targeted Rohingya but also participated in the violence. By August 2017, the military participated in an operation where soldiers were told to “kill all you see, whether children or adults.” Within three weeks, 6,700 Rohingya were killed and 730,000 had fled into Bangladesh. By 2020, the number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh was estimated to be more than 1 million. The events in Myanmar led the United Nations to label the targeted violence genocidal. Bangladesh and Myanmar have since met to discuss the repatriation of Rohingya, but not surprisingly many Rohingya do not feel safe returning, especially to a country now ruled unilaterally by the same military that massacred them. 

The February 2021 coup in Myanmar brought an end to Myanmar’s brief democratic experiment. The current anti-coup protests are some of the largest in Myanmar’s history. Myanmar has a history of pro-democracy protests, with the 8888 Uprising in 1988 and the 2007 Saffron Revolution. In both instances, the state reacted violently toward protestors, including Buddhist monks. Members of the Rohingya community have also joined in the 2021 protests and noted that the military is the enemy of all ethnic groups and religions in Myanmar. It is not yet clear what will happen since the protests are ongoing, but the historical precedent by the state is certainly concerning for the safety of the protestors. Transnational activist groups like the Milk Tea Alliance, however, demonstrate the movement has regional support. 

Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar appears here to stay, at least in the immediate future. The usage of nationalist rhetoric by the pro-military USDP in the most recent election indicates a willingness to promote Buddhism as the national identity. The USDP framed Suu Kyi’s NLD as a threat to the maintenance of Buddhism in Myanmar. The military has also since arrested monks known for speaking out against Buddhist nationalism. In the meantime, militant Buddhists have grown increasingly close to the regime. 

Buddhist nationalism was able to thrive under Myanmar’s nascent democracy, and it appears the coup may only further institutionalize the movement.

If the Buddhist nationalists maintain loyalty to the military government, they may even become a more powerful force in the country and help reinforce state power. In other countries, such as Iran, the ruling party has utilized volunteer religious militias to suppress dissidents. It would not be surprising to see extremist monks in more official capacities acting as extensions of the state apparatus. Buddhist nationalism was able to thrive under Myanmar’s nascent democracy, and it appears the coup may only further institutionalize the movement.

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