Buddhist Morality in Myanmar: Religious Nationalism and Solidarity after the Coup

By: Mon Mon Myat

March 15, 2021

Responding to: Buddhism, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Myanmar Coup

Buddhist Morality in Myanmar: Religious Nationalism and Solidarity after the Coup

Military coup is not a new thing for a semi-authoritarian nation like Myanmar. Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948. Within 72 years, Myanmar experienced a parliamentary democracy system two times, for periods of only 10 years each. We were mainly under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian rule for more than five decades.

Now, we face a military coup in the twenty-first century. This time, the military seized power on the basis of voting irregularities in the November 2020 general election. Most in the country see this as the military’s attempt to take back power from the people because the military does not believe in democracy. The people of Myanmar have learned in their lifetime that the military is not democratic—and it is often anti-democratic. 

The people of Myanmar have learned in their lifetime that the military is not democratic—and it is often anti-democratic.

The military’s attitude is rooted in the ancient monarchy system. The late Myanmar scholar Maung Maung Gyi observed Burmese political values were blinkered by orthodox moral values. He highlighted the three distinct features of Burmese monarchy, along with actual administrative practices such as “arbitrary actions, monopoly of power, and use of violence and terror in forcing compliance with royal commands have generated in the minds of ordinary laymen a general attitude of helplessness and resignation against the government that many came to view as omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnicompetent.” 

The absolute monarchy system collapsed once the king was overthrown by the British after three Anglo-Burmese wars. The deep-rooted traditions and religion of the majority of people in Myanmar, however, remained alive for centuries.

Buddhism and Morality in the Ava Kingdom

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues that traditions embody conceptions of rational inquiry. MacIntyre observes Homeric poems are the conceptual schema in early greek philosophy. 

In Myanmar, secondary school students study Lawkathara-Pyo as a similar moral code of conduct. A Buddhist monk, Kandawminkyaung Has Ya Daw, wrote Lawkathara-Pyo for the Ava Kingdom (r. 1598–1885). Lawkathara-Pyo is a poetic work for moral conduct divided into three different parts: moral virtues for laypeople, virtues for Brahmin, and royal virtues for kingship.

Lawkathara-Pyo is a poetic work for moral conduct divided into three different parts: moral virtues for laypeople, virtues for Brahmin, and royal virtues for kingship. 

Moral virtues in Lawkathara-Pyo are similar to Greek standards of excellence influenced by the Homeric poems, which name qualities that enable individuals to do what their role in society requires. The Lawkathara-Pyo was based on the Jatakas (stories of the former lives of the Buddha) and provided moral virtues such as temperance, courage, endeavor, wisdom, and many other moral qualities for all sorts of people.

The late Burmese historian Than Tun collected the Royal Orders of Burma to study the social and cultural background of the people and the tradition or religion of the majority under the Ava Kingdom. He observed, “Largely the emphasis in an order depends on the individual taste or style of a king though these orders reflect upon the people’s social and cultural background. In other words, a king was absolute in power, and therefore his word was law, but he seldom went against tradition or religion of the majority of his subjects.”     

The Rise of Nationalism

For the people of Myanmar, there is little difference between monarchal or authoritarian rule, as both systems hold absolute power and place the ruler above the law.

Racism and extreme religious beliefs have generated nationalism in Myanmar, after it was a closed society under authoritarian rule for almost six decades. During the so-called democratic transition under former president Thein Sein, nationalism was officially endorsed.

Renewed nationalism arose around 2012, when the rape of a young Buddhist woman in Rakhine state spurred an outbreak of communal violence there. Since the 2012 conflicts, about 200 people have been killed, countless more have been injured, and more than 70,000 people have been made homeless.

The rise of nationalism spurred conflicts in 14 different cities. A wave of violence in 2013 left 43 people dead, 86 injured, and more than 1,300 buildings—mostly mosques, schools, and the homes of Muslims—destroyed.

For the people of Myanmar, there is little difference between monarchal or authoritarian rule, as both systems hold absolute power and place the ruler above the law.

To spread Islamophobia within Myanmar’s Buddhist community, ultra-nationalist monks from Ma Ba Tha organized the 969 Movement, an anti-Muslim campaign which urged the Buddhist community to boycott Muslim businesses. Thein Sein’s government failed to take any action against the instigators of these nationalistic campaigns.

The controversial interfaith marriage law—focused mainly on marriage between Buddhist women and men of other faiths—was proposed by Buddhist monks and nuns in 2013. It demands that any man who wishes to marry a Buddhist woman must first convert to Buddhism. The interfaith marriage law was passed under Thein Sein’s government before the 2015 elections. 

Religious nationalism divides nations and undermines democracy and human rights. The deposed Aung San Suu Kyi was often portrayed in nationalist campaigns as a leader who was unable to safeguard Myanmar’s race and religion because she married a foreigner.

Religious Nationalism across Southeast Asia

The work of anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen helps us understand the conflict in Rakhine state, where we can observe the formation of a modern ethnogenesis—the rise of “Rohingya” to displace the older term, “Bengali.” 

Rohingya identity formation and the “identity politics” of the Muslim community in northern Rakhine state is one of the factors driving the current crisis. According to Eriksen, the Rohingya ethnogenesis has developed from many factors—including slavery and capitalism, migration, and the consequences of social change for identity formation. Yet as Eriksen observes, whether we employ the name Rohingya or Bengali, this group is “part and parcel of colonialism.”

Rohingya identity formation and the 'identity politics' of the Muslim community in northern Rakhine state is one of the factors driving the current crisis.

A similar trend is evident across other parts of Southeast Asia. Most of religious nationalism in Southeast Asia originated in absolute monarchy systems of ancient times and authoritarianism of the nineteenth century. 

For example, the South Thailand insurgency is an ongoing conflict between ethnic separatist insurgency, which has been taken over by hardline jihadis and a Thai-speaking ethnic minority. It originated in 1948 as an ethnic and religious separatist insurgency in the historical Malay Patani region and has become more complex and increasingly violent since the early 2000s. 

The South Thailand insurgency occurred around the same time as the Muslim separatist insurgency in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which was transformed into the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army of today. 

The Moro conflict between the Philippine government and Moro Muslim rebel groups is also similar to the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar. Political tensions and open hostilities developed during the Moro insurgency, which was triggered by the Jabidah massacre in 1968.

Myanmar: Between Authoritarianism and Liberal Democracy

Myanmar is now accused of committing “ethnic cleansing and genocide” against a particular group of people recognized as “Bengali” in the local community and as “Rohingya” in the international community. With nearly a million stateless Rohingya people, the Kutupalong Refugee Camp in neighboring Bangladesh has become the world’s largest.

Religious conflict between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state has occurred often in history. The latest attack initiated by the Muslim militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army provoked the military to carry out clearance operations, which in turn caused over 700,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar has faced enormous international pressure over the refugee exodus since then.

Racial and religious conflict caused by authoritarianism takes Myanmar backwards on the road to democracy. Narrow-minded nationalism undermines democracy, human rights, and gender equality. Rivalry between authoritarianism and liberal democracy in the country also creates a hindrance for political reform in Myanmar.

Interfaith Solidarity in the Coup

The recent coup means Myanmar is turning back to authoritarian rule instead of going on the path of a democratic transition. It negatively affected not only ethnic and religious minorities but everyone living in Myanmar. There is only one positive thing about the recent coup, which is that people clearly see the real culprit behind all racial and religious conflicts. The violent acts of the Myanmar military against civilians and other minority ethnic groups are even more visible in the recent arbitrary crackdown nationwide.

Solidarity among anti-coup protesters is becoming stronger than religious nationalism. The ultimate and common goal of anti-coup protesters across the nation is to end the military dictatorship. The recent coup vividly portrays crimes against humanity committed by the military regime.

Solidarity among anti-coup protesters is becoming stronger than religious nationalism.

People now understand their common humanity and have more empathy for ethnic people in remote areas after experiencing the same military brutality. The recent coup reminds us of the mass executions of Rohingya men, women, and children; the systematic burning of Rohingya villages with the intent to destroy the group in whole or in part; the targeting of children; and the commission of rape and sexual violence on a massive scale. These are indisputably horrific acts against humanity.

Religion and Peacebuilding in Myanmar

The Buddhist tradition, part of our culture’s background and history, carries a distinctive account of justice and practical rationality. The influence of Buddhist traditions in Myanmar’s moral conduct is crucial. Moral courage and virtue, fearlessness, and justice are shared by both Buddhist and liberal traditions. 

People are now fully aware that it is fear that keeps authoritarianism alive. If people can transcend the flaws of human nature and keep a righteous mind, the authoritarian tradition can be gradually transformed into a tradition of liberal democracy that the people of Myanmar have spent decades striving for. As all religious traditions—whether Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam—consist of justice and moral courage, these can help create an uncorrupted society that guarantees the rights and dignity of all human beings. 

Only when our religious traditions can contribute three elements—courage, justice, and dignity to the society—can the peacebuilding process in Myanmar begin.

Invariably, only the fearlessness of individuals can keep just laws active and protect people’s rights and dignity. Only when our religious traditions can contribute three elements—courage, justice, and dignity to the society—can the peacebuilding process in Myanmar begin.

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