Is Buddhism a Democratic Religion? Religious Nationalism and Military Violence in Myanmar

By: David Moe

April 6, 2021

Buddhism, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Myanmar Coup

To most people in the West, Asian Buddhism is a religion of peace. Yet in order to see its full reality, you need to look at Buddhism through paradoxical lenses, which show at least two forms of Buddhism: immoral Buddhism, which supports violence and nationalism; and moral Buddhism, which confronts violent dictatorship and supports democracy. First, we will look at the immoral form of militant Buddhism and expose how religion plays a public role in nationalism and violence. Then, I will suggest how we should look at the moral form of Buddhism and explore how moral Buddhism could play a public role in promoting justice and peace.

The immoral forms of militant Buddhism are found primarily in two Asian nations—Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In Sri Lanka, we see the immoral image of how the majority Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists practice violence against the minority Tamil ethnic Hindus and Christians. Likewise, we see the immoral image of how the majority Burman Buddhist nationalists practice violence against the minority ethnic Christians and non-Buddhist groups. Religiously motivated violence caused by the elite ruling and grassroots Buddhist nationalists occurs in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. History tells us that Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar have imitated the militant Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka since British colonial rule.

​The Origins of Buddhist Nationalism

Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar takes its origins in the British colonial period (1824–1948) as a form of anti-foreign power. After independence, Buddhist nationalism emerges as an anti- minority force, targeting ethnic Christians and non-Buddhists. 

History tells us that the post-independence Buddhist nationalism is rooted in the Buddhist nationalist U Nu’s slogan: amyo (only the Burman race); barthar (only the Burmese language); and tharthanar (only the Buddhist religion). U Nu was one of the leading Burman nationalist politicians and the first prime minister of Myanmar under the provisions of the 1947 Constitutions. According to Nu’s slogan, to be Burmese means to be Buddhist—this nationalist slogan of “Burmeseness” lies at the heart of Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar today. 

Burmanization and Buddhistization are two of the most potent forces that shape the post-independence Buddhist nationalist imagination of what Joseph Liow calls “faith” (religious identity) and “flag” (political identity). “Make Buddhism great again” has become a motivation for Buddhist nationalists to imagine nation-building after independence. They make Buddhism great again because they believe that it had declined under British colonial rule. They make Buddhism great again by nationalizing it as a dominant religion. 

Buddhist nationalists imagine the political and religious identity construction of Burmese community by assimilating the minority ethnic groups and by discriminating against their cultural identity.

The Buddhist nationalist imagination has become a threat to the identity of the minority ethnic groups. Buddhist nationalists imagine the political and religious identity construction of Burmese community by assimilating the minority ethnic groups and by discriminating against their cultural identity. Ethnic assimilation and religious discrimination are two significant characteristics of Buddhist nationalism. Christians, Muslims, and other non-Buddhists are discriminated against simply because they are not Buddhists. 

To spread Buddhist nationalism and violence against other religious and ethnic groups, ultra-nationalist monks formed a new nationalist organization known as Ma Ba Tha in early 2014. Ma Ba Tha maintains U Nu’s old nationalist slogan: amyo, bartha, tharnatha. The goal of Ma Ba Tha is to protect Buddhist cultural identity from the influence of other religious and ethnic identities. At the core of Ma Ba Tha’s worldview is a dissatisfaction with interracial marriage—marriage between Buddhists and persons of other faiths and other ethnicities. 

In this regard, Aung San Suu Kyi—despite being a Burman Buddhist and an idol of democracy for many Buddhists and non-Buddhists—is seen by Ma Ba Tha as a national betrayer because she married a foreigner. It was mainly because of her marriage to a foreigner that she was barred from being president. 

​Religion and the Military Coup in Early 2021

Myanmar is home to some of the world’s longest civil wars—wars between the Burman military army and the minority ethnic armed groups. Yet the recent coup is a revolution that is more than a fight between the Burman nationalist army and the minority ethnic armed groups. It is also more than the fight between the military-backed USDP political party and the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD). 

Since the root cause of the military coup is a dissatisfaction with Aung San Suu Kyi, a civilian leader and her party that won a landslide victory in the November election, the movement, in the beginning, seemed to be a battle between the NLD and USDP parties. Soon after, the revolution became more about the nationwide battle between the military dictators and pro-democracy dreamers, who are not just the NLD members. This revolution is not about party politics (naing ngan yay), but mainly about nation politics (naing ngat ayay). 

The movement creates an opportunity for an inclusive participation of different religious groups for a common goal of democracy. 

The current revolutionary movement is known as adharma taik bwe in Burmese, which translates as the “just fight against injustices” or “just fight against evil.” Adharma is a Buddhist Sanskrit word which means “what goes against dharma (truth),” or more literally “not-dharma.” It has connotations of evil, immorality, and wrong. The movement creates an opportunity for an inclusive participation of different religious groups for a common goal of democracy. 

The urgency of resisting the military coup has brought together protesters from different religions. Generation Z, who are the leaders of this movement, often say in the spirit of unity, “There is no Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist; there is only people of Myanmar.” 

We must remember that the persons who led the first mass protests against the military coup come from minority ethnic backgrounds. On February 6, 2021, two young minority ethnic women—Ei Thinzar Maung and Esther Ze Naw—led the first anti-coup protests at the frontlines in Yangon. Soon after, the vast majority of people from different religions, ethnicities, and genders joined the nationwide protests. What makes this movement quite unique is the way young people actively and courageously lead the protests. Their goals are not to gain political status, but simply to defeat dictatorship. 

​Is Buddhism a Democratic Religion? A Moral Approach

The answer depends on how we understand democracy. According to U Chan Htoon, secretary general of the Buddha Sasana Council, Buddhism is a democratic religion on the basis of its emphasis on self-reliance and freedom of will and choice. Buddhism rejects all forms of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. Similarly, a Sri Lankan Buddhist declared that “democracy is not something new in Asia and is not Western imposed as many people in the West seem to think.” Democracy is inherent in the very principle of Buddhist doctrine of individual freedom, nonviolence, human rights, and human responsibility for the individual and collective service of the common good of the nation. 

As Suu Kyi argues in her famed book Freedom from Fear, 10 duties of Buddhist rulers are widely known as a yardstick for modern government. These duties include: “liberality, morality, self-sacrifice, integrity, kindness, austerity, non-anger, non-violence, forbearance, and non-opposition (to the will of the people).” In light of these duties, it is very clear that the military rulers’ actions are not democratic at all. Their duties are to respect the will of the people, to seek the welfare of the country, and to protect the people from colonial rule. Instead, they are another oppressor of their own people in the post-independence era. 

If Buddhism is a democratic religion, yet the self-claimed Buddhist dictators fail to practice the moral belief of Buddhism, our task is necessarily to condemn them as “anti-Buddhists” whose beliefs and practices oppose the moral teachings of the Buddha as their god and moral guide. We must confront and correct their immoral practices of dictatorship. The goal is twofold: (1) to liberate the self-claimed Buddhist dictators from immoral ideologies and practices; and (2) to liberate the oppressed civilians from political oppression of the regime. One is moral liberation, and the other is political liberation. 

A religious approach to moral liberation of the self-claimed Buddhist dictators does not merely aim at changes to governing policies and constitutions, but it aims at genuine changes to their beliefs and behaviors.

Myanmar needs this “reciprocal liberation.” There is no genuine political liberation of the oppressed without moral liberation of the military regime. A religious approach to moral liberation of the self-claimed Buddhist dictators does not merely aim at changes to governing policies and constitutions, but it aims at genuine changes to their beliefs and behaviors. 

The reciprocal liberation would not come voluntarily. It is achievable only through the actions of confronting and correcting the Buddhist dictatorial nationalism and totalitarianism. At writing, a new democratic government, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, has declared on March 31, 2021 that the undemocratic 2008 constitution drafted by the regime has been abolished and is no longer valid. This is a good step in moving toward a new vision of democracy by confronting the present reality of dictatorship. 

Journeying toward a vision of democracy, the people of Myanmar firmly embrace a threefold ethic: “lament, protest, and hope.” Lament calls for them to weep with the fallen heroes and wounded victims (feeling). Protest calls for them to confront and correct dictators (action). Hope energizes their democratic vision in the midst of despair and fear (imagination). While the people of Myanmar’s protests against the coup have been extraordinarily amazing in all dimensions, they also need the international community’s strong solidarity in their fights for democracy.

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