Myanmar Buddhism under Perpetual Siege: Reactions to the Coup on Facebook

By: Esther Tenberg

March 12, 2021

Buddhism, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in the Myanmar Coup

On February 28, 2021, a day that will make history as the “Bloody Sunday” of the 2021 coup, a monk sat down on the street between security forces and protestors in Kawthaung, Thanintharyi in southern Myanmar. He said: “If you are going to shoot the people peacefully protesting, shoot me first and go.” The tweet reporting this incident adds: “Police moved back and ppl were safe.”

Monks command unparalleled respect in Myanmar society. They are living symbols of a thriving sasana (the Buddha's dispensation). Rumors of monks being harmed by adverse forces has led to outrage in the past. A visual documentation of state violence against monks, at this moment, could unleash the powerful political resistance of the sangha. It could also turn a carefully crafted narrative on its head, in which the military portrays itself as a just ruler and protector of Buddhism, a narrative that is supported in nationalist spaces on Facebook. 

A visual documentation of state violence against monks, at this moment, could unleash the powerful political resistance of the sangha.

It is necessary to point out that the events unfolding in Myanmar at the moment are not primarily about religion. The discourses and activities I detail here are a fringe discourse, much more commonly discussed in the small network of Buddhist nationalists I am studying, than in the Myanmar population at large. Nonetheless, these Buddhist nationalists and their discourses about amyo (race), batha (religion), and thathana (sasana) are lending support to the military and their political aspirations, and therefore should not be overlooked. 

My ongoing doctoral project is concerned with anti-Muslim discourses on Facebook in the context of the elections, with a special focus on monastic actors. I am following a loose network of accounts, groups, and pages on Facebook which express anti-Muslim sentiments. I cannot give many details about the actors in these spaces. Social media research is positioned in a constant tension between the ephemerality of connections and data, and the relatively easy traceability of content in a seemingly public space. Ethical considerations demand the protection of privacy, especially in the current climate. 

There are a handful of monastic actors—both groups and individuals—frequently involved when Buddhist nationalists take their politics offline and to the streets, who have become recognizable public figures. Among these, the Patriotic Myanmar Monks’ Union (PMMU) is a frequent participant. The vast majority of individual monks who actively engage in nationalist discourse online or participate in street protest have connections to either this organization or to monks who have been notably active in anti-Muslim and Buddhist nationalist activities in the past. Most of these actors are in support of the coup.

On Facebook, Buddhist protectionist narratives are interwoven with more explicitly nationalist or militarist discourses. Connected by a common interest in “amyo, batha, thathana,” monks and laypeople form a political repository for military and USDP interests. For actors in these digital spaces, Buddhism is continually under siege. “Global Islam” was perceived as a main danger for the sasana until 2017. After a series of setbacks for the anti-Muslim movement, including deletion of dangerous racist content and the deplatforming of extremist monks like Ashin Wirathu from Facebook, Buddhist protectionist discourse has changed. The primary threat to Buddhism in Myanmar today, as expressed in Buddhist nationalist spaces, is the National League for Democracy (NLD), its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as its members and followers. 

On Facebook, Buddhist protectionist narratives are interwoven with more explicitly nationalist or militarist discourses.

The “crimes” against Buddhism committed by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are detailed in a sea of pictures: Aung San Suu Kyi at the center of the Shwe Settaw Pagoda, in a space that is not allowed for women; with her hands folded in front of a Buddha statue, but raised in respect when talking to an imam; NLD members having a meal with Muslims; NLD members worshiping a statue of Aung San Suu Kyi; Aung San Suu Kyi on a chair, with a monk kneeling before her; and the list goes on. 

The visuals play on contextual knowledge about Buddhist practice, respect, and hierarchy. Visual references thus become tropes that function as expressions of outrage and uncertainty in a nation-state that was rapidly re-integrating itself in a globalized world—a process in which cultural change preceded significant socioeconomic rewards. In the eyes of these Facebook users, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD became symbols for change, uncertainty, and chaos, while the military and the USDP represent discipline, order, and tradition.

Following the coup, and the subsequent incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as many NLD politicians, this focus has turned to pro-democracy protestors. Public displays of “too much” skin by female protestors, the unabashedly proud march of LGBTQ activists and “princesses,” displays of interfaith solidarity—all these protest tactics, interpreted as creative and emboldening by democratic allies, are viewed by Buddhist protectionists as shameful displays of a Buddhist culture in decline. The recent tactical shift to break with established misogynist traditions by using women’s underwear, period pads, or htameins (wrap cloths) in barricades is seen as the last straw to Myanmar Buddhist dignity. 

Pro-democracy Facebook users in Myanmar do not have a particular focus on religion at the moment, yet Buddhism is part of the cultural repertoire, a common frame of reference that is utilized by pro- and contra-coup activists alike. Religion is ever present in Myanmar through the conception of boycott—tabeik’ hmauk’, literally meaning “to turn over the alms bowl.” It has become an easy protest slogan (tabeik’ tabeik’hmauk’ hmauk’), referenced in the early stages of the protests when protestors brought alms bowls as props, sometimes even donning robes in a symbolic gesture to the 2007 Saffron Revolution. This creative play with religious and cultural codes is taken by Buddhist nationalists as blatant disregard for Buddhist values. 

Buddhism is part of the cultural repertoire, a common frame of reference that is utilized by pro- and contra-coup activists alike.

Narratives by the military and the State Administrative Council (SAC) are welcomed and amplified in these spaces. The reopening of major religious sites directly following the coup, the COVID-19 protection efforts especially in monasteries, and less religiously connoted events, such as the repatriation of Myanmar nationals stranded in Malaysia or mine-sweeping activities, are all replicated and praised. They allude to the army as protector, caring for its citizens and caring for religion. 

More worrisome are narratives akin to those circulating during the Rakhine crisis. Allegations that Ma Kyal Sin was shot—not by security forces but by someone in the pro-democracy movement, allegedly to fan the flames of the rebellion—are suspiciously similar to the idea that Rohingya would burn their own homes to attract international attention. The fact that the authorities exhumed her body to perform an autopsy indicates at least an awareness of these speculations on the side of the military. At worst, it is an indication of a more coordinated misinformation campaign

Attempts to stir up anti-Muslim violence are another dangerous repetition of history. After the amnesty of February 12, 2021—when 23,000 criminals were released to the streets to provoke chaos—a post made its rounds on Facebook warning the inhabitants of Thanlyin that 7,000 Muslims were currently transported to Thilawa harbor to create unrest. I am happy to report, however, that contrary to pre-2018, such posts were countered by comments urging readers to ignore the hate-mongering and to strengthen interfaith and interethnic unity.

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