News / Asia

Authorities Nurture Burma’s Buddhist Chauvinism, Analysts Say

Burma's Buddhist monks stage a rally to protest against minority Rohingya Muslims in Mandalay, central Burma, September 2, 2012.
Burma's Buddhist monks stage a rally to protest against minority Rohingya Muslims in Mandalay, central Burma, September 2, 2012.
Daniel Schearf
Burma’s Buddhist monk-led demonstrations this week against the Muslim minority Rohingya surprised many observers.  Analysts say the country’s Buddhist chauvinism was shaped by authorities’ attempts to form a national identity.  But there are worries it could get out of control. 
This week’s protests were the first large monk-led demonstrations in Burma since the 2007 uprising against military rule. But they were a stark contrast to that earlier movement.
While the 2007 Saffron Revolution called for love and democracy, hundreds of monks marching this week in Mandalay called for the expulsion of one of the world’s most oppressed minorities, the Rohingya.
The monks were supporting a suggestion by President Thein Sein that the Muslim minority, numbering close to a million, should be segregated and deported.
The extremist calls follow violent summer clashes between Buddhists and Rohingya in western Rakhine state that left 90 people dead.

  • Muslims women and children from villages gather before being relocated to secure areas in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state in western Burma, where sectarian violence is ongoing, June 12, 2012.
  • Bangladeshi Border Guard soldiers keep watch at a wharf in Taknaf, Bangladesh, June 12, 2012.
  • Sittwe residents flee blazing homes as security forces struggle to contain deadly ethnic and religious violence, June 12, 2012.
  • A Rohingya protester cries as he holds a placard during a rally to call for an end to the ongoing unrest and violence in Burma's Rakhine State, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, June 12, 2012.
  • Security forces try to restore order in Rakhine state, Burma, after a wave of deadly religious violence, as the United Nations evacuated foreign workers, June 11, 2012.
  • Muslim Rohingya people on a boat cross the river Naf, from Burma into Teknaf, Bangladesh, June 11, 2012.
  • Local residents push a trishaw vehicle carrying their belongings in a village in Sittwe, where sectarian violence is impacting on the local population, June 11, 2012.
  • Rohingya protesters gather in front of a U.N. regional office in Bangkok, Thailand, to call for an end to the ongoing unrest and violence in Burma’s Rakhine State, June 11, 2012.
  • Ethnic Rakhine people get water from a firefighter truck to extinguish fire set to their houses during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe, June 10, 2012.
  • Policemen move towards burning houses during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe, June 10, 2012.
  • Rohingya men are seen among houses set on fire during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe, June 10, 2012.
  • Buddhist monks and ethnic Rakhine people hold placards at Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, Burma, June 10, 2012.
  • An ethnic Rakhine man holds homemade weapons as he walks in front of houses that were burnt during fighting between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya communities in Sittwe, June 10, 2012.

Sectarian tensions are so high they overshadowed the fact that President Thein Sein was Prime Minister in 2007 when the military government violently cracked down on Buddhist monks.
Maung Zarni, a visiting researcher at the London School of Economics, says authorities are harnessing Buddhist nationalism.
“These generals are considered monk killers," he said. "And, you know, the world [has] seen images of like troops shooting Buddhist monks in the Saffron Revolution.  Now, they have successfully refashioned themselves as defenders of Buddhist faith, protectors of Buddhist communities in western Burma.  And, it’s actually extremely brilliant, if dangerous, you know, political calculation.”  
Burma’s monks have taken lead roles in times of popular unrest, earning them the reputation of being champions of democracy and freedom.  
The 2007 Saffron Revolution takes its name from the color of monks’ robes.
Buddhist monks were also key supporters of a 1988 student democracy uprising that the military similarly put down by force.
But while those struggles were noble, analysts say historically Burma’s Buddhism has been influenced by a racist nationalism that occasionally re-surfaces.  
Juliane Schober is a scholar studying Burma’s Buddhist traditions at Arizona State University.  
“In this particular instance it seems to be a case where there is a lot of debate about what constitutes Burmese identity.  And, the saying, you know, ‘to be Burmese is to be Buddhist’ is one that was first articulated in the early 1910s when the initial struggles for independence became and it was a way of asserting Burmese identity vis-à-vis British colonial rule,” said Schober.

Burma’s first prime minister after independence, U Nu was a devout Buddhist. He eventually steered a bill through parliament that made Buddhism Burma’s state religion in 1961.

Burma is about 90 percent Buddhist and majority ethnically Burman, but the remaining people are a diverse group of over 100 ethnic and religious minorities.
Ethnic groups along the border make up most of the armed rebels that have been seeking some form of autonomy, leading some to question the loyalty of minorities.
Rachel Fleming is Advocacy Director for the Chin Human Rights Organization.  She says the Christian Chin in western Chin state were viewed as such a threat to national identity that monks were dispatched to try to convert them to Buddhism.
“The significance of that is those monks were primarily loyal to military rule and Burma army soldiers exacted forced labor from Chin Christians to build Pagodas and monasteries for those monks,” she said.
Fleming says while Buddhism is treated as the defacto state religion, with a special recognition in the constitution, authorities tear down unauthorized Christian churches and crosses.
While authorities have at times emphasized the country’s diversity, the Buddhist Burman majority was singled out as the trustworthy pillar of national identity.
Aung Thu Nyein with the Vahu Development Institute says authorities have long sought to impose the Burman majority views on the population by keeping minorities out of power.
“They don’t have any written laws and regulations, but practically, in the military if you are a Christian or if you are a Muslim you won’t be promoted up to major ranks.  You won’t be a senior leader in the military,” he said.
Analysts and rights activists worry Burma is fostering a xenophobia that, if left unchecked, could get out of control.
Phil Robertson is Deputy Director for Asia with Human Rights Watch.  He says if more people fail to speak up, Burma could be headed towards a Buddhist xenophobia similar to the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.
“And that’s the concern that we see today in Burma that if this continues, if the Burmese monkhood continues to come out and press against the Rohingya in this way, will we be on the road to a kind of Sri Lanka situation with the Rohingya where you have Buddhists across Burma raising their hands against Rohingya,” he said.
Burma media reports say while authorities allowed the monks’ three-day demonstration to take place, as it got bigger, they tried to discourage it.

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Comment Sorting
by: NLK from: CMB
September 10, 2012 1:47 AM
"...headed towards a Buddhist xenophobia similar to the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka". ? Buddhist xenophobia? What's that? First and foremost, xenophobia is a fear of foreigners or that which is foreign. What's that got to do with Sri Lanka? And what's that got to do with religion or faith? There were no foreigners in the equation in Sri Lanka (except perhaps those who were meddling in its affairs). They were all Sri Lankans and citizens of Sri Lanka, albeit of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The war was predominantly related to a collection of militants or terrorists, professing to represent a particular ethnic group, trying to divide a small island, a single country. How does what went on in Sri Lanka equate to the Rohingya issue? And your reference to "Buddhist xenophobia" means a fear of Buddhists? Or fear shown by Buddhists?
"..a Buddhist xenophobia similar to the Sinhalese..."?? I think you need to rephrase that sentence in correct English and correct facts (bearing in mind that there are Sinhalese practising different faiths) to make any sense out of that.

While I detest violence in the name of any faith or ethnicity, I also detest the way the media and narrow-minded or one-track-minded scholars foment matters by focusing on and magnifying one or two elements and taking a stance that makes a great scandal out of an event.

by: yinkyaymaung from: yangon
September 09, 2012 8:21 AM
I strongly disgust this word "Chauvinism" and "Rohingya", the author should not use these words.These monks are not naive. There is no Rohingya in this World and they are Bengali (from Bangladesh and they themselves named rohingya ). They had already deceived the World . They are minority in Myanmar, BUT THEY ARE MAJORITY IN RAKHINE. You only just write your article with narrow-mind or bias.. While the 2007 Saffron Revolution called for love and democracy,where Bengali are. I know they just wait time for their benefits and they had already spoil our culture.Do you know if they were majority, what they will do. Do you ensure they will be Humanism.

by: BurmeseSupporter from: USA
September 08, 2012 12:04 PM
I'm an Indian, not Burmese, but I wish to express solidarity with the views of the commentators to the article and not the article itself.

Show me three secular islamic countries? They don't exist. Even Turkey and Indonesia, the two large so called constitutionally secular democracies with 90%+ muslims are culturally intolerant of non-muslim minorities. You have to live in these societies to know this. Every other islamic country in the world, without except, is non-secular and constitutionally intolerant of non-muslims. Islam has no tradition of tolerance, save for a few periods in history and a few broad minded thinkers that have often been over-ruled or worse. History is proof. As another commenter points out these Rohingyas are ethnically not-Burmese and have seeped in through the porous borders and now threatening to becoming a majority in certain states. These Rohingyas themselves are victims of racist Hindu and caste system in place for thousands of years and
conversion to islam was their only hope of an escape from the indentured cruelty of the caste system. Unfortunately, these Bengali converts to islam chose a faith that promotes violent confrontation and violent proselytization and now they find themselves in a conflict that has assumed ethnic and religious dimensions. If Israel, secular democracy, has a constitutional provision against the right of return for ethnically cleansed Palestinians, that is acceptable to the world, why then can't Burma. Australia routinely turns back waves of boat people from all over the world to camps in Indonesia and even recently passed law that took effect Sept 1, 2012, that allows the Aussie Coast Guard to intercept the boat people before they enter Aussie territorial waters, ie, in international waters and turn them away presumable to Aussie paid/run staging camps in Indonesia, why then can't Burma seek retain its national identity by preventing a foreign ethnic group that could dilute or even threaten your own majority ethnic status? That's what the Israelis and Aussies are mortally scared of. Both countries have small populations and injecting foreign ethnic groups that have explosively higher reproductive rates could mean in a few decades, you've lost your founding ethnic identity! Something that is debated openly in the US of A wrt to immigration and especially to Latin and Asian ethnic groups in border or coast states like Texas, California, New York, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, etc.

Bottom line, I think it's well within the Burmese rights to preserve their national ethnical identity.

by: U Thant Zin from: Yangon
September 08, 2012 12:38 AM
Most Islamic countries use the word "Islamic" in the official names of the countries. Myanmar does not use the word "Buddhist" in the official name of Myanmar. Myanmar has freedom of faith by seeing Mosques, Churches and Temples in the whole country.
Is there freedom of faith in Islamic countries? Is there any religious rights for Christians, Buddhists and so on ....?

by: Pyi Chit from: London
September 07, 2012 3:33 PM
There is no such official ethnic race called Rohingya in Rakhine state of Myanmar. The Roo-in-ga speaking Mohamedins lived there 200 years ago in Rakhine. They seemed to have become extinct or immigrated away before Burma gained Independence in 1948. There were no records of Rohingya race even under British rules for several decades. The name Rohingya appeared to have been created in 1950s linked to the historic Roo-in-ga speaking settlers, and given to the modern day economic immigrants from the neighbouring country. The Burmese called them Bengalis as they speak and look like people from Bangladesh. Most of these settlers do not know anything about Rohingya tribe, the histroy, culture, language, etc. Therefore almost all the Myanmar monks and people appear hostile and racist towards the Bengalis who are believed to have recently crossed the border from another country.
Myanmar is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Even Bangladesh is richer. Bengalis in refugee camps are well looked after and better off than millions of poor Myanmar villagers all over the country. This is the real life in Myanmar. Please be fair. How can poor Myanmar look after the aliens when its own citizens are suffering?

by: Van Lian from: Indianapolis
September 07, 2012 3:31 PM
Burma is invading by bangladeshis by the name of rohingyas.
They are not native of Rakhine . May be less than hundred are native, but not 1 million . Burma has every right to defend her country from those invading bengalis.

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