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Buddhist Monks in Myanmar: Driving Religious Intolerance and Hindering Reform


December 3, 2013
Two hundred Buddhist monks took to the
streets of Yangon on 12 November to protest the visit of a delegation of the
Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Many Buddhist monks are re-igniting
anti-Muslim animosity and Burman Buddhist nationalism. Can Myanmar’s ASEAN
Chairmanship and structural reforms give an opportunity for the country to heal
old wounds?
By Eliane Coates
TWO HUNDRED Buddhist monks took to the
streets of Yangon on 12 November 2013 to protest the visit of a high-level
delegation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The delegation,
comprising the OIC Secretary-General and senior ministers of seven member
states – Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Djibouti and
Egypt – were met by demonstrations against the world’s largest Islamic bloc.
Echoing those of 2012, the demonstrations were led by Buddhist monks demanding
that the OIC not get involved in Myanmar’s internal affairs.
The delegation, which was to review the
situation of Muslims in Myanmar, came almost 18 months after violence broke out
in the western Rakhine state between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhists in June
2012, which developed into widespread clashes all over Myanmar, resulting in
the death of 240 persons and the displacement of 240,000 people – the majority
being Rohingya Muslims.
History of Burman-Buddhist
The anti-Muslim animosity among Burman
Buddhists has its roots in the lingering resentment of colonial history 80
years ago. British colonisation of the Indian sub-continent and Myanmar and the
erasing of historical boundaries in the 19th century led to an open immigration
policy which enabled an influx of Bengali Muslim labourers into Myanmar.
Buddhist monks claim that the Rohingya are
the descendants of the Bengali migrant population, citing the 1982 Burman
Citizenship Law which refused to recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group of
Myanmar, and thus essentially legitimised discrimination against Rohingya.
Indeed Buddhist monks led the riots in the
1930s during the Great Depression which resulted in the emergence of the Doh
Bama (We Burma) movement. This subsequently saw the rise of Burman-Buddhist
nationalism and the beginning of nation-wide anti-Indian sentiment, which later
evolved into anti-Muslim attitudes.
Today a section of Burman Buddhist monks led
by Ashin Wirathu is re-igniting that sentiment by preaching hatred and sowing
fear which drives religious divisions in society. A senior abbot in the
Mandalay Buddhist monastery, Wirathu is the founder of the ‘969’
economic-nationalist campaign which encourages Buddhists to shop only at
Buddhist stores.
Two narratives
Two narratives are salient underlying the
anti-Rohingya drive.
The first is the ‘Islamic encroachment’ idea
that runs deep in Burman Buddhist society. There is fear of a demographic
explosion of Muslims that would disrupt Myanmar’s Buddhist identity. These
concerns stem from the fact many Rohingya fail to assimilate Burmese local
customs and way of life. Despite criticism from Aung San Suu Kyi – the
opposition leader and spokesperson for human rights – as well as the
international community, several cities began in May this year to impose a
discriminatory two-child policy on Rohingya families to slow their population
According to the Rakhine State government
spokesperson the Rohingya “are trying to Islamise [Buddhists] through their
terrible birth rate,” citing that the Rohingya population growth is ten times
that of native Buddhists. However economists at Harvard’s Ash Centre for
Democratic Governance and Innovation argue that there is no evidence of an
increasing Rohingya birth rate. Instead, they find there has been a net outflow
of the Rohingya, mostly to Bangladesh, since 1950.
The second narrative being disseminated is
that ‘the Rohingya started it’, that this minority Muslim group has been taking
over the Buddhist lands of Myanmar. After Myanmar’s Independence in 1948, the
Rohingya formed a guerilla-fighting Mujahideen which launched a 13-year
rebellion for a separate Islamic State or to join the then East Pakistan (now
While this movement was defeated, lingering
resentment remains amongst Buddhists as the rebellion was seen as a great
betrayal and threat to Myanmar’s new found sovereignty. The Rohingya too were
blamed for igniting the recent ethnic clashes after the alleged rape of a
Buddhist woman in May 2012 which soon led to retaliatory attacks by local
Ironically, however, efforts by Buddhist
monks to propagate these narratives have been facilitated by Myanmar’s reforms.
Whereas during the period of the military junta ethnic tensions and separatism
were held at bay by (and justified) strict military rule, new found freedom of
speech permits Buddhist monks, such as Wirathu, to spread ideas of religious
intolerance and fan the flames of Islamophobia.
Embracing diversity and
ASEAN Chairmanship
While in the past Burmese nationhood has been
fundamentally linked to Buddhism, now is time for a more concerted effort by
Myanmar, and in particular its senior Buddhist monks, to embrace multiculturalism,
condemn hate speech, and find strength in ethnic diversity. No doubt Myanmar
has undergone rapid economic and political transitions since 2011 – it has held
elections, lifted censorship laws, and freed hundreds of political prisoners.
Yet reform should not only touch on the
hardware of development, but also the software, including both national
identity and character building. After decades of civil war between ethnic
nationalities and lingering anti-Muslim prejudice, it is clear that denying the
ethnic diversity of Myanmar has only caused harm to the country and its people.
As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in July this year: “There
is a dangerous polarisation taking place within Myanmar” and “if it is not
addressed urgently and firmly, underlying tensions could provoke more upheaval,
undermining the reform process and triggering negative regional repercussions”.
Change could begin with constitutional reform to repeal the 1982 Burma
Citizenship Law.
This choice is important now more than ever
as Myanmar has recently become the chairman of ASEAN for 2014. It has to
demonstrate that this is not a premature move given the growing climate of
insecurity for minorities within its borders. There is a lot at stake for both
ASEAN and Myanmar. Both parties want Myanmar to normalise its international
standing and increase the much-needed political legitimacy for the regime in
More so, Myanmar wants to show off its
reforms, and in doing so, portray a positive image of itself internationally.
Yet, this image is reliant on public confidence as to how Myanmar treats its
own society, including its minority population.
Eliane Coates is a
Senior Analyst at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a
constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS),
Nanyang Technological University.