Jun 18, 2015 | 07:45 GMT

10 mins read

The Buddhist Core of Fractured Myanmar

The Buddhist Core of Fractured Myanmar
(SOE THAN WIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Populist anti-Muslim riots will continue to break out sporadically nationwide in Myanmar.
  • The grassroots Buddhist nationalist movement led by monks and laypeople will continue to strongly influence national policy.
  • Buddhist monks will continue to seek broader influence in national policy, and powerful political players will mobilize them to accrue influence.

Five years after beginning its long transition away from military rule, Myanmar is still coping with its inherent geopolitical challenges. In the country's upland border regions, government troops continue to fight sporadically with ethnic Kokang, Shan and Kachin rebels. Protests in the center of the country, the nation's core, continue to break out over government resource, land and education policies. However, the most visible of Myanmar's internal conflicts have been the periodic riots carried out by Buddhists against Muslims, particularly the ethnic minority Rohingya.

These riots have highlighted a deep change in post-military Myanmar: the renaissance of political Buddhism. Led by groups such as the 969 movement and the Race and Religion Protection Association, this campaign sees Buddhism as key to Myanmar's national character and the country's Muslim minority as a threat to this. In the past three years, the movement has scored a series of successes on the national level. Going forward, factions within the central government will continue to support a national identity centered on Buddhism, though such efforts will carry inherent risks.

Naypyidaw's policies toward the Rohingya have been the major rallying point for Buddhist nationalists during the past five years, and the movement has cultivated considerable influence over national policy. In April, for example, Buddhist agitators managed to push the government to announce that it would rescind roughly 1.5 million temporary citizenship cards, known as "white cards," most of which are held by ethnic Rohingya. The Race and Religion Protection Association (known by the Burmese-alphabet acronym MaBaTha) also mounted a campaign of public demonstrations and collected some 1.5 million signatures in favor of four "race and religion protection bills" that would limit religious conversion and control marriage as well as family size for many Muslims. In late May, President Thein Sein signed the Population Control Health Care Bill — the first of these measures — into law, and the remaining three are now under discussion. In early June, a court also sentenced writer and opposition politician Htin Lin Oo to two years in prison after a group called the Patriotic Buddhist Monks Union denounced his October speech criticizing militant Buddhism.

In part, this is what the government wants. Buddhism can be a powerful unifier for a fractured nation. Since its foundation, Myanmar's challenge has been to unify the numerous, oft-restive ethnic groups scattered across its fragmented geography. Following independence in 1948, the nation devolved into violent ethnic insurgency, with a multitude of minority ethnic groups facing off against the majority Bamar. Beginning in 1962, the military tried to solve this geopolitical challenge by force, pushing insurgent groups to the margins but ruining the economy and government institutions in the process.

When military rule began to weaken following protests in 1988, the government tried another approach: fostering a national identity to overshadow individual ethnic identity. In 1989, they changed the name of the country from Burma, which sounds too much like Bamar, to the more formal Myanmar. Ethnic minorities and Bamar dissidents were skeptical about the name change, and the attempt at forging a national identity largely failed. Since the 2010 transition to civilian government, however, Naypyidaw has taken a softer military approach and tried to create a new "Myanmar" identity.

But the post-transition government's attempts at creating a unified identity have also been difficult. Longstanding geographical and ethnic divides mean that a Myanmar-wide identity has little historical basis. However, the Buddhist religion has long been a more potent and organic unifier. Nationalist movements in the 1930s coined the phrase, "To be Burmese is to be Buddhist." Between 80 and 89 percent of the country practices Buddhism, including the majorities of the nation's key ethnic groups: the Bamar, Shan, Rakhine, Mon and Karen. Together, these ethnic groups constitute nearly 90 percent of the population. Thus, with grassroots Buddhist nationalism on the rise, the central government hopes that disciplined, state-sponsored Buddhism can once again be a powerful tool.

Rakhine State and the Geopolitics of Buddhism

Since 2010, Myanmar's western state of Rakhine has been the foremost hotbed of Buddhist communal violence against ethnic minority Muslims. The state is divided between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and ethnic Kaman and Rohingya Muslims. Muslims make up around 4 percent of Myanmar's population, but Rakhine state's proximity to Bangladesh, along with population movements under the British Empire, gave it a higher concentration; estimates put the local Rohingya population at 1 million out of 3 million people.

In Myanmar, politics and power flow from ethnicity. The population is divided between a number of ethnic groups, with eight officially recognized "national ethnic races" split further into 135 ethnic groups. The Rakhine are officially recognized, but the Rohingya are not. The ethnic Rakhine fear that their political power would slip if the Rohingya minority were granted full rights. Within Myanmar, the ethnic Rakhine thus benefit most from anti-Muslim sentiment.

There have been Buddhist-Muslim communal riots since the colonial period. The difference in post-2010 Myanmar, however, is that Rakhine state's ethnic tensions have been brought into the broader geopolitics of Buddhism in Myanmar. Myanmar sits directly to the east of the Indian subcontinent, the birthplace of Buddhism, as the historical Buddha lived his life and died in the Ganges basin of northeastern India. The religion has all but died out as a potent force in the geopolitically fluid subcontinent, which is densely populated and lacks natural geographic barriers. Yet geography preserved Buddhism, in various forms, in sheltered pockets along the periphery, particularly in Bhutan, Tibet and Sri Lanka. Mainland Southeast Asia, too, offered a stronghold for Buddhism because the region is separated from the Ganges basin by mountains and is dominated by fractured uplands broken by narrow lowland defiles. The Southeast Asian nations of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have strong Buddhist populations that remain largely intact today.

Southeast Asian Buddhism, however, has geographic vulnerabilities. Buddhism was supplanted by Islam on the Malay Peninsula and in Indonesia – areas that were home to Buddhist states in antiquity. Southern Thailand, too, is majority Muslim. In Myanmar, Rakhine State is the only region connected to the subcontinent without a highland barrier — the area shares an unbroken coastal plain up to around Chittagong in modern Bangladesh. Historically, Rakhine was a separate kingdom and was not incorporated with Myanmar's Irrawaddy Valley heartland until 1784.

In the geopolitics of Buddhism — and of modern Myanmar — Rakhine is the dam against the non-Buddhist Indo-Gangetic plain to the west, now occupied by Muslim-dominated Bangladesh and Hindu West Bengal. The ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine state originated in Bengal, arriving as traders during the pre-colonial period and as laborers under the British. This cross-border ethnic affinity — especially with a Muslim population — has stoked Rakhine Buddhist fears. To the ethnic Rakhine and to Myanmar's Buddhists more broadly, Rakhine state is the Buddhist analogue of Spain at the height of Muslim North Africa. Building on this sentiment, ethnic Rakhine political strategy has been effective in pushing the local agenda at a national level. The political figures trying to consolidate a Buddhist identity have focused strongly on Rakhine state and the Rohingya issue and have thus scored national victories.

The central government has been largely amenable to this unifying force. But it carries inherent risks, as all populist movements do. In order for the state to mitigate these risks, it must be able to maintain control over Buddhist monks – a challenging and fraught proposition.

The Sangha

The Buddhist clergy, known as the Sangha, is an unparalleled institution in Myanmar. It has reach into nearly every village, and it is has played essential historical roles as both an educational institution and a de facto civil service. In antiquity, Buddhist monks brought literacy to the region and laid the earliest foundations of governance. Most important, the Sangha remained intact through Myanmar's nearly 50 years of military rule. Today, the Sangha uses social media and increasingly available smartphone technology to communicate directly with Buddhists nationwide.

This makes the Sangha attractive for those trying to wield power in Myanmar. But the Sangha is fickle, and state cooptation is difficult. Unlike other international religious organizations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Sangha is a decentralized, informal grouping, without a clear hierarchy.

As a result, the Sangha cannot be fully co-opted but can be influenced by patronage; individual monks or groups of monks can be mobilized behind a political cause or a patron that provides them with funds. For example, anti-government forces were able to bring large numbers of monks into the streets in major protests in 1988 and 2007. Monks also participated in 2014 demonstrations against copper mines in Letpadaung and Monywa and in student protests in March 2015. At the moment, the anti-Muslim, pro-Buddhist nationalism movement appears to enjoy broad support within the Sangha and is rumored to be funded partly by nationalists within the government, such as lawmaker and former military junta minister Aung Thaung.

Buddhism as a Double-Edged Sword

Myanmar's current constitution does not make Buddhism the state religion, but it recognizes the "special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union." It also bars monks from holding political office. As the recent run of political successes by the nationalist movement has shown, the central government has become increasingly open to giving in to the Buddhists' demands.

To Naypyidaw, such concessions may be worthwhile. Many of the nation's minority ethnic groups continue to support ongoing insurgencies, but these rebel groups depend on anti-government and anti-Bamar sentiment. Redirecting hostility toward Muslims unifies the country's key ethnic groups along with Myanmar's central core and the key upland region of Shan state. Moreover, Myanmar's economy remains largely reliant on Chinese investment. Anti-Chinese communal riots broke out in 1967, pushing many Chinese out of the country. Naypyidaw does not want this to happen again. Resentment of Muslims as a foreign element may help displace resentment of the Chinese.

Putting Buddhism at the root of national identity comes at a cost for the government, as shown by the involvement of Buddhist monks in the 1988 anti-government protests and, especially, the 2007 "Saffron Revolution." The Rohingya issue has also strained Naypyidaw's relations with several Southeast Asian states, particularly Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, as thousands of Rohingya refugees continue to show up on their shores. Sectarian tension also heightens the risk of sparking an Islamist militant backlash. Nonetheless, as Myanmar continues consolidating as a nation, Buddhist nationalism will remain a force to reckon with in national politics. For now, the central government will continue to bend to Buddhist nationalist pressure, and the movement will be a powerful tool for key political figures. In time, however, the populist upsurge — and the Sangha itself — could come back to haunt the central government.

Lead analyst: Evan Rees

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