Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

What kind of Buddhist culture develops in a specific place often depends on the historical evolution of the people and society in that place. “To be a Burmese is to be a Buddhist” is a saying that captures an integral role Buddhism has played in shaping the Burmese national identity. The Burmese’s resolve to hold on to their Buddhist culture has been severely tested by a number of historical events such as the destruction of their Buddhist temples and pagodas by the invading army of Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century and the loss of royal patronage by the dissolution of the monarchy by the British colonialists in the nineteenth century. These adverse historical events may explain why Burmese Buddhism has evolved into a highly political culture, with monks actively involved in political affairs. The politicized Buddhist culture is still apparent in Myanmar today, as the country was renamed in 1989 from Burma, with monks lending their support for democratic movements.

While the role of Buddhism in shaping their national identity came into sharp focus when the British came to Burma and governed as a province of their Indian Empire, little did the Burmese—or, for that matter, other people in the world—anticipate that Buddhism would be used as a pretext for discrimination, even execution, of a group of people with a different faith tradition. But that is exactly what happened, and is happening, to the Rohingya in Myanmar.

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority group of nearly million people in the western Burmese province of Rakhine. The Rohingya trace their origin in the region to the 15th century, when thousands of Muslims came to the former Arakan Kingdom. They differ from Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups ethnically, linguistically, and religiously. The label “Rohingya” as a self-identifying term surfaced in the 1950s to give them a collective political identity. But successive governments in Myanmar have refuted the Rohingya’s historical claim to Rakhine State, and denied the group official recognition as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, except under the democratic government of Prime Minister U NU (1948-58, 1960-62), who was he first prime minister of independent Burma until 1962 when the military junta seized power.

The Rohingya are discriminated in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, for the color of their skin, which is darker, and their language, but most importantly for their Muslim faith. Another factor that may have contributed to discrimination against the Rohingya is that fact that Rakhine State is Myanmar’s least developed state with a poverty rate of 78 percent, compared with around 38 percent national average, according to the World Bank. Denied citizenship, the Rohingya have been registered as temporally residents with identification cards, known as white cards. But the Rohingya even lost that temporary residents status when President Thein Sein cancelled the temporary identity cards in February 2015.

The current wave of discrimination and execution of the Rohingya started when, in August 2017, a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police and army posts, killing more than 500 people. This incident prompted the government to declare ARSA as a terrorist organization and mount a brutal campaign to destroy Rohingya villages. More than half of Rohingya population in Myanmar fled the country to neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.

There is no question that what is happening to the Rohingya is a case of genocide, according to the UN definition by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ratified on January 12, 1951.1 What is difficult for us living in the rest of the world to accept is the fact that this atrocity against a minority group is done by the Burmese Buddhists who have contributed a lot to the worldwide spread of Buddhist practice. Though introduced and propagated as a political means to promote national identity in the post-independence nation, it was the Burmese Buddhists who elevated vipassana, or insight meditation, as a popular Buddhist practice. In fact, the worldwide spread of this practice owes to a number of influential Burmese teachers, such as Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923), who called for the renewal of lay life that included meditative practice, Saya Thetgyi (1873-1945), who was instrumental in the evolution of insight meditation into a global phenomenon, Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982), who became head of the Thathana Yeiktha meditation center in Rangoon in 1949 appointed by Prime minister U Nu, and U Ba Khin (1899-1971), who set up International Meditation Center in Rangoon in 1952.2 Granted that insight meditation in Burma grew out of the Theravada tradition, it is nevertheless a form of Buddhist practice that would lead its practitioners to panna, or wisdom, which certainly includes compassion and loving-kindness toward fellow human beings.

  1. See Maung Zauni, “Buddhist Nationalism in Burma”, Tricycle, Spring 2013.
  2. Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight Meditation: Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.