Buddhism in Burma and Its Role in Ethnically Cleansing Rohingya Muslims

“Suu Kyi has a Buddhism problem. Specifically, she faces an obstacle in the chauvinism and xenophobia of Burma’s Theravada culture, which encourages a sense of racial and religious superiority among majority Burman Buddhists at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities.”

-William McGowan, Foreign Policy

We Muslims are aware of the struggle of the Rohingya, and while the rest of the world appears to also acknowledge that struggle, what remains ineffable is the question of why and where this is happening. In other words, is the reason for such hate Buddhism and Burma (also called Myanmar), or is it merely another example of people being unwilling to accept those who are less like them?

With the conflict in Ukraine, for example, we see the countries of Europe opening their arms with great warmth to Ukrainian refugees, in a way that ironically demonstrates a lack of humanity. May Allah protect us from such callousness.

Back during World War II, the German literati (many of whom were Jewish) were trying to understand what was taking place in their country and why. It was Thomas Mann (a German Christian) who felt strongly that the problem was innate. In other words, he felt that part of the problem was with his country and its people (not that he didn’t think this couldn’t happen elsewhere as well), and so he worked to speak to them and convince them to resist Hitler through his writings.

Why bring up Ukraine and the Holocaust? Because—and it must be said with great caution to avoid perpetuating the very problem we are trying to fight—part of the struggle the Rohingya face has to do with Burma itself.

This is what would be helpful for Muslims to understand, not so that they can wage a campaign of anti-Burman hate (I know of none anyways) but in order to discuss and spread the word about some of the fundamental problems that keep their Rohingya brothers and sisters oppressed and in a dire situation.

There’s value in searching for root causes. While it may seem a waste of time, imagine getting to a point in which there are serious conversations about the cultural specificities of Burma that have essentially made life for the Rohingya unbearable. Maybe it’ll never happen, but at this point, there’s no harm in trying. At the very least, I can tell you from the start that what you’re about to read will likely reaffirm the rightness of Islam, and the clarity that it can provide societies if they are open to understanding it.

RELATED: Aung San Suu Kyi Faces Jail Time, But Not for Rohingya Genocide

Violence Against the Rohingya—Where’s it Coming from?

Many, including we at the MuslimSkeptic, have noted the irony and hypocrisy of “peace-loving” Buddhists burning Muslims and violently uprooting them from their homes.

The all-out violence directed at the Rohingya is considered something of an anomaly in Burmese history. It began in 2011, when the new president at the time, Thein Sein, came to power, bringing a “semi-democratic,” “semi-civilian government” to power, leaving behind nearly forty years of military rule. This is described well here:

“In this volatile political transition period, riots between Buddhists and Muslims broke out in 2012 in Rakhine State, and appeared in other parts of the country the following year. In their wake, Buddhist nationalist, anti-Muslim movements led by monks emerged that sought to protect their nation and Buddhism mainly against an allegedly increasing threat of the Muslim minority (about 4.3 percent) (Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population 2016).”[1]

Now, even the US has declared what happened to the Rohingya as a genocide. This declaration provides even more public space to discuss what went wrong and why.

It is the militant stance the Burmese took against the Rohingya that has caused question as to what motivates many in the majority—Burmese Buddhists—to have such an opinion.

There are around 135 ethnicities in Burma, although the majority are Burman (also called Bamar). They are almost without exception Buddhist, typically practicing Theravada Buddhism.[2] What’s more: the Rohingya are not legally recognized as one of the 135 ethnic groups within the country. The fact that a rather small group (making up about two percent of the population) is excluded from a rather large list of ethnic groups, makes quite a big statement.

Buddhist Culture in Burma

The dominance of Burmese Buddhist culture—which includes an embrace of a culture that mixes Buddhism and local animist practices—has also been noted by Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, an ethnographer who specializes in Burma. In terms of animist practices, we’re going to focus specifically on spirit, or nat, worship. De la Perrière argues that the cult of the nats “is part of the larger Burmese religious sphere.”[3] She explains:

“…the cultural and political hegemony of the Burmese is grounded in their adherence to Theravada Buddhism. As oversimplified as this definition of Burmese identity may appear, it is very suggestive of the privileged status of Buddhism in Burmese society today.”[4]

While nat worship in Burma preceded Buddhism, it is primarily Burmese Buddhists who take part in the practice. That does not necessarily mean Buddhists actively connect Buddhism with nat worship but rather that there are at times blurred lines between Buddhism and local cultural practices in Burma.

This is significant because these types of dominant practices delineate what is socially and culturally acceptable—and what is not—in Burma. Think of what we see in the West now. Those of us who oppose wokeness risk being canceled, fired, and generally kicked out from society. Yet wokeness has nothing to do with the dominant religion of Christianity.

Spirit Worship: Nats

There are 37 nats, which are the spirits of historical figures, most of whom came from the ancient city of Pagan (pronounced “pa-GAN”). Because of the circumstances of their deaths, they are considered stuck in their current incarnation.[5] They lived during the glory days of Burmese history, during the Pagan Empire (849-1297). This was a foundational period for the Burmese national consciousness because the Pagans unified areas that would become Burma. It was also when Buddhism was imposed in Burma.

In order to help Burmans accept Buddhism during this time, the king, King Anawrahta, realized that he would have to allow the populace to mix animism with Buddhism.

King Anawrahta mixed Buddhist and animist symbols within the city of Pagan, as described here:

“All statues [of nats] were turned to face the pagoda as a signifier of the nats homage to the Buddha. To make the cult official, Anawrahta also intended it to serve Buddhism though the intermediary Sakra, Te-dja in Burmese, the Hindu deity that he but at the head of the pantheon, thus perpetuating the Buddhist tradition as well.” This, she reports, is the general way the story is told in Burma. While at this point the cult of the nats became essentially state sanctioned, at the local level certain nats became associated with specific regions of the country.[6]

What is also made clear is that “those practicing the cult [of the nats] still insist on their Burman character; by that they mean “from Burma” as well as “belonging to the Burman ethnicity.”[7] In other words, this is activity in many ways Burman rather than simply Burmese; meaning that it’s typically associated with a specific ethnic group.

When the press covers Burma, however, we tend to hear that it is a Buddhist majority country, not that it is also an animist-majority country. But isn’t this cultural peculiarity significant? Does this not color how we understand Burma, what they hold dear, and how they think? Another example: doesn’t the West’s Christian heritage and their current growing allegiance to the woke color how they view and treat people outside of those categories? This is not to say that they treat everyone badly, but rather that their religion and culture helps to define the rules and code of conduct.

RELATED: Buddhist Monks Protest in Burma: Hypocrisy and Confusion Continue

To get a sense of how spirit worship manifests in everyday life, let’s look at the nat pwe, which are gatherings in which the spirit of these nats are summoned by way of a medium and appeasements are made to them in the form of money.[8] The medium is typically a male, dressed as a woman (though there are also women who perform this job) who consumes alcohol, usually whiskey, straight from the bottle. “Miraculously” she summons the spirit of the nat, who tends to be not the most beneficent character, hence the need to appease the nat with money.

This period was also significant because it was when Buddhism, specifically Theravada Buddhism, came to occupy a more important space in Burma, as laid out here by the Burmese lawyer, jurist, Burma National Army member, and President of Burma (August 1988—September 1990) U Maung Maung:

“…the first unification of the heterogenous kingdoms and social centres of the major races of geographical Burma took place under King Anawrahta of Pagan in 1044 A.D., with the introduction of Theravada Buddhism into the central Burmese heartland. Thereafter Theravada Buddhism was the main ideological and social factor for the people living and thriving in the main river valleys and deltas of Burma. Hence concern for national survival is always linked with the state of the sasana [the teaching of the Buddha; Buddhist practice] among the people”[9]

Here we see from a Burmese leader the centrality of Buddhism in Burmese society. That coupled with the populace’s animist, spirit worship inclinations could likely put non-Buddhists in a precarious situation. What’s more, this is essentially state-sanctioned, from Anawrahta on down to today.

Consider this description from a traveler who had experienced the nat pwe:

I spoke again with Daw Hle Yin, the older female medium. She hadn’t been able to dance, after all. The pain in her knees had been too much. Last year, she said, she’d been here with her daughter, who’d also been a medium and had recently died. Daw Hle Yin lived now with her son and used up most of her earnings giving alms to monks. Her labors in the spirit realm were all aimed at building up Buddhist merit, a kind of karmic currency accrued by good works, and a better go of it in the next life. She, like many Burmese, saw no contradiction in this.”

Here’s a description of Nats and their significance to the Burmese on the official website of the Embassy of Myanmar in Germany (travelers welcome!):

“The most well-known Nats are the four around the mother of Nats Popa Medaw. She was unusually beautiful and meditated in the forests of Mount Popa. At her request, Buddha made sure that she was visible only as a demon to strangers.”

In this brief description, we can see how Buddhism and local animist culture are mixed and confused, something that locals appear to accept and even celebrate.

Nationalist Efforts in Colonial Burma

Being a British colony, Burmese efforts toward independence also involved efforts at defining Burma in part based on its Buddhist identity, something that monks feared was being lost under British colonialism. What’s important here is that Burmese national identity and Buddhism were intertwined:

“A nationalist ideology based on Buddhism as the core of an ethnic national identity developed throughout the 1910s, and served to unify the Burmese people as a nation against the British colonizers and the Indian immigrants, their common enemies. As in India…nationalism in Burma emerged from religious reform movements, Buddhist lay associations. These were originally non-political but began addressing nationalist, political issues from around 1916, thereby raising demands to the British colonial government…” [10]

Burma got its independence from Britain in 1948, and soon after began a civil war between the newly formed government under Prime Minister U Nu and communist and ethnic separatist armies. What this government offered was a marrying of a left-leaning political system with the local religion and customs. It is described well here:

“U Nu’s government espoused a hybrid ideology of a modern, millenarian, and nationalist ‘Buddhist socialism,’ and supported diverse forms of Buddhism, including the spirit cults (the Thirty-seven Lords). U Nu’s enchanted Buddhist state was based on a parliamentarian democratic system combined with the Asokan model.[11] He assumed the roles of the foremost patron of the sasana [“moral community”], a dhammaraja [“righteous king”], and a boddhisatta [bodhisattva; bodhisatta]¸ and some even regarded him as a cakkavattin king. Buddhism was to suffuse the entire society, not least the government.”[12]

We can see the track Burma was set on, and while it does not necessarily mean that such a path would lead to Buddhist fascism, it seems the culture has moved in that direction. By 1961, Buddhism became the state religion of Burma.

RELATED: The Traditional Buddhist View of Women: Feminists Beware

Buddhist Nationalism in Burma

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s probably for at least two reasons. The first is that nationalism provides communities with a shared identity, however superficial it may be at times. Secondly, Burma’s neighbor India, which gave birth to Buddhism, is currently held by the grips of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, a movement that is responsible for harming and marginalizing many Muslims in India.

Here is an example of the way in which some nationalists in Burma have connected Buddhism to the Burmese identity:

“A recurrent theme in 969 and Ma Ba Tha sermons, but also in nationalist books and articles, is a narrative of how the Buddha was a devoted nationalist both in his previous lives as a Buddha-to-be (P. bodhisatta [or bodhisattva]) and in his last life as Gotama Buddha, who defended his ‘race’ and religion. Sometimes this theme is linked to a narrative depicting the Burmese people – the Burmese nation (referring to the 135 national ‘races’) – as blood-descendants of the Buddha’s Sākiya Clan. In this way, nationalists have created a model of the Burmese nation as traced back to the Buddha’s kinship group, and, from the actions of the Buddha and his clan, they have constructed a model of the nationalist practice of defending race/nation and religion, including the alleged endogamy of the Sākiya Clan, that Buddhists (monks, ‘nuns’, and laypeople) should emulate. In this ideology, Buddhism and nation (that is, national identity) are fused.”[13]

We can see how this approach potentially would be harmful to non-Buddhists, particularly given the type of purity that could be related to this view of Buddhism and Burmese nationalism. Indeed, there are even Buddhist writings which discourage intermarriage in order to preserve the purity of the Sakiya clan (the clan from which Buddha came).[14]

We do not have to search for long to find the effects of these more fascistic views of what is the acceptable, ‘right’ way to be Burmese in the eyes of the majority.

Back in 2016 for example, Buddhists protested the use of the term “Rohingya” (they wanted them called “Bengalis”), which the US had then used in an official statement of condolence due to the death of a group of Rohingya who died in a boat accident offshore of Rakhine State.

We’ve all read about the genocidal actions of the military toward the Rohingya. Proceedings to hear Burma’s objections to Gambia’s case against its military’s actions against the Rohingya began at the end of last month.

Back in 2019, the Yangon Region military commander donated 19,600 USD to the Buddha Dhamma Prahita foundation. This foundation was formerly called Ma Ba Tha and was led by Wirathu, the infamous Buddhist monk who has encouraged violence against the Rohingya.

Even though we know how brutal the Burmese military is, that a military commander shamelessly donated to this organization is still a shocker and an indication of just how precarious the situation is for the Rohingya and other non-Buddhists in Burma.

Aung San Suu Kyi—A Leader for Burmans

It’s reported that some in Burma have considered Aung San Suu Kyi to be a bodhisattva, a term which generally denotes someone who is striving to reach the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment.

Suu Kyi herself, however, would not admit to such an honorific (in the eyes of Buddhists) title. It’s important to recall this in light of the great support Suu Kyi enjoys from much of the general public. In other words, Suu Kyi fits well into the prototypical idea of what makes a Burmese person Burmese.

“A nationalist ideology based on Buddhism as the core of an ethnic national identity developed throughout the 1910s, and served to unify the Burmese people as a nation against the British colonizers and the Indian immigrants, their common enemies. As in India…nationalism in Burma emerged from religious reform movements, Buddhist lay associations. These were originally non-political but began addressing nationalist, political issues from around 1916, thereby raising demands to the British colonial government…”[15]

We can see then that this idea as to whom is true Burmese has played an important role in the development of Burmese national consciousness. This is particularly relevant in light of the plight of the stateless Rohingya because the Burmese see them simply as migrants from Bangladesh.

If Buddhism and local cultural practices are what makes Burmese Burmese, and the Rohingya are facing genocide in large part because of that, then looking at what Buddhism in Burma encompasses is essential. That way, we have a more concrete way to combat what’s happening to them, and to also push back against this simplistic notion that Buddhism—in contrast to other religions—somehow naturally brings peace.

We can’t boil down the Rohingya issue to Nat worship versus Islam. We can however lament fiercely defending such superficial, pagan cultural practices and seeing others who do not practice them as so beneath you that you could burn them to death.

Notes

  1. Niklas Foxeus (2019) The Buddha was a devoted nationalist: Buddhist Nationalism, Ressentiment, and Defending Buddhism in Myanmar, Religion, 49:4, 661-690, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/0048721X.2019.1610810, p.661
  2. Skipping over the major details, one of the most basic differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism is that Theravada gives more focus to a personal journey toward nirvana and breaking the cycle of reincarnation (samsara), while Mahayana focuses on getting as close as possible to nirvana but also focusing on helping others achieve that state and thus they choose to remain in samsara. Theravada is older and is practiced in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Mahayana is practiced in Nepal, Japan, China, Tibet, and Korea.
  3. Perrière, Bénédicte Brac de la. “An Overview of the Field of Religion in Burmese Studies.” Asian Ethnology 68, no. 2 (2009): 185–210, p.187.
  4. Ibid., p.186
  5. See 7:07 here: Becker, Judith, Burmese Spirit (nat) Rituals: Trance, Transvestites, and Transcendence, Lecture, March 11, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euweekhy8no.
  6. Brac de La Perrière, Bénédicte. Les rituels de possession en Birmanie: du culte d’Etat aux cérémonies privées. (Paris: Editions Recherche sur les civilisations, 1989) p.16-17.
  7. Ibid., p.15.
  8. It appears that these celebrations are primarily carried out and attended by the Buddhist population, as I have found no evidence that Rohingya attend them.
  9. Maung Maung, U. :Nationalists Movements in Burma, 1920-1940: Changing Patterns of Leadership: From Sangha to Laity.” Masters Thesis, (Australian National University, 1967).
  10. See: Foxeus, Niklas. “The Buddha was a Devoted Nationalist: Buddhist Nationalism, Ressentiment, and Defending Buddhism in Myanmar.” Religion, 49:4(2019): 661-690, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0048721X.2019.1610810, p.665.
  11. The Asokan Model is a political model for running a state based on Buddhist concepts. See page 536 here: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HWPpk8eDPf4C&pg=PA536&lpg=PA536&dq=asokan+model&source=bl&ots=ZsXAAT38lI&sig=ACfU3U2-0Gj0T0fPxG0CBARUQfxz0grH5w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiFhfPR5b72AhVHasAKHRFXCZwQ6AF6BAgQEAM#v=onepage&q=asokan%20model&f=false
  12. Foexus, Niklas, “Contemporary Burmese Buddhism”. The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism. Edited by Jerryson, Michael K. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), p.216. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=rBk1DQAAQBAJ&pg=PA216&lpg=PA216&dq=U+Nu%E2%80%99s+government+espoused+a+hybrid+ideology+of+a+modern,+millenarian,+and+nationalist+%E2%80%98Buddhist+socialism,%E2%80%99+and+supported+diverse+forms+of+Buddhism,+including+the+spirit+cults&source=bl&ots=GX789FGk5y&sig=ACfU3U3Izvx1SqQUO5qum2dbj-zF3XQ4Pg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjWuZvp5772AhVDoVwKHU2eAt8Q6AF6BAgCEAM#v=onepage&q=U%20Nu%E2%80%99s%20government%20espoused%20a%20hybrid%20ideology%20of%20a%20modern%2C%20millenarian%2C%20and%20nationalist%20%E2%80%98Buddhist%20socialism%2C%E2%80%99%20and%20supported%20diverse%20forms%20of%20Buddhism%2C%20including%20the%20spirit%20cults&f=false
  13. Ibid., p.663.
  14. Ibid., p.674.
  15. Ibid., p.665.
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A R

Daniel would you please do some videos on the topics of civilization-nation-state-country ?
The theories behind them, the shift in people’s identity/consciousness in the 19th century ?
The modern borders of Asia and Africa being a remnant of colonial masters’ handiwork ?

Myanmar Muslim

Buddha is a title, not a name, meaning a Fully Awakened One. Buddha refers to a Nabi & Rasul who possesses the highest level of Ma’rifah.

The Buddhist scriptures prophecy the coming of Sayyidina Muhammad (ﷺ) and mention him clearly by name and description.

Many Buddhist monks are embracing Islam. Allahu Akbar!

May Islam spread over the entire world and liberate all the oppressed Black-Brown-Yellow-Red peoples who suffer from White devil supremacy. Allahumma Amin!