Burma, now called Myanmar, is a country filled with complexities and stark juxtaposition. Burmese men wear western-style button up shirts tucked into their traditional longyis. Tea houses and cafes are filled with people watching a screening of a Hollywood film as they sip Burmese tea. Buddhist monks in their orange and crimson robes shuffle past Muslim women wearing hijabs. The country even has two names.
But behind all this contrast lies a country with a complicated past and a worrisome future. After interviewing three men promoting interfaith cooperation in their country, I concluded that writing about their work without giving readers a brief overview of the political and religious situation in Burma would be naive. What You Need to Know About Burma, introduces you to the history of religion in Burma, the rise of Buddhist nationalism and its effects on Burmese Muslims as well as the current state of religious freedom in the country.
Diversity in Burma
Burmese identity is rooted in diversity. The country, about the size of the Texas, borders no less than 5 countries: Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand.
Over 135 ethnic groups can be found in Burma. The largest officially recognized groups are the Bamar (68%), Shan (9%), Karen (7%), Rakhine (4%), Chinese (3%), Indian (2%), and Mon (2%). (1)
While 88% of the population identify as Buddhist, Burma is religiously diverse and contains practicing Christians (6%), Muslims (4%), Animists (0.8%), and Hindus (0.5%). (2)
Ethnic Groups in Burma
Religious Groups in Burma
Source: Oxford Burma Alliance
History of Religion in Burma
Burma’s strategic location near trading ports and between several countries with distinct cultures, means that it has a rich religious history.
Animism, various forms of spirit worship, was the original religion of the Burmese people (3) until 1057, when King Anawrahta unified the state of Burma and proclaimed Theraveda Buddhism as its religion. (4) The arrival of Islam to the region can be traced back to the 9th century, when Muslim sailors, brought to the region by trade, settled in Burma. (5) Catholic and Protestant missionaries came to Burma several centuries later and after a series of wars, Burma became a British colony.
Burma was eventually incorporated into Britain’s Indian Empire and gained its independence alongside India in 1948. Following independence came a period of political instability, eventually resulting in a military coup in 1962. The country was ruled by a military junta until 2015. The military, however, still controls 25% of parliamentary seats and can reject any proposed constitutional changes. (6)
The Rise of Buddhist Nationalism
The political transition towards a more democratic country, beginning in 2011, intensified clashes and unease between religious and ethnic groups in Burma. During this time of instability, the country saw a rise in Buddhist nationalism. This particular brand of nationalism is best described by the slogan “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist.” (7)
In Burmese culture, religious leaders, especially Buddhist monks, have tremendous societal influence. Burmese monk Ashin Wirathu, who has been called “the Burmese Bin Ladin" has spearheaded the Buddhist nationalist movement. Through sermons, speeches, and social media, Wirathu claims that the country’s Buddhist values and way of life are at stake. Capitalizing on the fear of “Islamization,” he tells Buddhists “if we are weak, our land will become Muslim.” (8) Despite impassioned pleas from the Dalai Lama, himself, Wirathu has continued to justify violence against Muslims. (9)
By and large, the government has allowed Wirathu to continue his crusade without significant consequences. Some claim this is because Wirathu’s anti-Muslim platform has significant support among Burmese citizens. (10, 11) Wirathu was recently banned from preaching for one year by Buddhist religious authorities in Burma for using his sermons to incite hatred and create chaos. (12)
Persecution of Muslims
Although there is no official state religion in Burma, the country identifies as a Buddhist nation. The rise of Buddhist nationalism has caused significant deterioration in relations between Buddhists and members of minority religions. To put it bluntly, the Muslims have it worst in modern day Burma.
Conflict between Muslims and Buddhists in Burma dates back to the 19th century, when the British encouraged workers from neighboring Bangladesh and India, many of them Muslims, to come to Burma. (13, 14) After the installment of the military junta, Muslims became a more attractive target for the government. (15)
There are many different groups of Muslims in Burma including, the Chinese-Muslim Panthay, Shan Muslims, Indian Muslims, and Rohingya Muslims. (16)
Rohingya Muslims have undoubtedly suffered the most, with the UN declaring them to be one of the most persecuted groups in the world. (17) In 1982, the military introduced a law that stripped all Rohingya Muslims of their citizenship, despite the fact that their presence in Burma can be traced back to the 15th century. (18) Since the late 1970’s, more than one million Rohingya Muslims have fled the country. Many of them live in squalor in refugee camps that regularly turn away foreign aid from NGOs. (19) Since 2012, more than 120,000 Muslims, mostly Rohingya, have been internally displaced and reside in more than 40 internment camps in Burma. (20) Both the UN and Human Rights Watch have accused the Burmese government of being complicit in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. (21)
The State of Religious Freedom in Burma
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has designated Burma as a “country of particular concern” when it comes to religious freedom. The USCIRF claims that "Although Burma has opened dramatically since the last nationwide elections, President Thein Sein’s government continued to restrict basic freedoms–including the right to freedom of religion or belief.” (22)
Burma currently has laws in place that restrict religious conversion, interfaith marriages and family planning, access to education, and the overall religious freedom of religious minorities. (23) Religious minorities also face many obstacles when it comes to building or repairing houses of worship, which is especially concerning given the fact that mosques and churches have been the targets of vandalism and arson for many years. (24)
Nationalist Buddhist sentiment is so strong in the country, that even its recently democratically elected leaders have resisted condemning violence and discrimination against religious minorities for fear of losing popular support. (25) In the last several years, small conflicts in communities between Buddhists and Muslims have escalated into violent clashes and riots throughout the country. Religious minorities are being targeted by the government as well as their fellow citizens.
While Burma may be on the path towards building a sustainable democracy, the state of religious freedom in Burma is not good.