Skip to main content
13 min read

An Alternative Reality: Buddhist Nationalism versus Religious Diversity

In the so-called transition period (2011-2021) in Burma/Myanmar, representations in media and social media of interrelations between Buddhists and Muslims have predominantly been those of violence, discrimination, hate speech, tension, and conflict. Such negative coverage of interreligious relations in Burma/Myanmar tend to conceal the fact that these religious communities may otherwise entertain harmonious and peaceful relations with one another. This contribution by Niklas Foxeus will highlight both modalities of Burmese social life.
Niklas Foxeus is a PhD, and an associate Professor. He is currently a research fellow and is teaching at the Deptartment of History of Religions, ERG, at Stockholm University. Having received his PhD from that department in 2011, with a dissertation about Burmese esoteric Buddhist congregations, he has thereafter conducted research within three projects about Buddhism in Burma/Myanmar: 1) about prosperity Buddhism; 2) about Buddhist nationalism, and tensions between Buddhists and Muslims; and, lastly, 3) about tensions between deviant forms of Buddhism and the state.
Credits Text: Niklas Foxeus December 10 2021

In Sweden, a few mosques were set on fire at different locations between 2014-2017. Some Sweden Democrats (SD) – a right-wing, populist nationalist party with anti-Muslim tendencies - reportedly expressed appreciation and support of such events on Facebook.[1] Islamophobia has become increasingly globalized since the 9/11, and especially since the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014. Due to the global Islamophobia, according to some scholars, local Muslims tend to merge with what can be described as “a globalized Muslim folk devil” and they are blamed for all sorts of local grievances and problems, occasionally exacerbated by fiery anti-Muslim moral panics to which media and social media have strongly contributed. Throughout Southeast Asia (especially Burma/Myanmar and Thailand) and South Asia (Sri Lanka), Buddhist nationalist movements led by monks have emerged that share many characteristics with Western populist Islamophobic discourses, especially those of the Dutch politician and businessman Geert Wilders, the French politician Marine Le Pen, the British Defence League, and the like. In speeches on DVDs that were translated into Burmese and disseminated by the Buddhist nationalist organization Ma Ba Tha in Burma/Myanmar, Geert Wilders warned for an imminent Muslim takeover of Europe. In 2012-2013, the Buddhist nationalist 969 movement, which had a strongly anti-Muslim agenda, was accused of having incited riots and causing Buddhists to commit acts of violence against local Muslims, and to burn down their shops, houses, and mosques, thereby displacing thousands of Muslims.

In Sweden and other European countries, the discourse on foreigners changed after September 11, 2001 (‘”9/11”). When I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, religious differences were not often emphasized by those who were opposed to immigrants in the 1980s. Instead, the colour of their skin and hair, and their country of origin or ethnicity were the important markers of difference (“Turks,” “Arabs,” “Greeks,” etc.), and racist slurs were common. After 9/11, that all changed. Religious differences became the main distinguishing marker, especially regarding Islam and Muslims. In Burma/Myanmar, it was different. Anti-Muslim sentiments are not new but go back to the late British colonial period, with a major 1938 riot between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims, who were predominantly of Indian origin. In the British colonial administration, “race” and religion were two fundamental categories into which the population were classified, which led to an ossification and emphasis of such differences. Both categories have long been important, but “racial” difference and colour of the skin were more emphasized during the colonial period. The main group of “foreigners” (kalā) were Indians (Hindus and Muslims), who came in large numbers during the British colonial period. Since around the 1980s, religious differences came to be more emphasized, and some scholars have dated a widespread Islamophobia to around that period. However, aggression and discrimination against Muslims have been exacerbated since the 9/11 and the 2003 destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan in Afghanistan. It was further intensified after the appearance of IS. Moreover, the Burmese Islamophobia today is strongly affected by global developments. Another important factor was that Burma/Myanmar opened up in 2011, with processes of political and economic liberalization, and democratization, which created uncertainty and fear.

In 2012, riots between Buddhists and Muslims (predominantly Rohingyas) broke out in the Rakhine State, a province located in South-Western Burma/Myanmar, that left many dead, injured, and displaced, and large refugee camps were set up in the area. The following year riots broke out in Central Burma/Myanmar, including Meikthila, Lashio, some areas around Yangon, and in 2014 in Mandalay.[2] The riots that broke out in central Burma/Myanmar seem, at least to some extent, to have been incited by Buddhist nationalist sermons delivered by nationalist monks within the 969 movement.[3]In July 2013, the nationalist monk U Wirathu appeared on the cover of Time Magazine under the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” The article was banned in Burma/Myanmar due to the injured feelings among the Burmese Buddhist public and the authorities.[4] An integral feature of Burmese Buddhist national identity is that Buddhists are perceived to be essentially non-violent, peaceful, friendly, filled with loving-kindness, and the like. For most Burmese Buddhists, the headline was therefore an anomaly, an oxymoron. However, despite this perception of peaceful Buddhists, in August 2017, the Burmese army – consisting predominantly of Buddhists - carried out so-called clearance operations in the Rakhine State driving out about 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh and killing about 10,000 civilians, as well as raping Rohingya women and teenagers, and burning their villages to the ground.[5]

Nationalist monks – especially within the 969 Movement but also in Ma Ba Tha – have urged the Buddhist laypeople to severe all daily social and economic relationships with Muslims. The main points of the 969 Movement’s agenda were to urge all Buddhists to buy only from Buddhist shops and boycott Muslim-owned businesses, and that Buddhist women should only marry Buddhist men from the indigenous national “races” (taing-yin-thā). Such discriminatory practices have a long history and can be traced to the British colonial period. However, these contemporary practices were portrayed as a retaliation to a perceived Muslim plan - to an anti-Muslim conspiracy theory that has been disseminated for a long time, especially since the 1980s, but its roots extend back the early post-independence period. According to that conspiracy theory, Muslims have a plan to take over Burma and turn it into a Muslim country in the 21st century by means of business (buying only among themselves) and by marrying Buddhist women and forcing them to convert to Islam. In Buddhist nationalist sermons and on social media, Buddhist nationalist monks have disseminated that anti-Muslim conspiracy theory about a future Muslim takeover and stories about how Muslims mistreat and beat Buddhist women, and even rape children. In Burma/Myanmar, Muslims have come to serve a similar vilified role as the Jews in Europe. They are regarded as successful businessmen and are accused of seeking not merely to achieve economic domination but also to seize the power of the state.

However, the Muslims in Burma/Myanmar do not pose a threat to the Buddhist majority population. The Muslims constitute, according to the 2014 Census, a minority consisting of 4,3 percent of the total population, and the Buddhist population consists of 87,9 percent.[6] In other words, the Muslims cannot pose a real threat to the dominance of the Buddhists. Hatred and fear of Muslims (and earlier, Indians, of which Muslims were a part) have a long history in Burma/Myanmar going back to the colonial period.[7] Tensions between Indians (later, Muslims) have mostly been exacerbated and surfaced in periods of rapid social and economic change in Burma since the colonial period. In between such periods, but also juxtaposed with them, milieus characterized by religious diversity and harmony have existed. Buddhism is the majority religion in Burmese society, which entails that minorities tend to adapt to that hegemonic religion and culture for a variety of reasons, including expectations of enjoying privileges, or at least escaping harassment and discrimination in times of tension; or just to solve everyday problems, in a way that disregards religious difference. Religion can also be a means through which people of different religious affiliations connect with one another and create an alternative community, albeit under the impact and dominance of a Buddhist hegemony.

A recent volume (2018) in Burmese, “Peaceful Days” (Ngyein-khyan-(khe)-thaw-nay-yek-myā-thou), by San San Nwet, Ma Thida, Min Ko Naing, et al (edited by Phyu Phyu Thi, Matt Schissler, and Matthew J. Walton) recount stories of harmonious co-existence and collaboration between people from different religious groups, including Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. In these stories about the past, they participated in one another’s ceremonies irrespective of religious differences. Muslims participated in Buddhist kathein ceremonies (offering robes to the monks marking the end of the Buddhist Lent), pagoda ceremonies, and the like; and they cooked food for one another. In my interviews with Muslims in Mandalay (2016-2019), I heard similar stories of mutual friendship and about living together peacefully. In Upper Burma, especially in Mandalay area, many Muslims are Burman (bamā-lū-myo) Muslims. They are more integrated into the Burman Buddhist majority group. They tend to give donations (dāna) to monks and “nuns” (thila-shin). Once, I asked a Muslim leader of a charity organization why they give donations to monks. He replied that they, the Muslims, wish to gain religious merit to attain nirvana (neibbān). However, by the latter he meant heaven, the highest realm for Muslims. Moreover, there are monks who view themselves as the true inheritors of the legacy of the so-called 2007 Saffron Revolution. They are still supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy (NLD) and are committed to establish democracy and a federal union. They are anti-nationalist and strongly opposed to the nationalist monks. Like NLD, they have organized interfaith events to establish intracommunal peace. Some of these monks have accused the nationalist monks of destroying the reputation of Burmese Buddhism abroad by anti-Muslim hate speech.

Another field of religious diversity are cult leaders (bodaw) and spirit mediums. Muslims have long participated in the Buddhist nat ceremonies (a traditional spirit cult), in which also Muslim spirits are included. For instance, Byatta, the father of the Taungbyon brothers (two spirits), is thought to have been an Indian Muslim. Other nat spirits are of Hindu origin. In these cults, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim elements are thus intertwined. Muslims also participate in novel Buddhist cults of esoteric masters (weizzā) and spirit guardians of treasure troves (thaik). Many Hindus in Burma are bi-religious, that is, they mostly identify as both Hindus and Buddhists. The majority of them are of Indian origin whose ancestors came to Burma during the colonial period. In the 1920s, tensions rose between Burmese Buddhists and Indians, and in the 1930s, riots broke out between them. During the colonial period, the Indians (Hindus and Muslims) mostly lived in separate communities and were known to be successful in business and they dominated the economy at that time. After General Ne Win’s military coup of 1962, with his nationalization of most private-owned businesses, many Indians lost their source of income and took jobs as civil servants. Since that time, Indians became more integrated into the Buddhist majority group and society. Due to past conflicts and tensions, many Hindus have probably been eager to assimilate more into the majority group to escape harassment and discrimination.

One cult leader who I interviewed several times and followed on his pilgrimages was a Brahmin. He was more of a Buddhist cult leader (bodaw) than a Hindu one. He served as a medium of Bo Min Gaung (an esoteric Buddhist master, weizzā) and of guardians of the treasure trove. He was also a medium of Allah and Jesus, from whom he claimed to be able to receive messages. Among his devotees were Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs. Together, they went on pilgrimages to pagoda compounds outside Mandalay and presented offerings (kadaw-pwe) to Buddha statues. During one pilgrimage trip, one Muslim couple came along together with their son. The Brahmin-Buddhist cult leader had explained that their son came from the underground treasure trove (thaik) in a previous life, when he was a guardian spirit of the treasure buried beneath a pagoda, and that was intended for the next Buddha, Metteyya. They participated to perform certain rituals that would prevent their son from being called back to the treasure trove, that is, the rituals would prevent him from dying. This meant that their Muslim son had been a Buddhist guardian spirit in a previous life (that presume the Buddhist teachings of rebirth and karma). Moreover, they presented offerings to Buddha statues. One Muslim woman even became possessed by a Buddhist spirit from the treasure trove during the trip, thereby temporarily transforming into a Muslim bodily vessel for a Buddhist spirit.

All this happened a few months after the 2014 riots between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay. In other words, in these milieus religious differences are ignored and regarded as irrelevant. Devotees come to the cult leader with practical, everyday issues, such as business problems, health problems, and the like, and were prescribed Buddhist rituals as instrumental means to overcome such problems that can serve as impediments for living a good life. They thus managed to find opportunities to establish interreligious harmony under Buddhist hegemony, the majority culture whose terms they, wittingly or unwittingly, must accept, which is a common dynamic in majority-minority relationships.

Although reports from humanitarian organizations, human rights organizations, UN, and the like, as well as the coverage by media, have mostly portrayed interreligious relations between Buddhists and Muslims as conflict-ridden, violent, and problematic, there are thus other narratives to tell and other milieus to portray that offer quite different and more promising prospects for the future. In the aftermath of the February 1, 2021, military coup, the world could, again, witness these latent possibilities of interfaith harmony, interaction, and dialogue, as Buddhists (monks and laypeople), Muslims (including some Rohingyas), Christians (Baptists and Catholics), Hindus, and others became quite united during their demonstrations on the streets in their struggle against their common enemy, the military, the Tatmadaw, which is a privileged political and social elite who has created a kind of state within the state, and whose only real enemy is the people of Burma/Myanmar.

Like what you read?

Take action for freedom of expression and donate to PEN/Opp. Our work depends upon funding and donors. Every contribution, big or small, is valuable for us.

Donate on Patreon
More ways to get involved