Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhism Problem

Why isn't Burma's democracy icon speaking up for minorities -- and against her country's nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, and occasionally violent Buddhist majority?

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

During her long struggle against Burma’s generals, pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has leaned heavily on her Buddhist faith. She has extolled the religion for allowing her a sense of inner freedom during her 15 years of house arrest, and said that Buddhist precepts such as "loving kindness" can guide Burma’s democratic transition, fostering reconciliation with the military, instead of anger and revenge. Burma’s pious have returned the cultural compliment, so to speak. Many of them see Suu Kyi as a near-bodhisattva, whose enlightened work and suffering on behalf of others deserves the utmost reverence.

But the more nationalistic face of this Buddhist tradition, brought into focus by recent violence directed against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, could yet derail Suu Kyi’s attempts to forge a more democratic, inclusive government and to transcend the country’s long history of bloody ethnic rivalries.

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. Although the world has been largely focused on the drama between Burma’s military leaders and "The Lady," fraught relations between ethnic Burmans, who make up 60 percent of the country’s population, and the non-Burman minorities, who make up the remaining 40 percent, could leave the country politically fragmented — and strengthen the military’s hand just as it has been forced to loosen its grip.

This is why Derek Mitchell, the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in 22 years, was right to call the fate of the ethnic nationalities issue the country’s "defining challenge." It’s also why this issue should be on the top of the agenda this week, when Suu Kyi comes to Washington to pick up a Congressional Gold Medal and meet once again with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who visited her in Yangon in December 2011. So far, Suu Kyi’s response to the Rohingya issue has lacked the boldness she’s shown on other national questions.

The anti-Rohingya violence in June, some of it committed by Buddhist mobs and some by Buddhist-dominated security forces, led to scores of deaths, the burning of settlements and a refugee exodus of 90,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh. There, up to 300,000 Rohingya refugees still languish in makeshift camps from the last anti-Rohingya pogrom 20 years ago — part of what the United Nations calls "one of the world’s largest and most prominent group of stateless people." The most recent influx prompted Bangladesh to shut its borders to any more Rohingyas, and in early August barred international NGOs such as Doctors Without Borders from providing any more aid, which these groups have been doing since the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International reported in late July that the Rohingya who remained in Rakhine, where the government imposed a state of emergency in June, were subject to arbitrary mass arrests, as well as abuse in custody. A U.N. special rapporteur echoed that finding, citing "serious violations of human rights committed as part of measures to restore law and order."

According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas, who number about 800,000, are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities — subject to forced labor, extortion, police harassment, movement restrictions, land confiscation, a de facto "one child" policy, and limited access to jobs, education, and healthcare. A 1982 law denies them citizenship based on the presumption that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Burma for generations. There’s also their darker skin color, which makes them "ugly as ogres" by comparison to the "fair and soft" complexion of Burmans, as a Burmese consul stated in 2009.

In 1978 and again in 1991, the military conducted what human rights activists call ethnic cleansing operations against the Rohingya, which resulted in huge refugee flows into Bangladesh. Responding to this latest round of anti-Rohingya aggression, Burmese President Thein Sein said that the solution to the Rohingya problem was to put them into U.N.-administered internal camps, or expel them to any country "willing to accept them." 

The Rohingyas aren’t alone in their persecution by the Burman majority — other minorities have been put-upon by Buddhist nationalism too. This mindset tends to view minorities as threats to "the land, the race, and the religion," as infamous government propaganda billboards phrase it, and seeks to "Burmanize" them by depriving them of linguistic, cultural, and religious rights. Human rights abuses — even ethnic cleansing and systematic rape — are seen as the price of national solidarity. Many of these minority groups, such as the Karen, the Shan, the Mon, and the Kachin, have been in a state of sporadic rebellion against the central government since Burma gained independence in 1948, making the Union of Myanmar, as Burma is officially called, quite a notional one.

Buddhism has played a key rule in undermining the military’s grip on power. Monastic opposition to the regime, which boiled over in the 2007 "Saffron Revolution," posed a significant challenge to the military’s popular legitimacy by depicting it as an enemy of Buddha sasana, or righteous moral rule. This is an all-important concept with both spiritual and political resonance rooted in ancient Buddhist scripture, roughly akin to the classical Chinese notion of the "mandate of heaven."

To deflect that challenge, the regime has played the Burman "race card," largely through propaganda stressing that Buddhism is the religion of "true Burmese," and that the health and purity of a uniquely Burman form of Buddhism are at risk from "outside" contamination.

Although this strategy wasn’t successful enough to fend off assaults on the military’s legitimacy, it was effective at feeding Buddhist chauvinism and insecurity. The result has been a rising tide of nationalism in which the Buddhist majority might rally behind Suu Kyi and her monastic allies for greater democratic rights — but still sees other groups in a subordinate and often racist light.

As the violence against the Rohingyas played out, the newly "liberated" Internet lit up with racist invective. Using a pejorative for the darker-skinned Muslims, one commenter declared, "We should kill all the Kalars [a derogatory word meaning "black"] in Burma or banish them, otherwise Buddhism will cease to exist." Meanwhile, monks in Rakhine state distributed pamphlets urging Buddhists not to associate with Rohingyas. Some Buddhist religious groups were also reported to have interfered with the delivery of humanitarian aid to the areas affected by the recent violence. An expat English teacher in Rangoon said in an email that among most Buddhists, even in the educated classes, "There is fairly uniform xenophobia on the [Rohingya] issue and it won’t change soon."

This seems to be true of Burma’s pro-democracy community as well, including leading figures in Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). Ko Ko Gyi, who was imprisoned for his role in the 1988 student uprising and now functions as a mentor to younger democracy activists through his leadership in the 88 Generation Students group, described the Rohingya as "terrorists" who infringed on the country’s sovereignty. Like other pro-democracy figures, Ko Ko Gyi denied that the Rohingya should be counted among the nation’s 135 recognized "national groups" and said that "the root cause of the violence comes from across the border," meaning Bangladesh. NLD spokesman Nyan Win simply said: "The Rohingya are not our citizens."

Suu Kyi has reacted like a deer caught in the headlights when confronted with the Rohingya issue. While in Europe in June to receive her belated Nobel Peace Prize, she was asked if the Rohingya should be treated as citizens. "I do not know," she answered, then launched into an equivocating, convoluted statement about citizenship laws and the need for border vigilance, implying that she shared the view that the Rohingya issue was at bottom a problem of illegal immigration. At no point did she or the NLD denounce either the attacks or the racist vitriol that followed them, or express sympathy for the victims.

The pinched response left many Burma watchers disappointed. Journalist Francis Wade wondered whether Western observers have "over-romanticized" the struggle between the NLD and the junta, and if the pro-democracy movement ever had the "wholesale commitment to the principle of tolerance" many presumed.

Maung Zarni, a Burmese research fellow at the London School of Economics, said that Suu Kyi’s reticence was likely a matter of political pragmatism. "Politically, Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on this," he told the Associated Press. "She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She’s a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote."  

Already, President Thein Sein’s proposal to either expel the Rohingya or put them in concentration camps has enhanced his popularity as a defender of the Buddhist faith, with hundreds of monks taking to the streets in Yangon and Mandalay for several days the first week in September to show monastic support. Such support for Thein Sein, who could be Suu Kyi’s rival in the 2015 elections, is a jarring contrast to their pro-democracy activism in the past — and a reminder of Burma’s fast-changing political balance. In this struggle, Buddhist sentiment is a particularly unpredictable variable.   

Whatever her calculations, Suu Kyi’s lack of expressed concern for the Rohingya could only have confirmed other nationalities’ longstanding suspicion that the NLD is the party of the Burmans. This is particularly true for the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which is currently involved in all-out combat against the Burmese military near the Chinese border. Confronted in London on her European tour in June with questions about why she had not condemned the military’s human rights abuses against the predominately Christian Kachin, Suu Kyi grew peeved and gave a vague answer. "Resolving conflict is not about condemnation; it is about finding out the root, the cause of the conflict, " she said.

"By not giving her direct and undue support to the Kachin people, Suu Kyi is only radicalizing the Kachin to feel there is no use working with the Burman people," Ko Nawang, a Kachin activist, responded.

Since returning home, Suu Kyi has established minority rights as a priority, citing it in her first statement in Parliament. However, she said nothing specific about the Rohingya in her speech.

Threading the needle on Buddhist nationalism represents a far more complicated challenge than anything that Suu Kyi has faced so far. The issue has wounded Burma in the past: Minority unrest in 1962, significantly provoked by the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion, provided a pretext for a coup staged by Gen. Ne Win. The military takeover led to a half-century of isolation, which the country is only now shedding. If ethnic and religious tensions boil over this time around, Burma could fragment a la Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War. The specter of disorder, which the military has long invoked to justify its heavy hand, might lead it to slow the pace of reform, halt it altogether, or even roll back reforms.  

In trying to forge an inclusive sense of national identity in a country that has never known one, the politics of Buddhist nationalism will restrict Suu Kyi’s political options as she pursues political reform. And she herself may suspect that the obduracy of the country’s Buddhist culture is not something that encourages democracy or tolerance. For the Burmese "racial psyche," she wrote in a 1985 academic monograph, Buddhism "represents the perfected philosophy. It therefore follows that there [is] no need to either to develop it further or to consider other philosophies."

Democratic progress in Burma will, of course, be a matter of politics. But in Burma’s complicated political calculus, culture matters. 

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