When Buddhists Back the Army
Many monks in Myanmar are supporting the military coup.
Days before the military seized control of Myanmar’s government on Feb. 1, Buddhist monks demonstrated in support of the country’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw. Carrying banners espousing claims of election fraud, monks marched through the streets of Yangon proclaiming the military as the protector of the state. Such scenes are not uncommon in Myanmar, where Buddhism is deeply intertwined with the country’s culture. For the Buddhist nationalists who backed the army and its crackdown on Muslims, the coup may seem like an opportunity—but a military coup is bad news for Buddhism in Myanmar due to its restrictions on religious freedom. It may also exacerbate Buddhist nationalism and extremist religious ideals prevalent in the country.
Westerners rarely associate Buddhism with extremism or violence, but Buddhist movements in Asia have often raised few qualms about the use of force. Buddhist authorities have, at times, justified violence against the faith’s enemies and supported authoritarian regimes. Myanmar is no exception. Since at least the end of British rule, the Buddhist monastic community (or sangha) has played an instrumental role in the political landscape of Myanmar. Following the transition to a civilian-led democratic government in 2011 and the end of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, the shift in power allowed nationalist Buddhist movements to gain traction in the ensuing power struggle, such as the Patriotic Association of Myanmar and the 969 Movement.
As author Francis Wade wrote, such groups “seek to exploit the insecurities of a population undergoing rapid change by pointing to the consequences of that change.” This exploitation emerges as radical Buddhist ideologies that provoke violence against religious and cultural others. Nationalist Buddhist monks have been prevalent historically in other Buddhist nations in Southeast Asia, such as during the 1915 riots against the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.
Buddhist nationalism often manifests as a kind of ethnocentrism in which protecting the Myanmar-Buddhist identity is highlighted in propaganda. As Buddhist studies expert Paul Fuller discussed, such Buddhist nationalist frameworks include that, “Buddhism is under threat and needs to be protected; the threat of conversion; [and] that the teachings can be corrupted and are subject to decline.” Islam is portrayed as an existential threat to the faith and the nation, justifying its preemptive persecution. In October 2017, senior Buddhist monk Sitagu Sayadaw preached a sermon in front of an audience of military officers in which he argued that violence was permissible against the Rohingya minority because, as Muslims, they are not fully human. The relationship between Buddhist nationalists and Myanmar’s military is thereby symbiotic: The military advances the goals of Buddhist nationalists by protecting Buddhism against the Muslim threat, and Buddhist nationalists provide the military with religious and cultural permission for their atrocities.
Violence against the Rohingya began in 2016 during a military crackdown and initially forced 87,000 Rohingya to flee from Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh, a number which has since grown to more than 700,000 people. As a result, Myanmar is now being tried for genocide in the International Court of Justice. Aung San Suu Kyi repeatedly defended the atrocities internationally. Yet even her public defense of the Tatmadaw’s actions was not enough to preserve her position in power. Unless the Tatmadaw reverses its actions and relinquishes power, ethnocentric and nationalistic Buddhism in Myanmar is likely to worsen.
The influence of Buddhism in Myanmar life is formidable with 89 percent of the population identifying as Buddhist, predominantly within the Theravada tradition. Buddhism is a facet of life in Myanmar, with laypeople offering alms as the sole source of sustenance for the monastics and the monastics offering laypeople the teachings of the Buddha. Such teachings by the monks are the laypeople’s conduit to their religion, and it provides not only religious education but also allows the monastics a tremendous amount of influence over their communities. One prominent example of nationalist monastics attempting to shift the views of the population occurred in 2015 when monks advocated against the election of the National League for Democracy, saying, “Can you vote for a party that supports Islam?” In 2013, the 969 Movement called for the boycott of Muslim businesses, with monastic leader Ashin Wirathu referring to mosques as “enemy bases.” More recently, laypeople and monastics have marched simultaneously in protest against COVID-19 restrictions, the November election results, and Myanmar’s constitution.
In a country with seven different ethnic groups each constituting more than 2 percent of the population, Buddhism has often been employed for nationalistic purposes. Buddhist monks were often important in this, both before and after independence. Buddhist monks are recorded to have taken part in both armed and passive resistance to British colonial rule as early as the 1880s. As the movement for independence grew in the 1940s, one of the most common slogans fused religion and nationality: “To be Burmese means to be Buddhist!” The same martial vision of the nation that fearfully excludes religious minorities has persisted since independence. After independence, monks also took part in suppressing resistance by minority ethnic groups to successive Burmese governments. In particular, the Rohingya were often denied the status of an ethnicity and instead called the Bengali by prominent figures. “If we are weak,” Ashin Wirathu said to other monks in 2013, “our land will become Muslim.” When Aung San Suu Kyi defended the Tatmadaw in The Hague, she did not even use the word Rohingya. By denying the existence of ethnic differences and demanding the Rohingya be eradicated, the Buddhist Bamar majority promotes national homogeneity.
Myanmar’s religious nationalism has many parallels elsewhere. The unwillingness to recognize Muslims as part of the nation is painfully obvious in France’s far-right National Front party, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s refusal to admit refugees, and with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban. The alliance between military despotism and nationalized religion is visible in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power structure and the Russian Orthodox church. And the bloody persecution of Muslims as a foreign threat is arguably most visible in the atheist Chinese state’s attempted genocide of the Uighur people. These events are part of a broader international contest of ideologies about nationhood and authoritarianism.
A protest and civil disobedience movement is growing in the streets of Yangon and other major cities. But for now, the foreign diplomatic community is adjusting to the Tatmadaw as the dominant political power in the country. Still, the political situation remains uncertain. Participation in the protests has gradually broadened, but the military has seized more power than it has had for a decade.
In spite of nationalist support of the military in some quarters, Myanmar’s Buddhism is not monolithic; monks have also protested against the coup. Buddhist monastics following the nonviolent tradition pioneered during the independence movement were instrumental in relaxing military rule during the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and were outspoken against anti-Muslim violence. The juxtapositions of nonviolent resistance with persecution, democracy with authoritarianism, and Buddhist tolerance with Buddhist nationalism are the grounds on which Myanmar’s national identity is being redefined.
Brenna Artinger is an independent researcher and holds an MPhil in Buddhist Studies from the University of Oxford.
Michael Rowand is a writer specializing in international affairs and Director of Development at Africa ASAP.