Independence & Civilian Government (1948–1962)
General Aung San negotiated with the badly weakened post-WWII British government for independence, which was achieved in 1948. Aung San and other Burmese nationalists viewed Burmese identity as inherently Buddhist, a view he exhibited in 1946 during his famous anti-colonial speech on the steps of the Shwedagon Pagoda, an important Buddhist reliquary.1 However, Aung San maintained that an independent Burma should continue to separate religion and state, and had he not been assassinated in 1947, Buddhism’s role in government administration may have been minimized.
Instead, U Nu (d. 1995), leader of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), instituted Buddhist socialism in hopes of addressing the widespread poverty of the post-war years.2 For U Nu, individual property ownership was at the heart of samsara (the Buddhist concept of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth perpetuated by suffering) while state ownership of Burmese property was a way to establish Buddhist social egalitarianism. U Nu and the AFPFL also believed socialism to be the best way to reassert Burmese ownership over assets that had been controlled by foreigners.
The AFPFL brought together left-leaning political organizations ranging from labor associations to student and veteran groups. However, the AFPFL split in the 1950s over disagreements, and U Nu sanctioned a military “coup” in 1958 to maintain peace between the conflicting AFPFL factions. The brief period of “Caretaker Government” military rule, during which U Nu retired to a monastery for monastic seclusion, ended with a generally well-regarded democratic election which returned U Nu to power. However, it also gave the military confidence in its own ability to govern.
U Nu received widespread popular support in the 1960 election, including among the Sangha. His leadership was seen as a return to the pre-colonial days in which Burma was a Buddhist empire whose political leaders were the guardians of the religion. In 1961 U Nu oversaw the passage of the State Religion Act (SRA), which reinforced the government’s role as religious patron. The SRA made Buddhism Burma’s official state religion, instituted the Buddhist religious calendar as the state calendar, and initiated construction of 60,000 new pagodas. The passage of the SRA triggered a wave of unrest among non-Buddhist ethnic minorities and reinvigorated minority demands for federalism and, in some cases, independent statehood.
Military Rule, 1962-2011
In an effort to defend Burma from ethnic unrest and to ensure the continuity of power for the Buddhist Burman majority, the military staged a second coup in 1962. The coup was fueled by a belief that the assertion of minority ethnic and religious identities threatened to undermine Burmese “unity.” The mobilization of non-Buddhist minority groups in response to the State Religion Act caused the military government to forcibly restore order in the country. Generals instituted sometimes brutal control over ethnic minorities, which included forced conversions to Buddhism and the construction of pagodas in predominantly Muslim or Christian areas. In so doing, the Burmese government used Buddhist symbols to enact central government power over marginalized religious minorities.
Led by General Ne Win (d. 2002), the military backed Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) abolished the judiciary in 1962, nationalized thousands of businesses in 1963, and banned all political parties outside of the BSPP in 1964. Shortly after the coup, Ne Win released The Burmese Way to Socialism, an overview of government ideology, which combined socialism, Buddhism, and humanism, reiterating the links between social egalitarianism and Buddhism articulated under U Nu.
Ten years later, a new constitution cemented Burma as a socialist authoritarian state. Food shortages, poorly managed by the BSPP, triggered widespread popular unrest including among members of the Sangha. Invoking the duty of pre-colonial Buddhist kings to “purify” the Sangha, Ne Win introduced the State Sangha Council to regulate and monitor the monastic community, and “heretical” monks were put on trial.
The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) led by General Saw Maung assumed power following the failed “People’s Revolution” of 1988, again triggered by food and fuel shortages. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, quickly took on a leadership role in anti-government protests and became the secretary of the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD). In 1988, she delivered a speech against the SLORC on the same steps of the Shwedagon Pagoda where her father had excoriated the colonial government four decades earlier.3 A year later she was placed under house arrest. The NLD had tremendous success in the 1990 elections—an unwelcome surprise to the ruling military government.
The military invalidated the election results, refused to hand over leadership to the NLD, and reframed the elections as an exercise in reform. In 1991 while still under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, transforming her into a global icon of nonviolent activism. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered in absentia by her son, she wrote: “Buddhism, the foundation of traditional Burmese culture, places the greatest value on man, who alone of all beings can achieve the supreme state of Buddhahood ... The quest for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community. It is part of the unceasing human endeavor to prove that the spirit of man can transcend the flaws of his nature.”4 In framing her appeal for democracy and human rights in Buddhist terms, Aung San Suu Kyi offered a persuasive counter-narrative to the military government; to rebut it, they would struggle to be seen as more Buddhist than she.
Indeed, the SLORC faced significant, though not uniform, opposition among the Sangha. Though some members of the Sangha supported military power in return for its patronage, others vocally opposed the regime. To protest the 1990 election results, some monks and monasteries refused to accept alms or to perform services for military families, thereby denying them “merit.” In Buddhist cultures, merit is traditionally seen as a requirement for both material success and spiritual advancement, making offerings to the Sangha an essential method of gaining status in the community. The Sangha’s refusal to accept military patronage was a scathing and public critique of SLORC policy. In response, the government initiated a brutal crackdown on the monasteries, arresting “corrupt” monks and destroying monastery property. They again framed this response as a duty derived from their role as purifier of the Sangha. The SLORC henceforth issued a law requiring monks to avoid politics and to conform to the policies of the State Sangha Council.
The SLORC took great pains to affirm their religious legitimacy. They publicly celebrated Buddhist holidays; channeled state money for new pagodas, to Buddhist universities, and to supportive monasteries; sponsored a six-week procession of a major Buddhist relic around the country; and discussed implementing “Buddhist culture” courses in Burmese schools.5
Protests and Democratic Transitions, 2007-present
In 2007 the government removed fuel subsidies, prompting a wave of protests dubbed the “Saffron Revolution” due to the participation of thousands of Buddhist monks in marches across the country, though the protests were organized by opposition political activists and included a variety of participants. Nonetheless, it was the largest public demonstration by Buddhist monks in modern Burmese history and quickly garnered global attention, despite censorship efforts that ultimately shut down national internet service. As the protests intensified, a group of monks marched to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, still under house arrest, tearfully pledging their allegiance. Images of military officers beating Buddhist monastics spread rapidly via social media, and undid much of the religious goodwill that the military government had cultivated through its patronage of Buddhist institutions since the 1990s.
In 2008, the military government was further undermined by their negligent humanitarian response in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Cyclones are common in Myanmar, but a number of factors combined to create a humanitarian and environmental disaster. The storm was particularly severe, and the people of Myanmar in the path of the storm received little to no warning from the government. In addition, large scale environmental degradation—particularly the wholesale destruction of Mangrove forests in the Irrawaddy delta which formed natural barriers to storms—significantly increased the devastation of the storm. The military government was slow to respond and internal corruption was rampant. International aid was flatly refused by the junta, partially due to fears of foreign invasion, and partially to prevent international poll watchers from observing the 2008 constitutional referendum.6
The referendum had been called by the military government to vote on a new constitution for the country on May 10, which fell eight days after the storm. Myanmar totally rejected calls for international observers, even from the UN, so when they delayed voting in storm effected areas by two weeks, they also refused to allow international aid workers to enter the country to assist with relief efforts until nearly a month after the storm hit the country. The referendum was widely disputed, though the government declared turnout of over 98 percent, with over 92 percent approval. Once the referendum was over, the government began to allow foreign aid to enter the country, but for many it was too late. While official figures are imprecise, the storm and its aftermath led to the death of around 138,000 people, and cost $2.4 billion (USD), around 27 percent of the country’s GDP. However, it also began a period of massive influxes of foreign aid and greater autonomy for NGOs and other aid organizations, while dramatically intensifying international condemnation of the military government.7
The unrest following the Saffron Revolution and aftermath of Cyclone Nargis was followed by general elections in 2010. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD boycotted the election, allowing former General Thein Sein to win most of the parliament’s seats and election to Prime Minister, despite questions about the legitimacy of the election. However, in June 2012, the NLD participated in by-elections and won nearly all contested seats. Aung San Suu Kyi was welcomed into parliament. As sanctions were lifted, foreign investment and tourism began to flow into Myanmar. U.S. President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague made highly publicized visits to Myanmar. In 2014, Myanmar was elected to hold the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which suggested an extraordinary regional vote of confidence in the government’s reforms.
The collective voice of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party and the Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee—a parliamentary committee chaired by Suu Kyi—continued to intensify, and so did the challenges she and Speaker Shwe Mann posed to the president and the executive branch over military roles and budgets.8 In November, 2015 Suu Kyi famously declared that if she won the election and formed a new government with the NLD party, she would be “above the president.” By the time the 2015 elections were held, Aung San Suu Kyi, the uncontested “icon of democracy,” had garnered the majority of the nation’s support and led her party to a landslide win. However, she was prevented from officially taking the seat of the presidency due to Clause 59F, a constitutional provision drawn up by the military in 2008 in anticipation of Suu Kyi’s growing popularity. The clause disqualifies anyone from becoming president whose spouse, children, or spouses of children have foreign passports. Suu Kyi’s late husband and children are British citizens. Her top aide, Htin Kyaw stepped into the role of president by proxy. Still, Clause 59F was unable to keep Suu Kyi out of power, as the government created a new position for her in the spring of 2016 which they named the “State Counsellor.” In many ways like a prime minister, the State Counsellor is generally believed to be significantly more powerful than the president.
Despite these democratic successes, recent elections have been tarnished by the fact that hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were not permitted to vote. Ongoing conflicts with ethnic minorities and particularly discrimination and violence against the Rohingya cast a dark shadow over progress, and Suu Kyi has been criticized for her lack of response to their plight. Violence against the Rohingya, concentrated in internment camps along Myanmar’s western border, has been framed in explicitly religious terms, with some members of the Sangha claiming that Muslims present a threat to Burmese Buddhists.
The violence against Muslims—which has largely gone on with the complicity of state security forces—has been coded as “resistance” against Muslims, often framed as protection from Muslims who are rumored to desire a takeover of the country by means of rapid population growth and marriage of Buddhist women.9 Anti-Muslim sentiment has also been closely tied to the broader narratives of Islamophobia engendered by the “War on Terror.”10 In late 2012, Thein Sein is reported to have suggested to the United Nations that an estimated 800,000 Rohingya refugees should be removed from the country.
That same year, a self-formed group of Buddhist nationalist monks and laypeople called 969 began to exert influence on parliament. As a movement, 969 is decentralized and has only roughly defined goals. However, they have often been implicated in oppression of Muslim minority communities, and they have encouraged Burmans to buy only from Buddhist merchants who display their symbol. In 2014, dominant members of 969 formed Ma Ba Tha (Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion), a more centralized organization which actively worked with politicians in the government to pass laws favorable to Buddhist nationalists. While the members of Ma Ba Tha are diverse and their policy positions are not all uniform, many in the group have pushed for codifying anti-Muslim legislation including laws regarding interreligious marriage, conversion, and population control. Together these Buddhist nationalist groups continue to significantly impact policy making.
In 2013, mobs of Buddhist men overtook Muslim neighborhoods, leading to hundreds of deaths. Over a hundred thousand people were displaced from their homes, many of which were burned to the ground; most were Rohingya, but other non-Rohingya Muslim minorities were also assaulted.11 In January 2014, tensions exploded again when local security forces and civilians associated with an extreme Buddhist Rahkine group attacked Rohingya Muslims; at least 48 were killed, but both the killings and the exact numbers are refuted by the government. Doctors Without Borders, which treated approximately 700,000 people in Du Char Yar Tan, Rhakine including 200,000 living in isolated camps and villages, was ordered by the government to shut down their clinics and leave the state after treating 22 wounded Rohingyas.
Intercommunal tension and violence, and a half-century of deeply entrenched military rule have resulted in one of the worst refugee crises in the world. Attempts by international media to highlight institutionalized segregation and what some have called ethnic cleansing have done little to abate the strength of leaders such as Ashin Wirathu (a.k.a. U Wirathu), a Buddhist nationalist monk who has regularly stoked anti-Muslim violence.
While Buddhist nationalists have promoted violence and hate speech against minority communities, it should be noted that there are counter-narratives within the Buddhist tradition which have actively fought against the violence perpetrated by the more powerful nationalist groups. Individuals and groups of Buddhist monks have encouraged interfaith dialogue, provided humanitarian relief to Muslim victims of violence, and even risked their lives to save their Muslim neighbors during riots and attacks. Even a few members of Ma Ba Tha have supported interfaith activities and peacebuilding efforts. Still, most dissenters have challenged religious bigotry with extreme caution, due to the intense social and political pressure levied against them by the powerful Buddhist nationalists if they speak out.12
In July 2016, after further riots of Buddhist nationalists destroyed two mosques and caused scores of Muslims to flee their homes, the NLD and the Sangha Council surprised the world with an active response, ending years of inaction or even tacit approval of anti-Muslim violence. President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Suu Kyi announced the creation of a taskforce to hold both perpetrators and inciters of violence accountable, and asked the Sangha Council to help police hate speech. That same week, the Sangha Council denounced Ma Ba Tha, declaring that it never endorsed the group and that Ma Ba Tha is not a recognized Buddhist group in Myanmar. The NLD agreed saying that Ma Ba Tha, “was never recognized as a real Buddhist organization.”13 The impact of these moves is not yet clear, but it indicates a growing authority of peaceful counter-narratives against the extreme Buddhist nationalism which has characterized much of Myanmar’s modern history.
Unfortunately, tensions escalated again in 2017 when a resistance group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on police and military posts where more than 100 people died. In response, Myanmar military forces cracked down in what a UN official called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” that forced approximately 400,000 Rohyingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.14 In a televised speech to the nation, in mid-September 2017, Aung San Suu Kyi did not condemn the actions of the military as man in the international community had urged her to do.15
- Joshua Hammer, “Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Revolutionary Leader,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2012, accessed July 10, 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Aung-San-Suu-Kyi-Burmas-Revo....
- Helen James, “Buddhist Socialism,” Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia, from Angkor Wat to Timor, R-Z, ed. Keat Gin Ooi (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004): 284-285.
- See Aung San Suu Kyi, “Speech to a Mass Rally at the Shwedagon Pagoda.” Freedom from Fear and Other Writings. Edited by Michael Aris (London: Viking, 1991).
- "Aung San Suu Kyi - Acceptance Speech," Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013, accessed July 10, 2013, http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1991/kyi-acceptan....
- Bertil Lintner, The Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Activism in Burma (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2009).
- David Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 70, 98, 139-42.
- David Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 139- 42.
- Priscilla Clapp, “Myanmar: Anatomy of a Political Transition,” United States Institute of Peace, April 2015, 7-8.
- Sabina Stein, “Interreligious Tension in South and Southeast Asia,” CSS Analyses in Security Policy 148, (2014): 3.
Matthew J. Walton and Susan Hayward, “Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar,” (2014): 18.
Daniel Schearf, “Kaman Muslims Raise Concerns of Wider Conflict,” VOA News, November 29, 2012, accessed November 22, 2013, http://www.voanews.com/content/burmas-kaman-muslims-cite-religious-ethni....
- Matthew J. Walton and Susan Hayward, “Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar,” (2014): 47.
- Wa Lone, “After Violence, Myanmar Moves to Curb Religious Extremism,” Reuters, July 15, 2016, accessed August 1, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-politics-idUSKCN0ZV1AI ; “Myanmar Government Cracks Down on Buddhist Nationalists,” Al-Jazeera, July 15, 2016, accessed August 1, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/myanmar-government-cracks-buddhist....
- “More than 400,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh” PBS Newshour, September 16, 2017, accessed September 27, 2017, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/400000-rohingya-fled-bangladesh/.
- “Aung San Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar's Reaction To Rohingya Muslim Crisis” National Public Radio, September 19, 2017, accessed September 27, 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/09/19/552006611/aung-san-suu-kyi-defends- myanmars-reaction-to-rohingya-muslim-crisis.