Communal Conflict in Myanmar

March 10, 2014
Communal Conflict in Myanmar

Dr. Lynn Kuok, Harvard Kennedy School of Government Fellow

Conflict between Buddhists and Muslims has been on an uptick since tensions between Arakanese and Rohingya erupted in violence in the capital of Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, Sittwe, in May 2012. Violence broke out in other areas of Rakhine in October, this time targeting Muslims in general, not just the Rohingya. Together, these clashes left almost 200 people dead and around 140,000 displaced. By 2013, violence spread to other parts of Myanmar, including its center. Fresh fighting hit Rakhine at the end of September ahead of Myanmar President Thein Sein’s visit in October.

Religious conflict threatens not only Myanmar, it could reverberate beyond its borders. Southeast Asia, a religiously diverse region, is generally known for its tolerance, but Buddhists from Myanmar and a Buddhist center were targeted in Muslim majority Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia. The Myanmar embassy in Indonesia was allegedly also the subject of a foiled bomb plot. Such incidents, even if averted, create a climate of distrust and fear that could destabilize religious relations in the region.

Causes of tensions

Communal conflict imageAnti-Muslim sentiment is not new to Myanmar. It has its roots in colonial policy, which brought many Indians to Myanmar to work in commerce, money lending or as low-skilled labour. Many (though not all) of these Indians were Muslims. Anti-Indian rioting took place in 1930, to protest the sacking of Myanmar workers after Indian dockworkers were reinstated after going on strike. Rioting occurred again in 1938 in response to perceived insults to Buddhism in a book authored by an Indian Muslim.1

Today, anti-Muslim sentiment remains widespread. There is a notable lack of support for Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, who most Myanmar people consider illegal Bengali immigrants. The Rohingya issue is particularly intractable as it also involves issues of citizenship. But it feeds into broader anti-Muslim sentiment as seen in the rapid spread of violence from Sittwe to elsewhere in Rakhine and without.

The reasons for anti-Muslim sentiment are complex, but the main ones can be summed up as: too many, too rich, and too different. The first relates to a fear that Muslims in Myanmar are multiplying and if the country is not careful it might go the way of countries like India, Pakistan and Indonesia that have lost their Buddhist heritage. The Arakanese in Rakhine feel “crushed between ‘Burmanisation’ and ‘Islamisation.’”2

The second factor refers to the supposed wealth of Muslims who use this to buy up Burmese land and to attract and marry Burmese women (who are then forced to convert to Islam and bring up Muslim children). Even the impecunious Rohingya are said to be buying nice houses, guns and rockets, as well as building mosques. Resentment is heightened by rumours that Muslim wealth has been ill gotten, namely, through bribing members of the previous regime.

Shwe Nya War Sayadaw, a monk from the 969 Movement, offers a third reason for strained relations with Muslims in contrast to historically better relations with Christians and Hindus: “differences in beliefs and tradition.”3 Given that this could also have been said about Christianity or Hinduism, his comment highlights how differences take on heightened salience when a group is regarded as an outsider and threatening. Differences per se do not cause conflict, identities and perceptions do.

At a time when Myanmar is going through a historic transition with no clear winners and losers, the sentiment that the Muslim outsider is encroaching on the land of the golden pagodas helps to account for the rise of “Buddhist nationalism,” a term referencing the equation of being Burmese with being Buddhist. Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar takes its most obvious form in the 969 Movement. While detractors maintain that the movement uses religion as a guise for xenophobic sentiment, supporters say it helps to defend Buddhism and nation.

Some say that elements within the government are instigating violence: instability can then be used as a pretext for reverting to authoritarian rule if the opposition wins the 2015 national elections. There is no evidence of this. What is clear, however, is that even if true, elite instigation feeds off pre-existing anti-Muslim sentiment, which extends across parties and class.

Managing and resolving communal conflict

The Myanmar government leadership must as an urgent priority reduce negative perceptions of non-Burman/Buddhist groups, while in the longer-run foster widespread buy-in to the idea of a Myanmar nation that has an unequivocal place for its minority communities, including the Rohingya.

One way of doing this is to further encourage dialogue between community leaders. People in Myanmar listen to their religious leaders so chances of resolving religious tensions improve if religious heads are united.

However, Buddhism and Islam (as well as some Protestant groups) are relatively non-hierarchical in the sense that there is no overarching spiritual authority that determines what is acceptable: this is largely left to the head abbot or imam in a temple or mosque. Inter-faith dialogue is likely to be self-selecting, with mainly moderates attending. In order to amplify the moderate voice and delegitimize the views of extremists, the government can seek to encourage moderate religious associations that can eventually be said to represent (to a greater or lesser extent) their respective communities. These can be modeled along the lines of the Singapore Buddhist Federation, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (a statutory body), and the National Council of Churches, which have played an important role in keeping extremist elements in Singapore in check.

The Myanmar government could work with the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a group of monks responsible for regulating Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy, to send strong messages against violence and the need for inter-faith respect. The committee’s prohibition in September 2013 against the creation of formal organizations based around the 969 Movement was a step in the right direction. Although the committee was formed under the former military regime, it can rehabilitate its image by carefully cultivating the trust of the Buddhist community it serves.

The country’s top political leaders should themselves consistently make statements condemning violence and, importantly, back these up by action. Passing laws to criminalize incitement of religious hatred or violence will convey the message that hate speech and violence will not be tolerated. It will also underscore the importance of religious harmony to Myanmar’s future. Decisive and strong action against extremist elements of any community must be taken in an entirely even-handed way.

But officials should go further to convey a positive sense of the inherent worth of minority faiths and their followers. Thus far, Myanmar’s leaders have tended to shelter behind legalistic notions like the constitution “fully guarantee[ing] freedom of religion as the fundamental right of citizens.”4 Many Rohingya lack citizenship and calls for adherence to the “rule of law”5 are important, but treat the symptoms rather than the cause.

Given real fears from the Buddhist community that their religion and way of life are under threat, the government should consider how to address these without impinging on the minorities. Some commentators have dismissed the majority’s fears on the basis that Muslims only constitute about 4 percent of Myanmar’s total population.6 But this misses an important key to understanding the violence and therefore to managing and resolving conflict. Violence cannot be condoned, but Buddhist nationalism must be understood from the vantage point of a community that, along with the minorities, suffered tremendously under previous regimes and is now anxious about its future as the country undertakes major reforms.

Finally, the government should incentivize inter-ethnic activities particularly those initiated by the grassroots. In the longer-run, tools such as sensitively designed mixed housing and an appropriately crafted national curriculum can help promote greater inter-ethnic interaction and appreciation, as well as broaden national identification.

Dr. Lynn Kuok researches nation-building and race and religious relations within the multi-ethnic countries of Southeast Asia. She also works on the politics of these countries, as well as broader issues of Asian security. She is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and was recently Visiting Fellow at the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asian Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Commonwealth scholar and Editor-in-Chief of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.


  1. For an overview of the history of intercommunal tensions, see International Crisis Group, The dark side of transition: Violence against Muslims in Myanmar," Asia Report No. 251, October 1, 2013.
  2. The Economist, "Religious violence in Myanmar: The silence of the muezzin," November 2, 2013.
  3. Talk by Shwe Nya War Sayadaw, U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, Washington, D.C., July 18, 2013.
  4. President Thein Sein, quoted in "Muslims hide amid Myanmar sectarian violence" Today, October 2, 2013.
  5. Aung San Suu Kyi, during an interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain, BBC News Asia, October 24, 2013.
  6. See, for example, David Blair, "How can Aung San Suu Kyi – a Nobel peace prize winner – fail to condemn anti-Muslim violence?," The Telegraph, October, 24 2013.