Burmese history helps explain an important, almost pervasive, sense of vulnerability in Myanmar and could account for this militant stance. This perceived vulnerability was instigated through the loss of independence and the gradual dismemberment of Burma’s kingdom by the British in the 19th century, their effective disestablishment of Buddhism, and the ceding of economic control to the British, Indians and Chinese. The perception of a fragile culture threatened by foreigners has led to vehement outbursts of anti-Muslim and nationalist sentiment, previously promulgated by the state-controlled media but in freer times often led by monks, with whom no one can publicly disagree. In the past the targets were the former imperialists (the West), then the Chinese, now the Muslims, and perhaps in the future the West (especially the United States) as tourists, businessmen, aid workers and pop culture are seen to be decimating traditional Burman values and culture. Monks have formed a group called ‘The Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion’, a clear indication of what some of them regard as an existential threat.
This sense of vulnerability is not limited to Myanmar, but may be an unintended consequence of the shame of the colonial past as experienced in now-independent states. In Myanmar however, monks were martyrs in the independence movement against the British, leading riots against Muslims during that era, their special status giving them credibility among the general Burman population. Despite this, some of their arguments are unfounded and emotional: India — the origin of Buddhism — is no longer Buddhist because Muslims eliminated it; Muslim men receive money for converting Buddhist women; Muslim families have more children and will eventually take over the state.
Implicit in these assumptions are degrading comments on the intelligence and freedom of Burmese women — assumptions that most foreigners familiar with Burmese society would deny. Historically, women’s rights in Myanmar have been more advanced than of those in many Western countries. The focus on Burman women as vulnerable to foreign machinations is important, and has been a theme evoked since the colonial period. This sense of female betrayal of Burman cultural values has even been levelled against Aung San Suu Kyi for marrying a British national.
With political legitimacy in Myanmar being intimately associated with Buddhism, few leaders or politicians are willing to challenge publicly the sermons of monks, for to do so would make them subject to popular condemnation. Political persuasion has little to do with these attitudes. Fighters against the authoritarian government in Myanmar have expressed anti-Muslim views. Aung San Suu Kyi, the world avatar for democracy and rights, has not said anything against these excesses.
This perceived cultural fragility seems contrary to what many foreigners believe is a strong and vibrant Burman culture and tradition that has been better preserved there than those in any other state in the region. It may well be, however, that these concerns indicate a more profound and general sense of the need for state control that pervades fields far beyond religion. This includes a government that rigidly controls its economy, centralised control of education, and the monitoring of foreign aid and foreign organisations.
The Western schoolbook approach which views textual Buddhism as pacifistic, meditative and non-violent misses the dynamic of Buddhism in Myanmar as a socio-political force. It is as naive as interpreting the history of Western Europe on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount.
David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University, and Visiting Scholar, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.