Chinthe and Crescent: Ongoing Religious Struggles in Western Myanmar

By James Knight

Publicly understood better as a borderland state between the Asian giants of China and India and the smaller states of Indo-China to the Southeast, Myanmar (Burma) has a rich history all its own.  In recent times however, certain elements of that dense history have returned to haunt the modern Burman state.

 

Context

Over the past millennium, the disparate cultures which constitute the contemporary Republic of the Union of Myanmar have held true to the first major world religion to arrive in the region: Buddhism.  Buddhism, specifically Buddhism of the Theravada school, spread outwards from Tibet and Sri Lanka through trade and missionary work to Burma and beyond to the greater Indo-Chinese peninsula.[1]  To this day, Theravada Buddhism is the majority faith of Thailand and makes up considerable portions of the Buddhist populations in Cambodia, Laos, and Southern China.[2]

Theravada Buddhism, generally regarded as the oldest school of the Buddhist faith, lends an interesting influence to the Burmese culture and the region as a whole.[3]  Just as Myanmar is at a crossroads of Asian geopolitics today, so it has always been.  It has historically been situated between the realms of the Middle Kingdom and the principalities of Northeastern India.  This international power dynamic carries an undertone of religious tension.  The states of India have, for most of Burma’s history as a discernable culture group, followed the ways of Hinduism or Islam, depending upon the specific petty kingdom or principality in question, while the Chinese states to the Northeast have adhered to the ways of Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and the Vajrayana school of Buddhism.[4]

Having been historically surrounded on multiple fronts by opposing belief systems for so long, in a region where conflicts are far from unheard of no less, it’s no surprise that the Buddhists of Burma recognize other faiths today as being potentially threatening to them and the oldest, truest teachings of the Buddhist faith.

The Rakhine state of Myanmar, the nation’s most northern coastal state, historically known as Arakan, is presently witnessing an ongoing tragedy, resulting directly from its historical interaction with neighboring Indian cultures.  To the near Northwest of the Arakanese territories lies the Ganges River Basin, today populated mostly by the contemporary People’s Republic of Bangladesh, and its historically Sunni Islamic inhabitants.  In an age before the common nation-state and internationally recognized borders, culture and territory were considerably more fluid, and bleedover between different societies was a common occurrence, sometimes resulting in violent upheavals.

 

Modern Day

Over time, during any number of different governing regimes in the greater Bengal region and Arakanese territories, Bengali Muslims and other small numbers from the Northwest have gradually migrated South, and vice versa.  Today, a considerable Muslim minority in the Rakhine State exists, and its presence has come to cause a measure of concern for many for many traditional Buddhists in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.[5]

The largest group among these Muslims are known to themselves and the greater Muslim world as the Rohingya.[6]  They have resided in the Northern reaches of Arakan for generations in slowly growing numbers.  Their ancestry primarily originates with the greater Bengali population across the border in modern Bangladesh, around the greater Chittagong area.[7]  In effect, the Rohingya are the primary Indo-Muslim ethnic group claiming nativity to Arakan, while their counterparts, the Rakhine are also claiming nativity to the region as members of the Burman ethnic group.

The recognition and appearance of the Rohingya to most common folk across Myanmar, however, is more complicated.  Beginning in 1982, their persecution as a people would be long and hard.  In the same year, they were collectively striped of citizenship and political representation and dispossessed from common living by military force.[8]  Further still, the government has denied their existence as a distinct minority, referring to them officially and solely as “Bengalis” to emphasize their foreign origins.[9]

Every few years since then, a new season of harsh repression by the government against the Rohingya minority takes place.  In the wake of such actions, the United Nations has termed it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and has declared the Rohingya the most persecuted minority in the world.[10]  Only a fraction of the Rohingya still dwell in the Rakhine state today, compared to the 1970’s and earlier.  Most have been evicted from the area and presently reside in Bangladesh, although small dedicated pockets of their culture may be found around the world.

 

Escalation

About two decades ago, a number of militantly Anti-Muslim Burmans, many among them belonging to Theravada Buddhism, coalesced into an organized body committed to spearheading the dispossession of the resident Muslim communities.  The name they came to be recognized by was the “969 Movement,” so as to represent to iconic Triple Gem of Buddhism; the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (The Teacher/Leader, the Ways of Buddhism, and the greater Buddhist Community).[11]  Its leader, Ashin Wirathu, sometimes referred to as the Buddhist bin Laden, and adherents believe the best way to safeguard the culture and state of Myanmar is to root out all which is alien to the traditional way of Burmese life.[12]  Over time, similar groups with effectively identical agendas have sprung up in Sri Lanka and Thailand and share many political and personal links with the 969 Movement.[13]

Wirathu, having lived through the latter three decades of the 20th Century, has seen the growing turmoil in non-Islamic nations with considerable Islamic populations and conflicts between different Islamic nations.  He grounds his actions and the actions of the 969 Movement in preemptive deterrence in any form necessary against the potentially encroaching threat the formerly-growing Islamic minority within Myanmar.[14]  He stated in a famous 2013 public address:

[The money that you spend at a Muslim-owned shop] will be used to get a Buddhist-Burmese woman and she will very soon be coerced or even forced to convert to Islam.  And the children born of her will become Bengali Muslims and the ultimate danger to our Buddhist nation as they will eventually destroy our race and religion.  Once they become overly populous they will overwhelm us and take over our country and make it an evil Islamic nation.[15]

The 969 Movement shares many close ties with its sister organization, the Ma Ba Tha.  Literally meaning, Members of the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, or in Pali, the Protector of Race and Sasana, the Ma Ba Tha functions as a political front for the underlying and coaxial 969 Movement.[16]  Wirathu and several other popular Theravada monks and public figureheads function directly out of the Ma Ba Tha and work to give the Burmese population a more tangible idea of what the members of the greater 969 Movement do and believe.[17]

The Ma Ba Tha also control large swaths of the media services within Myanmar.  This helps to provide ideological reinforcement of Buddhist-Burmese nationalism and a feedback loop for organizational recruitment.[18]  Campaigns have been waged against Muslim owned stores and enterprises, pushed strongly by individuals like Wirathu, as seen in the above quote, and such campaigns go directly into supporting the ongoing struggle against the Muslims in the North of the country.[19]

 

Conclusion

In a time of transition to a more democratic foundation, such ultra-nationalistic sentiments taking root within the fabric of the culture could, at best, set the nation’s political development back by several years, if not decades, or at worse, produce a fiercely xenophobic, nationalistic nation-state bent on fanatical racial and religious purity.[20]  Fortunately, the pro-conflict, nationalistic segments of the Burmese population are not the only voices present.  While the Ma Ba Tha control the majority of the media, moderates and pacifist Buddhists also hold segments of the public eye and ear.[21]  Where the extremists present draw upon the changing political and social landscape of the nation and the ensuing cultural stress amidst that change, their competition can equally draw upon the idealistically peaceful, brotherly tenants of Buddhist doctrine, though that will likely not be enough.[22]

Furthermore, an interesting element of Theravada Buddhism, popularized by the Ma Ba Tha and the media which may help to give credibility to the 969 Movement as a whole, unknown to other schools of the Buddhist faith, is the conditional acceptability of taking any action, be it political, economic, or popular-military combative, against threats to the Sasana.[23]  The term Sasana may be understood as either the Buddhist religion as a whole or the community.[24]  Such tenants of faith are most curious in a way of life which espouses peace and brotherhood for all mankind.

Nevertheless, the prospects of the Rohingya and other religio-ethnic minorities in Myanmar and the wider world presently look bleak.  Broken refugees flood over the Northern borders into India and Bangladesh every day seeking refuge.[25]  Perhaps it’s time for the Church to dredge itself out of slumbering indecision regarding the region and show them the harshness of this fallen world is not all they may yet find in this life.


James Knight is a student at Liberty University and a Fall Associate at International Christian Concern


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates


[1]. Hema Goonatilake. “Sri Lanka-Myanmar Historical Relations in Religion, Culture and Polity.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, New Series, 55 (2009): 77-79.

[2]. Asanga Tilakaratne. Theravada Buddhism: The View of the Elders. University of Hawai’i Press, 2012.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Kelly Bulkeley. Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History. New York; London: NYU Press, 2008.

[5]. Tun Khin. “Rohingya: A Preventable Genocide Allowed to Happen.” Insight Turkey 19, no. 4 (2017), 43-54.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Ibid., 43-45.

[11]. Peter A. Coclanis. “Terror in Burma: Buddhists vs. Muslims.” World Affairs 176, no. 4 (2013), 27.

[12]. Ibid., 25-26.

[13]. The Daily Mirror. “Video: Ashin Wirathu Thera of Myanmar to work with BBS.” September 28, 2014.  (Accessed September 9, 2019.)

[14]. Michael Jerryson. “Buddhist Cultural Regulations of Violence.” Journal of Religion and Violence 3, no. 3 (2015): 319-26.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Matthew J. Walton, and Susan Hayward. Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar. East-West Center, (2014), 1-20.

[17]. Ibid.

[18]. Ibid., X-XII, 18.

[19]. Ibid., X, 14, 22.

[20]. Ibid., 50-51.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Ibid., 51.

[23]. Ibid., 15, 17, 20-41.

[24]. Ibid., 20-41.

[25]. Tun Khin. “Rohingya: A Preventable Genocide Allowed to Happen,” 44-45.

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