The Rise of Buddhist Ethnonationalism and Military Impunity in Myanmar

 By John Cosenza

I: Introduction

In recent years, Southeast Asia’s Theravada Buddhist community has demonstrated a rise in extremist behavior. Buddhist majority countries experiencing insular ultra-nationalism, which promotes Buddhism while victimizing religious minorities, include Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has drawn a particular cause for concern as the government and civilian population attempt to navigate the murky waters of political transition.

Political liberalization in Myanmar began nearly a decade ago following the end of twenty-two years of military rule. Myanmar’s military willingly withdrew its power and allowed democratic elections to take place in November 2010. Although the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won the November election, President Thein Sein advanced a democratization agenda from 2010 to 2015. Under Sein, government-initiated reforms released political prisoners, legalized trade unions, allowed political gatherings in public locations and loosened media censorship.[1] Moreover, a second election in 2015 resulted in a sweeping victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. However, despite these steps towards democratization, Myanmar has been troubled by an upsurge in extremist nationalism within its Buddhist-dominated population, government and military.

Over the last five years, Myanmar’s internal conflicts—notably the ongoing war between Myanmar’s military and the Rohingya Muslim community—have attracted international attention. While this conflict officially dates back to October 2016, “when the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked Myanmar’s border check-posts and killed 13 security personnel,”[2] Iftekharul Bashar asserts the conflict “can be traced to the earlier days of Myanmar’s independence”[3] and is closely linked to the Rohingya’s desire for legal recognition of their ethnic identity and citizenship. The Rohingya’s struggle for legal recognition is shared by other religious minority communities including Myanmar’s Christian population. Similar to the Rohingya, Myanmar’s Christians struggles with systemic persecution ranging from land disputes to extreme acts of violence.

Several reactionary journalists and scholars argue that two factors currently facilitate the systematic persecution of Myanmar’s religious minority communities; the adoption and exertion of Buddhist ethnonationalism and the lack of accountability on Myanmar’s government and military. The Rohingya and Christian fight for freedom in Myanmar extends beyond a need for legal recognition. It demands religious freedom, socio-economic freedom, political freedom and perhaps most importantly, it demands the end of military impunity.

The following analysis seeks to advance this argument in three ways. First, it will review a history of violence in Theravada Buddhism to help explain the origins of Myanmar’s contemporary ethnonationalist movement. Second, it will cite far-reaching examples of anti-Christian and anti-Muslim persecution that can be linked to extremist Buddhist sentiment. Lastly, this analysis will highlight the prominent correlation between ethnic victimization and military impunity in Myanmar.


II: The Rise of Theravada Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar: A Historical Analysis

In Theravada Buddhism and Buddhist Nationalism: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand, Professor of Anthropology Charles Keyes says Theravada Buddhism became the “fundamental basis for political orders in both Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia”[4] from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. This three-hundred-year period witnessed a revolution by the sangha, or Buddhist clergy class, who subjected themselves to the ancient discipline first established by Buddha. The Buddhist clergy transformed the religion into a popular movement by establishing centers of power and representing vernacular literatures through the embodiment of rituals practiced in villages and monasteries.[5]

Throughout Southeast Asia, a Buddhist model known as the “Two Wheels of Dhamma” gained prominence and granted political leaders the same responsibility as monks in the perpetuation and dissemination of Buddhist teachings.[6] The “Two Wheels of Dhamma” model, also known as the Aśokan model, was emulated in all Theravadin societies and became fully institutionalized by the nineteenth century.

Southeast Asia’s political class and structure became intertwined with the Buddhist doctrine during this period. Rulers of Buddhist kingdoms financially supported the sangha class to ensure they properly adhered to Buddhist disciplines and to prevent divisions among their subjects. In turn, Theravadin Buddhist monarchs often justified violence to expand their power well into the nineteenth century in Sri Lanka and Burma. Keyes argues that “violence justified by religion has probably existed since Buddhism first became a religion supported by state authorities”[7] and points to the wars experienced during this time.[8] According to Keyes, “Sri Lanka was beset by almost perpetual wars throughout this period, and on at least two occasions the political turmoil led to the nearly total disappearance of the sangha” while there was almost “constant warfare between the Burman and Siamese empires and between these empires and the smaller principalities that surrounded them.”[9]

Peace was temporarily achieved in the nineteenth century following the British conquest of Sri Lanka and Burma and the establishment of French Indochina. However, the introduction of colonialism, capitalism, western science and Christianity directly challenged Buddhist hegemony and called into question the legitimacy of the Aśokan model. The indigenous Buddhist populations of Burma and Sri Lanka naturally resented colonialist ambitions and conceived a reactionary ethnonationalist movement that would take hold in later generations. Charles Keyes and other scholars including Amresh Gunasingham and Rachel Fleming support this theory in each of their texts. Keyes maintains that “the establishment of a colonial order by the British created a crisis of order that has yet to be fully resolved.”[10] In Buddhist Extremism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar: An Examination, Gunasingham investigates violent incidents in Sri Lanka and Myanmar perpetrated by hardline Buddhist groups and draws a similar conclusion to Keyes.

According to Gunasingham, an ultra-nationalist strand of Theravada Buddhism is on the rise. Gunasingham notes that “Sri Lanka and Myanmar are bound by common historical circumstances that witnessed Buddhist revivalist movements fueling ethno-nationalistic sentiments as a response to colonial occupation.”[11] In response to colonialism, Gunasingham suggests Buddhist majorities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar adopted the notion that Buddhism was under siege and threatened elimination. This rhetoric, continues Gunasingham, is derived “from distorted interpretations of Theravada Buddhism scriptures, which elevate the preservation and defence of Buddhism above other traditional Buddhist values such as peace and compassion. The defence of one’s religion has also evolved from key themes related to cultural, national and ethnic identity.”[12] Gunasingham contends this narrative continues to be exploited by hardline Buddhist organizations in Myanmar to advocate the protection and promotion of Buddhism and the state against perceived threats from within and outside the country.[13]

Rachel Fleming’s report on behalf of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom titled Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma echoes this argument. In Fleming’s introductory analysis she quotes, “the notion of protecting race and religion in Myanmar harks back to the anti-colonialist, nationalist motto a myo bat ha tha thatana, calling on ethnic Burmans to protect their race, language, and religion”[14] Fleming explains this motto can be loosely translated to “to be Myanmar is to be Buddhist” and is a maxim “that can be traced back centuries to the founding of the first Burman kingdom when Buddhism was first established as the state religion.”[15] The call to protect Buddhist identity was eagerly accepted by Burma’s majority Buddhist population and military during the colonialist era and persisted.

It was not until 1947, after Great Britain broke ties with Burma, that pro-independence leader General Aung San led a campaign against this insular ideology. In February 1947 General San proposed a secular vision for the new Union of Burma: a federal union based on the principles of equality and self-determination for different ethnic groups.[16] However, General San was assassinated later that year and his revolutionary vision for Burma died with him.

In 1961 Burma’s Prime Minister U Nu inherited the Buddhist nationalist movement and drafted a new unitary Constitution, which formally established Buddhism as the state-sponsored religion.[17] One year later, Burma’s military leaders successfully overthrew the fragile government and continued to stoke the fire of ethnonationalism. The military government led campaigns against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and portrayed “Christianity as a foreign religion brought in under colonial rule.”[18] Moreover, from 1988 until 2010, Burma’s State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council (SLORC/SPDC) military regime took up the mantle of Buddhist nationalism and aggressively promoted “an unwritten, chauvinistic policy of one nation, one race, and one religion.”[19]

Although Theravada Buddhism has historically been leveraged to justify conflict and religious expansion, it is evident the contemporary Buddhist nationalist movement among Myanmar’s population and military can trace it roots to European colonialism. In 2004, Myanmar’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, U Khin Maung Win, declared “Myanmar is a Union composed of more than one hundred different national races, each with its own culture and traditions. Unfortunately, the divide and rule policy practiced by the British colonialists resulted in suspicion and discord among the national races.”[20] The suspicion and discord brought on by colonialism continues to permeate Myanmar’s society to this day and has directly advanced the rise in Buddhist ethnonationalism and persecution of religious minorities.


III: Anti-Christian and Muslim Persecution in Myanmar

A: Systemic Targeting of Myanmar’s Christian and Muslim Communities

Myanmar’s Christian and Muslim populations mostly reside in the country’s peripheries among ethnic minority communities such as the Karen, Kachin, Chin, Karenni Lahu and Naga.[21] Journalist Hollie McKay investigates war torn nations across the globe and discusses Myanmar’s Christian and Muslim diasporas in Myanmar Persecutes Christians, Too. According to McKay, Myanmar’s military has systematically attacked and displaced religious ethnic minorities across the nation. McKay highlights the military’s methodical “targeting of minority groups in fringe states”[22] including the Rohingya in the west and the Kachin in the north. Myanmar’s military has since broadened its scope and is currently threatening the Karen people in the east as well.”[23]

Everyday acts of discrimination include the destruction of churches, the desecration of Christian sanctuaries, and acts of violence inside church property. Over 130,000 Kachin, more than 90% of whom are Christian, have been displaced within their state since the summer of 2018.[24] Additionally, some 60 churches are reported to have been bulldozed by Myanmar’s military during this time.

During her investigation, McKay interviewed Ephraim Mattos, East Asia Operations Manager for The Nazarene Fund, a humanitarian group that supports persecuted Christian communities across the globe. During her interview with Mattos, McKay learned “Christianity is under direct attack by the Burma Army. Christians have repeatedly been singled out for rape, torture and death over the course of this war, and that trend is continuing.”[25] Mattos also discussed the link between Buddhist nationalism and Christian persecution during the interview. He continues, “In Burma, if you don’t fall into the category of being Buddhist and ethnic Burmese, then you are considered second-class, and not worthy of the full rights of a citizen.”[26]

Secretary General of the Karen National Union, a political organization representing ethnic minorities in Myanmar’s southern Karen state similarly told McKay “to the government and military, it is one language, one literacy, one religion.”[27] McKay notes the military typically withdraws their forces during summer months in preparation for the monsoon season. However, despite this temporary respite for Myanmar’s Christian and Muslim communities, it is simply a matter of when the military will return and continue to commit atrocities.[28]

B: Political and Civil Service Discrimination

In addition to systemic violence Myanmar’s Christian and Muslim communities struggle with political and civil discrimination as well. International Crisis Group, a non-government organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict, investigates such discrimination in their report, Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar. A portion of their research focuses on the extremist ‘Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion,’ commonly referred to as MaBaTha,[29] and their political influence. International Crisis Group provides a nuanced understanding of the activities of MaBaTha and other nationalist groups as well as the motivations and views of its members and supporters. This qualitative analysis includes detailed research and in-depth interviews with high ranking members of MaBaTha and other nationalist groups supported by Buddhist monks and nuns.[30]

One of International Crisis Group’s key findings is in regards to the origins of Myanmar’s Buddhist ethnonationalist movement, which today “is informed by the country’s historical legacy, particularly colonization. There is also a strong millenarian current in Theravada Buddhism that the religion will inevitably decline and disappear. This created an imperative for members of the monastic community to lead pious and patriotic laymen and women in a campaign of virtuous defence.”[31]

International Crisis Group claims MaBaTha’s clergy members and military supporters adopted Buddhist nationalism and campaigned to pass new laws based on one’s race or religion. After MaBaTha’s substantial lobbying effort, four ‘Race and Religion Laws’ were enacted in May and August of 2015 including the Population Control Law, the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law, the Religious Conversion Law and the Monogamy Law. Each law drew considerable international attention, “as they appeared to have discriminatory intent and to be targeted at Muslims.”[32] However, Christians have also strongly opposed The Religious Conversion Law as it unlawfully restricts the right to freely choose a religion, interferes with proselytizing and can be leveraged to bring forth criminal charges.

General Secretary of the Chin Baptist Convention states, “some Buddhists want to convert, they tell us they want to be Christian, but they are afraid of this law. People are afraid of choosing their own religion.”[33] To make matters worse, the NLD party defended the four laws before the United Nation’s committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.[34] This has directly affected minorities’ ability to participate in Myanmar’s civil service and political sectors.

In Kachin, Naga and Chin, Christians have reportedly been overlooked for promotion within civil service positions and other government occupations in favor of Buddhists. If Christians do hold government positions, they often face backlash if they refuse to support Buddhist activities; in one case, Buddhist government officials used a portion of Christian civil servants salaries’ to organize Buddhist New Year celebrations.[35] Many Christians are tempted to quit their positions in the civil service sector while working under these conditions.

MaBaTha’s campaigns have also legitimized political discrimination as an everyday practice. Iselin Frydenlund, an Associate Professor in Religious Studies at the Norwegian School of Theology and research scholar at The Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO), investigates MaBaTha’s impact on political participation in Are Myanmar’s Monks Hindering Democratisation? In 2015, MaBaTha officially supported the military-backed USDP party and urged their followers “to not vote for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, on the grounds that it is allegedly too Muslim-Friendly.”[36] Frydenlund specifically points to political discrimination demonstrated in Myanmar’s 2015 elections when Muslims ran for office but “were declared ineligible to stand for election.”[37] In fact, the NLD party did not field a single Muslim individual among its 1,100 electoral candidates.

When confronted about the lack of Muslim representation, NLD spokesperson Win Htein responded by stating “If we choose Muslim candidates, MaBaTha points their fingers at us so we have to avoid it.” Although Muslim candidates ran for other parties, none were elected, resulting in no Muslim representation in the Union parliament for the very first time.

C: Educational Discrimination

Over the course of Myanmar’s history, Buddhist Monks and Nuns have practiced a longstanding tradition of providing education for underprivileged and rural communities. Monastic education was regularly practiced during the pre-colonial period and remains a cornerstone of ethnonationalist activities today. In 2012, MaBaTha founded the Dhamma School Foundation, which operates a large network of Buddhist Sunday schools across the country. More recently, MaBaTha sponsored a high school in the Yangon region founded in 2016. Both institutions follow the standard high school curriculum, but “also includes Buddhist cultural and civic education taught by monks. A second such school is reportedly in the making near Mandalay.”[38]

Mandy Sadan, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental African Studies, discusses ethnonationalism within Myanmar’s education system in Reflections on Building an Inclusive Higher Education System in Myanmar. In this text, Sadan analyses the relationship between education in Myanmar and ethnic conflict and states there is a “perception that border areas are populated by ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ people – all of which act as metaphors for the ‘uneducated’ – the early leadership roles of many ethno-nationalist elites were in fact formed through networks created in the general and higher education system of Burma in the 1950s and 1960s.”[39] The presence of ethnonationalists such as MaBaTha throughout Myanmar’s education system and their ties to government officials limits Christian and Muslim communities from accessing basic education needs.

In Rakhine, for example, Muslim students are forbidden to set foot on Sittwe University’s campus, the only government-owned university in the entire state. Armed police patrol the university’s main entrance, along with civilian guards to ensure no Muslims enter. Joshua Carroll, journalist for Al Jazeera, argues the barring of Rohingya students from Sittwe University comes from the government “with officials justifying the policy as a way to prevent violence. They claim that if the two religions mix, then clashes could erupt.”[40] This government approved policy, Carroll continues, has significantly hindered educational opportunities for Rakhine’s Muslims and has left their community dispirited.

In an interview Khin Maung Myint, a former Rohingya student, explains “I have no ambition now. I’ve lost everything. I don’t think after the violence the two different religions can study together again in the same class. We don’t seem likely to have a good relationship with them in the future.”[41]

In A Lost Generation of Rohingya Grows up Without Education, journalist Tun Khin tells a similar story. While writing this piece, Khin was stationed in Bangladesh and pursued the opportunity to interview Muslim refugees from Rakhine. One interviewee named Mohammed was a former student in Myanmar who was forced to flee following a vicious attack carried out by the military. Mohammed tells Khin that educational segregation significantly increased since 2012, when state sponsored violence overwhelmingly targeted his community. Since then, “authorities started segregating previously mixed Buddhist-Muslim schools, leaving many Rohingya in separate education facilities where the quality of teaching and materials are extremely poor.”[42] Moreover, many government teachers refuse to work in Rohingya schools and those that do agree frequently subject their students to humiliation or neglect. Mohammed was personally placed in a separate classroom due to Muslim ethnicity and was often called ‘Kalar’, a pejorative term for Rohingya by his teacher.[43]

Such instances are mirrored in Christian communities too. In Civics Education in Primary Schools is a Lesson in Discrimination, Su Myat Mon calls attention to an ethnonationalist curriculum in a primary school located in the Yangon Region of Myanmar. Mon shares personal stories from members of the Christian community; one mother of three expresses her concern with the school’s curriculum and how it may potentially impact her children’s views of Christianity, particularly in a broader context of rising Buddhist nationalist sentiment. According to Mon, young students are required to recite poems “that said children had a responsibility to maintain the dignity of one’s own race and avoid having one’s race swallowed by another. The poem also contained the line ‘we hate mixed blood, it will make a race extinct.’”[44]

Critics of the Ministry of Education’s civics education curriculum argue the government is attempting to indoctrinate the innocent minds of children with discriminatory policies. Such criticism is warranted given that the curriculum contradicts section 348 of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth.[45]

Government institutions like the Ministry of Education are primary drivers of educational discrimination. The Union government is known to ignore the needs of rural communities by not financing proper education facilities, health services or basic infrastructure necessary to transport students. Indeed, “chronic underfunding of the mainstream state education system and teacher shortages – particularly in remote areas – means families must typically pay costs such as annual fees, school materials, and supplementary income for teachers.”[46] Financial pressures to cover these costs are often beyond the means of many Christian families living in rural communities beset by abject poverty.

Rachel Fleming describes one way in which Christian children can access education within the government-funded Na Ta La system. The Na Ta La system was opened by the Ministry of Border Affairs and essentially operates as boarding schools, as they provide accommodation and cover all associated costs. While Christian student can be accepted, Fleming states they are systematically prevented from practicing their faith and are “effectively required to convert to Buddhism. Buddhist literature and culture are taught on Saturdays, and on Sundays children are taught ‘Union Spirit,’ which is essentially pro-military propaganda and includes singing nationalistic songs.” Unfortunately, Myanmar’s educational institutions have prioritized the promotion of Buddhist nationalism over its responsibility to provide equal access to non-biased education.


IV: Myanmar’s Unaccountable Military  

Political leaders, non-government organizations, human rights activists and other invested stakeholders have rightly criticized Myanmar’s government and military in response to the aforementioned atrocities. With such backlash, many find themselves questioning how systemic persecution of ethnic minority groups continues. Yet, the answer is actually quite simple; Myanmar’s Military has and continues to operate with the utmost impunity.

It is important to remember that Myanmar’s military and political structure are two sides of the same coin. The Military only recently relinquished its power after losing the democratic election of 2015 to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party. However, the Military established the framework in which democratization could function during the transition period and, therefore, remains a solid institution with strong political and cultural ties.

Military impunity is compounded by an unwillingness of Myanmar’s prominent politicians to confront or criticize military action and is often cited as an attempt to avoid further destabilization of the state. The enduring, constitutionally entrenched power of the military and its impunity are key factors in understanding the persecution of religious minority groups. In Coming to Terms with Moral Authority in Myanmar, scholars Justine Chambers and Nick Cheesman explore the origins of moral authority in Myanmar’s military. According to Chambers and Cheesman, the military has historically “drew on Buddhist ideas, language and materials to persuade a predominantly Buddhist population, and its own personnel, of the righteousness of its rule.”[47]

From the outset of their reign dating back to the 1960s, the military’s Buddhist moral universe encompassed political order and set guidelines for how authoirites should act and for the circumstances under which people could challenge them.[48] Unsurprisingly, this framework endured following the 2010 and 2015 elections.

Catherine Renshaw advances this argument in Myanmar’s Transition Without Justice. Renshaw begins her discussion analyzing the dynamics of Myanmar’s transition to democracy and explains why major political actors did not seek transitional justice after the 2010 election. From the military’s perspective, Crenshaw argues, transitional success depended on factors including “guarantees about preserving the autonomy of the military and a political role for the military in the life of the state” and a “guarantee that there would be no prosecution of military officers for crimes committed while the military was in power.”[49] Indeed, between 2010 and 2015, political transition to the duly elected NLD party proceeded in accordance with the script laid out by the military; the new government’s strongest claim to credibility – both domestically and internationally – was Suu Kyi’s endorsement of the government’s plan for democratization.[50]

With Suu Kyi’s endorsement secured, the military pressed forward and ensured that all political reforms would take place under “the framework of the 2008 constitution, which preserves a central political role for the military.”[51] Few politicians or civilians are willing to contest the military’s authority to this day.

Since assuming her role as the central figurehead of Myanmar’s political body, Suu Kyi has consistently reassured the military that she does not wish to see the prosecution of military officers for acts committed during the military’s reign nor does she want to see anyone in the military stand trial for human rights violations. The unwillingness of Su Kyi and her political allies to hold Myanmar’s military accountable has directly enabled the persecution of the state’s religious minorities. The fear of combatting military authority and risking political destabilization has crippled the NLD and any efforts to hold anyone accountable for these atrocities.

Later in her analysis, Renshaw discusses the rape and murder of two female schoolteachers and members of the Kachin Baptist Convention, Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, in January 2015. The two victims were Christian and belonged to the Kachin religious minority community that resides in Northern Myanmar. Their suspected perpetrators, two members of the military’s Light Infantry Battalion 503, were never pursued nor faced any legal ramifications.[52] Renshaw argues the “inadequate police investigation into the case highlighted the fact that Myanmar’s democratization, which began in 2010 with the election of a nominally civilian government, had not ended military impunity.”[53]

Rachel Fleming, in addition to other scholars, put forward the same argument. Fleming indicates that “The military continues to perpetrate grave human rights violations with near total impunity, including sexual violence in church compounds and the torture of pastors, church workers, and ordinary civilians.”[54] Fleming similarly indicates the military leverages constitutional provisions to ensure its activities are beyond civilian control. Such provisions include a mandatory 25% quota of parliamentary seats being reserved for military appointees as well as control of powerful government institutions including the ministries of Defense, Border Affairs and Home affairs.

Five out of eleven seats on the National Defense and Security council are held by members of the military and “Article 445 of the Constitution enshrines impunity for the armed forces.”[55] In the eyes of Fleming, the military’s political presence and authority underscores significant challenges facing Suu Kyi’s NLD government: notably bringing the military under civilian control and advancing substantial reforms to ensure religious freedom for all in law, policy and practice. Until Suu Kyi and the NLD party begin to address Buddhist nationalism within the military and challenge its far-reaching authority, human atrocities will continue to be committed.


V: Conclusion: Recommendations to the United States and Myanmar Governments

Myanmar’s ethnic minority and religious communities suffer due to the promotion of Buddhist ethnonationalism, which results in egregious human rights violations across the country. Theravada Buddhism has historically included a nationalist militant wing and has justified violence in response to the encroachment of other religions or cultures. Buddhist nationalism was exasperated during Britain’s conquest of Myanmar following the introduction of foreign cultural practices and Christianity.

Although political democratization did take hold from 2010 to 2015, many political and authority figures continue to maintain the ethnonationalist movement conceived during the colonial era and weaponize Buddhism to promote a ‘one race state.’ One of the major challenges facing the NLD party is convincing Myanmar’s majority Buddhist population to coexist with religious minority communities and bringing the armed forces under civilian control to end military impunity.

The remaining portion of this analysis presents recommendations – to the United States and Myanmar governments – with the hopes of encouraging an international coalition to address, and one day end, the human rights violations that Myanmar’s Christian and Muslim communities suffer with on a daily basis.

A: Recommendations to the Government of Myanmar

  • Appropriately allocate state funds to finance basic infrastructure development across Myanmar’s periphery states such as Rakhine, Naga, Chin, Kachin and Karen. These rural communities are in desperate need of roads, bridges and other basic infrastructure to support the construction of educational and health facilities. Alleviating these needs can help lift ethnic and religious minority communities out of abject poverty.
  • Consider removing pro-Buddhist sentiment from the public education curriculum. Encouraging this kind of nationalistic ideology in young children will likely produce more generations of Burmese citizens who willingly accept and exert Buddhist ethnonationalism at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities. If this cannot be wholly removed, do not force children of different backgrounds to recite, partake or practice forms of Buddhist worship.
  • Renegotiate the framework put in place by the military following the 2010 and 2015 elections. It is unlikely various insurgent groups across Myanmar will pursue a ceasefire or peace negotiations if their perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions. If the risk of destabilization is too great, then a new deal must be struck in which the military must be held accountable for all future actions. Peace will never be achieved if military impunity persists or is unchallenged.
  • In the absence of a new deal with the military, take steps to end violence and human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities. This includes the investigation and persecution of human rights violators including members of the military, MaBaTha and other ultra-nationalist groups. Putting pressure on such groups may help bring an end to the culture of impunity.
  • Coordinate and enable international coalitions with various political leaders such as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback. Such experts can provide technical expertise on constitutional and religious freedom reforms.

B: Recommendations to the Government of the United States

  • Continue to designate Myanmar as a country of concern regarding religious freedom violations. Under the leadership of the United States, the international community must recognize the egregious human rights and religious freedom violations taking place in Myanmar. Moreover, the United States must continue to recognize Myanmar a country of particular concern until concerted efforts are made to curtail religious freedom violations.
  • Coordinate roundtable discussions between Myanmar’s military leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders from the National League for Democracy party. Encourage both parties to reconcile their differences and rework the framework established after the 2010 and 2015 elections. The United States can help establish a mutual agreement that benefits both parties, which in turn, may help reduce human rights violations and end the culture of impunity.
  • Allocate funds to support religious minority communities throughout Myanmar. Such funds can be leveraged to address infrastructure, educational and other socio-economic concerns among impoverished religious minority communities.
  • Schedule a series of meetings between Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback, Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders from the National League for Democracy party. This coalition, under the guidance and expertise of Ambassador Brownback, can devise a step by step plan to introduce and execute religious freedom reforms.
  • Invite Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders from the National League for Democracy party to the International Religious Freedom Roundtable and the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Invitations to both events can strengthen the United States’ relationship with Myanmar and provide opportunities for Myanmar’s political figureheads to learn effective methodologies in reducing religious freedom and human rights violations.

John Cosenza is a Market Research Analyst at Zitter Health Insights as well as a part time Research Consultant at the Mitchell Firm, a Washington D.C. based lobbying and consultancy firm. John graduated from Marist College with a dual degree in History & Political Science and graduated from Norwich University with a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy & International Business. John is an experienced professional with a unique combination of primary and secondary research skills as well as writing skills. He has experience working in the private and non-profit sector conducting secondary, qualitative, and quantitative research for multiple organizations including the world’s largest marketing and advertising agency, an international marketing consultancy firm, and a Washington, D.C. based Non-Government Organization (NGO). In addition to his research, John has co-authored multiple articles with Mr. John T. Pinna of the Mitchell firm focusing on international human rights issues and international religious persecution. John continues to work with political, think tank, and NGO leaders in the Washington D.C. metro area to advocate for international religious freedom. He can be reached at or

[1] Renshaw, Catherine (2019). “Civil Society and Transitional Justice in Asia and the Pacific: Myanmar’s Transition Without Justice.” Australian National University Press, (2019).

[2] Bashar, Iftekharul (2019). “Rohingya Crisis and Western Myanmar’s Evolving Threat Landscape.” Journal of International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, Vol. 11, No. 6 (June 2019). According to Bashar, the war remains a low intensity conflict as of May 2019 but has resulted in a protracted refugee crisis for 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims stranded in Bangladesh.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Keyes, Charles (2016). “Theravada Buddhism and Buddhist Nationalism: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand.” The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Volume 14, Issue 4, (2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gunasingham, Amresh (2019.) Buddhist Extremism in Sri Lank and Myanmar: An Examination.” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses¸ Vol. 11, No. 3 (2019).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Fleming, Rachel (2016). “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma.” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, (December 2016).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Renshaw, Catherine (2019). “Civil Society and Transitional Justice in Asia and the Pacific: Myanmar’s Transition Without Justice.” Australian National University Press, (2019).

[21] McKay, Hollie (2018). “Myanmar Persecutes Christians, Too.” Wall Street Journal, (December 6th, 2018).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] McKay, Hollie (2018). “With World’s Attention on Rohingya Muslims, Christians in Burma Also Face Brutal Persecution.” Fox News, (August 17th, 2018).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] International Crisis Group (2017). “Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar.” International Crisis Group, (September 5th, 2017).

[30] Ibid. The report also includes interviews with women’s groups that support MaBaTha, high ranking members of the National league for Democracy party and civil society and human rights activists. The research also draws on Crisis Group observations of MaBaTha events and outreach activities, including rallies, dispute resolution activities, civic education and gathering of signatures for petitions.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Fleming, Rachel (2016). “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma.” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, (December 2016).

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Frydenlund, Iselin (2015). “Are Myanmar’s Monks Hindering Democratisation?” East Asia Forum: Economics, Politics and Public Policy in East Asia and the Pacific (2015).

[37] Ibid.

[38] International Crisis Group (2017). “Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar.” International Crisis Group, (September 5th, 2017).

[39] Sadan, Mandy, (2014). “Reflections on Building an Inclusive Higher Education System in Myanmar.” British Academy Review, (Summer 2014).

[40] Carroll, Joshua (2014). “Myanmar’s Rohingya Deprived of Education.” Al Jazeera, (August 4th, 2014).

[41] Ibid.

[42] Khin, Tun (2018). “A Lost Generation of Rohingya Grows up Without Education.” The Diplomat, (December 22nd, 2018).  

[43] Ibid.

[44] Mon, Su Myat (2019). “Civics Education in Primary Schools is a Lesson in Discrimination.” Frontier Myanmar, (February 5th, 2019).

[45] Ibid.

[46] Fleming, Rachel (2016). “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma.” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, (December 2016).

[47] Chambers, Justine; Cheesman, Nick (2019). “Introduction: Coming to Terms with Moral Authorities in Myanmar.” Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Vol. 34, No. 2 (July 2019).

[48] Ibid.

[49] Renshaw, Catherine (2019). “Civil Society and Transitional Justice in Asia and the Pacific: Myanmar’s Transition Without Justice.” Australian National University Press, (2019).

[50] Ibid

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Fleming, Rachel (2016). “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma.” United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, (December 2016).

[55] Ibid.

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.

ICC is on a mission to help persecuted Christians. Will you join us?