Burma plays the race card

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Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has extolled Buddhism for allowing her a sense of inner freedom during her 15 years of house arrest. She’s also said that Buddhist precepts can guide her country’s democratic transition, encouraging reconciliation with the military instead of anger and revenge.

But the more nationalistic face of this Buddhist tradition, brought into focus by recent violence directed against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, could yet derail democratic reforms in Myanmar (also known as Burma).

In fact, Suu Kyi has a Buddhism problem, specifically the chauvinism and xenophobia of Burma’s Theravada Buddhist culture, which encourages a sense of racial and religious superiority among majority ethnic Burmese Buddhists (60% of the population) at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities. The resulting tensions could leave the country politically fragmented and strengthen the military’s hand just as it has been forced to loosen its grip.


This is why Derek Mitchell, the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in 22 years, was right in August to call the fate of the ethnic nationalities the country’s “defining challenge.” It is also why this issue should be on the top of the agenda this week when Suu Kyi comes to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. So far, Suu Kyi’s response to treatment of the stateless Rohingya Muslims in Burma has been disappointing.

The anti-Rohingya violence, which took place in June, led to scores of deaths, the burning of settlements and a refugee exodus of 90,000 people into neighboring Bangladesh. There, more than 200,000 refugees from Burma still languish in makeshift camps from the last anti-Rohingya pogrom 20 years ago. According to the United Nations, the Rohingyas, who number about 800,000 worldwide, are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

They are subject to forced labor, extortion, police harassment, movement restrictions, land confiscation, a de facto one-child policy and limited access to jobs, education and healthcare. A 1982 Burmese law denies them citizenship, based on the presumption that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Burma for generations. There’s also their darker skin color, which makes them “ugly as ogres” by comparison to the “fair and soft” complexion of native Burmese, as a Burmese consul general stated in 2009.

Burmese President Thein Sein has said that the solution to the Rohingya problem is to put them into internal U.N.-administered camps, or to expel them. This proposal already has enhanced his popularity as a defender of the Buddhist faith, with monks taking to the streets in support.

But other minorities have been put-upon by Buddhist nationalism too, which views them as threats to “the land, the race and the religion.” Many of these groups, such as the Karen, the Shan, the Mon and the Kachin, have been in a state of rebellion off and on against the central government since Burma gained independence in 1948.

Buddhism played a key role in undermining the military’s grip on power. Opposition of monks to the regime, which boiled over in 2007’s Saffron Revolution, posed a significant challenge to the military’s popular legitimacy by depicting it as an enemy of Buddha sasana, or righteous moral rule. To deflect that challenge, the government has played the race card, largely through propaganda stressing that Buddhism is the religion of “true Burmese” and that the health and purity of a uniquely Burmese form of Buddhism are at risk from “outside” contamination.


Although this strategy wasn’t successful enough to fend off assaults on the military’s legitimacy, it was effective at feeding Buddhist chauvinism and insecurity. The result has been a rising tide of nationalism in which the Buddhist majority might rally behind Suu Kyi and her monastic allies for greater democratic rights, but still sees other groups in a subordinate and often racist light.

As the violence against the Rohingyas played out, the newly liberated Internet lit up with racist invective. Using a pejorative for the darker-skinned Muslims, one commenter declared, “We should kill all the Kalars in Burma or banish them, otherwise Buddhism will cease to exist.” A nationalist group set up a Facebook page entitled “Kalar Beheading Gang,” which attracted 600 “likes” by mid-June. Meanwhile, monks in Rakhine state distributed pamphlets urging Buddhists not to associate with Rohingyas.

In Europe in June to receive her belated Nobel Peace Prize as the crisis peaked, Suu Kyi seemed at a loss to respond. Asked whether the Rohingya should be treated as Burmese citizens, she answered, “I do not know,” followed by an equivocating statement about citizenship laws and the need for border vigilance. Neither she nor her National League for Democracy party denounced the attacks or the racist vitriol that followed them. NLD spokesman Nyan Win simply said: “The Rohingya are not our citizens.”

This response left many Burma-watchers disheartened. But Maung Zarni, a Burmese research fellow at the London School of Economics, explained: “Politically, Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on this. She is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She’s a politician, and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote.”

Suu Kyi has since established minority rights as a priority, citing it in July in her first speech in Parliament, though without mentioning the Rohingya specifically.

A failure to manage ethnic and religious tensions long held in check by military authoritarianism invites dark scenarios. In some assessments, Burma could fragment, a la Yugoslavia. The specter of “disorder,” which the military has historically used to justify its heavy-handedness, could lead it to slow the pace of reform or even roll it back. In 1962, minority unrest, significantly provoked by the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion, set the stage for the coup that led to 50 years of military misrule and international isolation.


Suu Kyi wrote in a 1985 academic monograph that in the Burmese “racial psyche,” Buddhism “represents the perfected philosophy. It therefore follows that there [is] no need to either develop it further or to consider other philosophies.” In her bid to forge a sense of national identity for all Burmese, that cultural obduracy is not working in Suu Kyi’s favor.

William McGowan is author of several books, including “Only Man Is Vile: The Tragedy of Sri Lanka.”