Flaming Golden Land with Discrimination Against Islam Population in Myanmar


                  Myanmar is a country of diverse religions and ethnicities. With its diversity, Myanmar has been a conflict-prone country since its independence. Among those conflicts, Myanmar represents a case with a long history of conflicts between the Buddhist Rakhine population and the Muslim Rohingya population. In 2017, communal violence between the Buddhist majority led by the nationalist Buddhist military and Rohingya Muslims took place, which led to the deaths of at least 6,700 Rohingya, including 730 children (BBC news, 2020). The international community, including the United Nations, describes those atrocities against the Rohingya population as genocide (UN Expert Demands Accountability for the Rohingya and an End to ‘Paralysis of Indifference’, 2023). 

                 Since British colonization, Myanmar has faced a deadly conflict between Muslim and Buddhist populations. However, empirical study of the conflict from existing theoretical understandings has been missing for a long time. There are theoretical understandings relating to conflicts of identities but empirical and deep study of those theories on religious conflicts in Myanmar. In the religious conflicts in Myanmar, religious actors and institutions themselves take part in the conflict as spreaders of hatred. The majority of Buddhist populations target the Muslim population with that hatred because of symbolic threat perceptions, growing and united populations of Islamic countries around the globe, and the global trend of Islamophobia. This paper will explore why the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslims is more salient and led to the deadly and bloodshed conflict in Myanmar by using diverse theoretical backgrounds because empirical approaches toward violent conflict between Buddhism and Islam are needed.

The cleavage between the Buddhist majority and the Islam minority is deepening in Myanmar, although there are four major religions; Buddhism, Christianity, Hindu, and Islam. The remedy to that polarization is to address the root causes of the conflict. Although the government of Myanmar forms independent commissions to investigate the causes of the conflict after every violent incident, the reports of the commissions always highlight developmental issues, inequality of economic opportunities, deficiencies in rule of law, and lack of education  (Anwary, 2018) (the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, 2017).

                 However, the lack of theoretical assessment of the root causes of the conflict hinders the formulation of effective conflict resolution methods.  This paper will explore why the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslims is more salient and how the discourses of Buddhist Ultranationalists targeted Islam Population in Myanmar.

The salience of the cleavages

                 In this research, the theoretical framework developed by Posner (2004) is utilized to understand the dynamics of political and social cleavages based on group sizes. Posner’s analysis, originally conducted within the context of the Chewa-Tumbuka ethnic divisions in Malawi and Zambia, suggests that the salience of such cleavages is heightened when the group sizes are sufficiently large to serve as bases for political and social competition. While Posner’s study primarily addresses ethnic cleavages, the principles derived from his findings are applicable to the religious cleavages observed in Myanmar, particularly between Buddhists and Muslims. This application of Posner’s framework is essential as it aids in comprehending how identities become politically mobilized in contexts of significant intergroup rivalry.

                Posner (2004)’s work has less explanation relating to the religious conflict in Myanmar. Considering the demographic data of Myanmar, the Christian populations are larger than Muslims (The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 2014). Therefore, according to Posner (2004), the salience between the cleavages of Buddhists and Christians should be salient. In contrast, the cleavage between Buddhists and Muslims has led to deadly and bloodshed riots and conflicts throughout Myanmar in 1938, 1997, 2001, 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively (Walton & Hayward, 2014). Therefore, the cleavages between Buddhists and Muslims are the most salient and lead to the genocide of Rohingya populations.

               There are two other possible causes to trace the causing factors of the salience of cleavages between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. First, Corrigan (2007) argued that religious ideologies and institutions play the background that inflames the condition of the performance of hatred by groups and individuals. Religions that divide the world between good and evil can lead to the religious conceptualization of us versus them and holy versus unholy (Corrigan, 2007). 

                In Myanmar, Buddhist leaders and nationalists always highlight the fragility of Buddhism (Walton & Hayward, 2014). Therefore, they advocate protecting Buddhism with possible means. The reduction of Buddhist populations worldwide hunts leading Buddhist monks and prominent nationalists, and the democratic transition, which encourages secular values, warns them to preserve and promote Buddhism. They consider that increase in the population of other religions is directly proportional to the reduction of Buddhists. Thus, they try to differentiate other religions and Buddhism to highlight the threat of the disappearance of the Sasana. 

                However, the works of Corrigan (2017) cannot explain the whole picture of the conflict because there is still a lack of explanation for why Muslims are targeted. To fill that gap, the global war on terror and the growing united population of the Islam world need to be considered. The 9/11 attack on American soil alters the opinion of the people towards the Muslim populations as violent and untrustworthy (Sides & Gross, 2013). Jerryson (2017) supports that point of view. The conflicts between Buddhism and Islam in the twenty-first century are mostly related to the worldview of Islamophobia. Global terrorist events such as terrorist activities in the Middle East, the Taliban destruction of Buddha Statues in Bamiyan, 9/11 attack on the United States make Buddhists more afraid of Islam. Therefore, most conceptions of many-Buddhist led anti-Muslim sentiments have influenced conflicts. Moreover, the growing population of Islam and its united front, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), tends to increase the fear of Buddhists towards the disappearance of the Sasana. The notion that the growing Islam populations will take over Buddhism is prevalent in Myanmar.  

               Therefore, the root causes of the religious conflict in Myanmar are closely related to the notion that religious actors and institutions themselves play generators of the conflict. Furthermore, the result that Muslims become victims correlates with global Islamophobia, and the factor which leads to violent incidents tends to be geographical segregation.

Protection of Sasana 

               Historically, Burmese kings and Sanga (Buddhist monks) are interdependent on legitimacy and authority. Monks are generally authoritative among people in Myanmar society. Therefore, the kings need to have favor from the monks to govern the country. In that way, the monk has played an important role in Myanmar politics.  The king needs to appoint a charismatic and authoritative monk as a patron to guide him in administrative matters. The monk who has a patronage relationship with the king is conferred with Rājādhirājaguru (Later Abhidhaja Maha Rattha Guru) title, which means teacher of the king. Therefore, Buddhist monks processed enormous authority in Myanmar under the rule of a monarchy.

                When the British colonized Myanmar, they tried to introduce the notion of a secular state. So, monks lost existing political and social status and privileges in society. The religious Burmese community and monks felt that those actions directly attacked Sasana. Therefore, Buddhist Burmese populations and leading monks founded the Young Men Buddhist Association (YMBA). The objective of the YMBA is to protect and preserve Amyo (Race), Bartha (Buddhism), Sasana (teaching of Buddha), and Pinya (education). YMBA was the earliest institution to resist the British colony and to promote nationalism. Thus, the idea to protect Sasana can be traced to the period of British colonial rule.  

                The monks always refer to the wars of the ancient kings when they advocate protecting the Sasana. The ancient kings always vow, “If I can protect Sasana more than my opponent, let me win the war” before every combat (Ka, 2019). Then, they justify the violent means against non-Buddhist populations to protect Sasana. If the king kills non-Buddhist persons, it will not be negative karma for those actions. Sitagu Sayadaw, who possesses the Abhidhaja Maha Rattha Guru title, used the example of ancient King Dutthagamani of the Anuradhapura Kingdom in his sermon in 2017(Artinger et al., 2021). The king worried about the consequences of the killings during the war. However, eight enlightened monks came to the king and comforted him that the people he killed during the war were non-Buddhists. Therefore, there would not be negative consequences for those actions. Moreover, Sitagu Sayadaw mentioned that populations governed by the Islamic religion are pitiful in the speech at the monk conference (A Myo Chit Thu, 2014). This is an obvious example of how religious actors and institutions acted as driving factors for the blood-shed conflict by differentiating them from us.

Symbolic Threat Perceptions

                 The symbolic threat perception towards Islam population has existed since under British colonization. In 1938, a riot between Islam Indian population and Buddhist occurred. The riot was the result of the growing concern among native Buddhist Burmese about the enormous migration of Indian people who monopolized agriculture and business sectors in colonized Burma. The threat perception against Islam population is rooted in the mind of ultranationalist Buddhists due to the rapid growing population of Muslim in the country and in the region. Since the thirteen centuries, the giant wave of Islam hit Southeast Asia slowly and peacefully (Vincent J. H. Houben, 2003). Later, Buddhist countries converted to Islam countries, especially Indonesia. The conversion from Buddhist countries to Islam countries stimulates the concerns of ultranationalist Buddhists. Then, ultranationalists hijacked terrorist actions of Islam extremists at the end of 19 ceintures to trigger the hatred of Buddhist majority against the Islam population in Myanmar.

                 In Myanmar, the strong sentiment to protect Sasana which is explained in the above section resurfaced when the State Law and Order Restoration Council constituted a governmental department for promoting and preserving Sasana in 1991 (Nyan Lyn Thit Analytica, 2022) and reached its peak after the democratic transition in 2012 when the authoritative monks initiated the “969 movements” in 2012. The 969 movements can be regarded as countermeasures against the 786 symbols of Islam, which means “In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the ever compassionate (Waqar, 2015).” However, before reaching the highest polarization, the crystallization of hatred against Muslim populations began with the publication of “A good Buddhist,” which used the 969 symbols for the first time. The 969 symbol means nine attributes of Buddha, six attributes of Dhamma (teaching of Buddha), and nine attributes of Sangha; the three components are considered triple gems of Buddha Sasana. 

                In 2001, a series of devastating terrorist events occurred around the globe. Al Qaeda, the Islamic terrorist organization, hijacked three airplanes and attacked World Trade Centers and the Pentagon in the United States. Moreover, the Taliban, another Islam terrorist group, destroyed the Buddha Statues in Afghanistan. Thus, Islamophobia is spreading around the globe, which also has a huge impact on Myanmar. To counter those distasteful actions and transform those actions into the sentiment to protect Sasana against the Islamist terrorists, Buddhist monks in Myanmar published a book called “A Myo Pyauk Hmar So Kyauk Sayar” (Fear to lose a race) throughout the country (Nyan Lyn Thit Analytica, 2022). The book includes false narratives of Islam religion to avoid 786 and how dangerous the spreading of Islam in Iran, Europe, India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Singapore is. 

               Furthermore, the growing sentiment of nationalism led to violent incidents in the Rakhine States and Meiktila in 2012 and 2013, respectively. 

Buddhist monks always grasp that Sasana is fragile and must be protected. Therefore, they consider the growing population of Muslims in the former Buddhist countries, especially in the Middle East and Asia Region, as a symbolic threat. The notion that Muslims would conquer the world through economic means and marriage was prevalent in Buddhist society then. To prevent those threats, authoritative monks distributed four principles as countermeasures. The four instructions are, not to sell or lend houses and lands to Muslims, not to marry Muslims, especially Buddhist women, to buy things only from the shops owned by Buddhists, and not to buy houses and land for Muslims by Buddhists. Ashin Pinya Vira, the famous monk who is the founder of a Mahawthahta Buddhist missionary school, said, 

“You should buy construction things from the shops owned by Buddhists even if it is expensive because the money you give will indirectly reach the monastery, which will benefit Sasana. However, if you buy things from Islam shops, the Muslims will use that money to buy Buddhist women,” in his sermon (Dhamma, 2020).

                Moreover, sermons and publications always highlight how the Muslim populations conquered the former Buddhist countries and the atrocities of Muslims against Buddhism without evidence. One text published in 2012 described,

“Muslims are trying to conquer Myanmar through economic and social means. They had already conquered Indonesia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh with those means. Moreover, they fired manuscripts of Buddhist teachings. They killed ten thousand monks at Nalanda University in India in A.D. 11 (Nyan Lyn Thit Analytica, 2022).”

Moreover, Sitagu Sayadaw, the prominent and authoritative monk with Abhidhaja Maha Rattha Guru title, described the rule of Buddhist Kings in Bangladesh and how the Muslims conquered that Buddhist country at the conference of monks. He also mentioned in his speech,

“Islam had already conquered Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh: all were once Buddhist countries (A Myo Chit Thu, 2014).”

Therefore, the growing population of Muslims is a huge burden for Buddhist monks. They always see those populations as symbolic threats. 


                  Since British colonization, Myanmar has faced a deadly conflict between Muslim and Buddhist populations. However, empirical study of the conflict with theoretical understanding has been missing for a long time. This paper sheds light on the empirical findings of the root causes of the conflict with the support of diverse theoretical backgrounds.

In the religious conflicts in Myanmar, religious actors and institutions themselves take part in the conflict as spreaders of hatred. The majority of Buddhist populations target the Muslim population with that hatred because of symbolic threat perceptions, growing and united populations of Islamic countries around the globe, and the global trend of Islamophobia. The correlation between geographical segregation and violent incidents is found in this paper. However, the author encourages us to conduct quantitative analysis to verify the causation. Moreover, Buddhist monks mention that Buddhism is the earliest major religion in Myanmar, so Buddhists are native and other religions are settlers. Further study of the conflicts from the point of view of natives and settlers is essential.


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