Heartless Moment: Why Buddhist Nationalists in Myanmar being silent on the Rohingya Crisis

Myanmar is a diverse country with different ethnicity and religions. That diversity has not led the unity but has created ethnic conflicts and communal violence among different religions in Myanmar since its independence. The communal violence between Buddhist Rakhine and Islam Rohingya populations was especially prominent. The military conducted brutal operations against the Rohingya population and committed atrocities, resulting in 140,000 displaced Rohingya populations to maintain peace and stability in Rakhine State (Anwary, 2018). The military forces carried out another series of brutal security operations known as ‘clearance operations in Rakhine State after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) coordinately attacked security posts at the border of Myanmar-Bangladesh (“Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis 2020”).

The security operations led to the death of more than 6000 Rohingya people and 600,000 refugees in Bangladesh (“Myanmar Rohingya: What you need to know about the crisis 2020”). Although international human rights groups, international media, and organizations condemned the brutality and disproportionate means of systematic oppression, most Myanmar people failed to condemn the atrocities of the military. Even when Gambia filed a case by accusing Myanmar of committing genocide against the minority Rohingya population before the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICJ), the Myanmar people stood aside with their charismatic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who defended the military for the atrocities before the ICJ (Bowcott, 2019). 

The supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi included educated persons, celebrities, and religious leaders regardless of their moral obligations to religious teachings and education. The moral dilemma of how leaders of the government and military could rally the support of the majority of Buddhist populations is questionable. For a Buddhist, refrainment from killing is the first principle of the five precepts of Buddhism (Fischer, 2021). However, Buddhist nationalist groups and supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi showed their support for her by standing up billboards, organizing public rallies, and convening prayer services despite seeing the images of the massacre, atrocities, and arson attacks against the Rohingya people (“Aung San Suu Kyi defends Myanmar at the ICJ in The Hague, 2019”). Why did Myanmar majority Buddhists support the military’s brutal actions and mass killings against the Rohingya minority population?

This paper will argue that two factors: the continuous constructive approach towards Buddhist nationalist identity in Myanmar by Buddhist politicians and especially the military, which is the long-term cause, and the defense of the atrocities by charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, led the Myanmar Buddhist majority to support the brutal actions of the military against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State which is the immediate causation.

There are two prominent schools of thought in forming identity; primordialism and constructivism. From the perspective of primordialism, identities are unchangeable entities, i.e., identities cannot be created or altered but derived from social existence. In contrast, constructivists believe that hegemonic actors construct and exploit identities. Thus, identities can alter when social interactions change (Bonacchi, 2022). For example, Posner (2003) ‘s work proved that linguistic identities could be shaped. More than fifty language identities existed in Zambia before British colonization. However, the Northern Rhodesian colonial government, Christian missionaries, and British mining companies set the policies and actions that could shape diverse linguistic identities into four language groups. 

The theory of constructivists can explain the formation of the Buddhist nationalist identity in Myanmar. Buddhist nationalist politicians and the military construct Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar. The sentiment of the Buddhist nationalist movement has existed since British colonization. Before the British colonization, the Myanmar monarchy claimed divine power to legitimize their rules, like Christianity in Myanmar (Cady, 1953). The monarchs needed support from the Sangha (Buddhist Monks) to maintain the legitimacy of their rules and the Sangha enjoyed social and economic privileges that the monarchs granted. As a result, Sangha has had a significant influence on society. Monks are leading figures in the villages, which are essential components of Myanmar, to resolve disputes and mediate societal conflicts. They always provide moral guidance to society through Buddhist teachings (Walton, 2015). Monks have enormous power and should be respected even though their actions are not in line with Buddhist teachings because they are members of the Sangha Community (Walton, 2015). Thus, Buddhist monks have influential power over the monarch. 

After the British colonization, the moral guidance of the Sangha was ignored by the British administrators (Aljunied, 2018). The role of Buddhist monks in society fell, and Buddhist nationalist monks tried to restore their previous status. The prominent Buddhist leaders of the resistance movement were U Ottama and U Wissera. The Buddhist nationalist sentiment was the leading factor that encouraged the general public to resist British rule. Wintharnu Sate Dat (Conscious of loving race) was prevalent among the Myanmar people to restore the dignity of Buddhism.

 After the independence, politicians, especially U Nu, the first prime minister of Myanmar, exploited the current role of Sangha to maintain his power in the country. Since 1948, U Nu has provided generous support to the Sangha to use the influential religious authority (Aljunied, 2018). U Nu systematically constructed Myanmar’s identity as Buddhist Nationalists. Chattha Sangayana, the Buddhist council for the Purification of Sasana (teachings of Buddha) in 1954, was a great example of using religion for legitimacy (Clark, 2015). According to the Buddhist texts, being the rightful king is the essential quality of a sponsor to the Sangayana (The Buddhist Council). There were six Sangayana in Buddhist History, and the previous five were sponsored by the kings of those times. U Nu claimed himself as a sponsor of Sangayana to restore his losing legitimacy due to the economic and political instability in the country. Moreover, the parliament led by Buddhist nationalists influenced by U Nu approved the recognition of Buddhism as the state religion in 1961 (“Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar 2017”). U Nu strategically constructed Buddhist nationalist sentiments to exploit the votes of the majority of Buddhist populations. 

Under the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), the notion of preserving and protecting the Sasana faded under the socialist values because the ruling party had an ideology, the “Burmese way to socialism,” to formulate legitimacy among the public. After the BSPP government, the military conducted a coup in 1988 and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). However, the SLORC did not have an ideological component to restore the losing legitimacy due to the strong democratic opposition. Moreover, the military did not have a popular vote which put the power through democratic means. It did not also have charismatic leaders such as U Nu and Aung San, who was the founding father of independence. Therefore, the military tried to use the historical legacy of Burmese monarchs for their legitimacy.

The military introduced the notion of protecting Sasana as the Burmese Kings did. The military leaders built enormous Buddhist statues and Pagodas to be seen as a promoter of the Sasana. Moreover, the military promoted its image as a patriotic army in contrast to the professional army in democratic countries. Since 1998, the military has portrayed itself as the guardian of the Amyo (Race or ethnicity), Batha (Buddhism), and Sasana (Buddhist teachings) (Myoe, 2009). In 2015, the military published a defense white paper describing the military as a protector and promoter of nationalism (Defense White Paper, 2015).

Moreover, the military carries on the notion of interdependence between the ruler and the Sangha. Therefore, the military leaders approached charismatic Buddhist monks, especially Sitagu Sayadaw and Insein Ywarma Sayardaw, to get support from the divine power for their legitimacy. Therefore, the lack of legitimacy sources, such as an ideological component of the totalitarian regime and popular vote of the democratic regime, forced the military to use the historical legacy of ancient Burmese Kings, protectors of the Sasana, for their legitimacy.

Building legitimacy through religious identities creates the imagined community of Buddhist ideals among the majority of Buddhists in Myanmar and constructs the strong sentiment of Buddhist nationalist identities. The Buddhist majority see people outside the imagined community as not us but “them(enemies).” As the separation of insiders from outsiders is the fundamental aspect of nationalism (Zaslavsky, 1992), Buddhist nationalist sentiments of the Myanmar people hinder to have empathy for the Rohingya people and support the atrocities of the military amid the active violence in the Rakhine state. The continuous construction of Buddhist nationalist identity tends to justify the military’s brutal actions. The Burmese majority and leading Buddhist monks justify the monstrosity of the military against the Rohingya people as the protection of the imagined community of Buddhist ideals. 

However, the impact of the defense of Aung San Suu Kyi for the atrocities of the military before the International Criminal Court of Justice should not be entirely ruled out. The decision to defend the military before the ICJ altered the opinion of her supporters, a large portion of Myanmar society. Aung San Suu Kyi, a state counselor who held the second most powerful position in the government at the time of the genocide, has tremendous charismatic authority among the general public.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of the charismatic leader of the Burma independent struggle who was assassinated a year before independence in 1947. Due to her father’s legacy and sacrifices, she has enormous public sympathy among the Burmese. Although she lived abroad at a young age, she returned to Myanmar to care for her sick mother in 1988 (Silverstein, 1990). In 1988, most Burmese people protested against the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) and later the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the junta (“Myanmar (Burma), 2019”). She actively took part in the democratic struggle as a leading figure. Her courageous actions against the junta and her family legacy led to enormous public support since 1988. Due to her leading role in the democratic struggle, the junta, led by General Than Shwe, targeted her and put her under house arrest at her home at the bank of Innya Lake for nearly 15 years (Ratcliffe, 2022). Her courage and sacrifice boosted her public support and sympathy. The result is that her party, National League for Democracy (NLD), won every election they competed with a landslide victory (“Aung San Suu Kyi, NLD Win Second Landslide Election in Myanmar, 2020”).

 In 2020, the People’s Alliance for credible elections conducted a preliminary survey for the 2020 general elections and found that 79 percent of the population trusted State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (“2020 General Elections: Preliminary Report of Pre-election Survey Findings, 2020”). Even president Win Myint had 73 percent of the public trust (“2020 General Elections: Preliminary Report of Pre-election Survey Findings, 2020”).

When the military conducted the coup against the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the situation and public opinion changed radically, i.e., the general public joined the civil resistance movement against the military junta rather than support the actions of the military. The general public always tends to follow the lead of Aung San Suu Kyi. The charismatic authority of Aung San Suu Kyi significantly impacted the majority Buddhist population’s silence on the military’s brutal actions and supported the military’s atrocities. When she decided to defend the military’s atrocities before ICJ, the general public followed her lead and supported her.

According to the above considerations, there are two possible causes for the silence of the Burmese Buddhist majority in the Rohingya crisis. The first one which is the continuous construction of Buddhist nationalist identity is long-term and the decision of Aung San Su Kyo to defend the military before the ICJ. The continuous construction of Buddhist nationalist identity by successive politicians and the military led to the support of the majority of Buddhist Burmese for the atrocities of the military against the Rohingya population. The hatred against the Rohingya population has been planted by politicians who exploit the Buddhist identity for their political power. This construction process can be regarded as a long-term cause towards the silence of the majority Burmese population in the Rohingya crisis. The immediate cause is the decision of Aung San Suu Kyi to defend the military before the ICJ. The decision of Aung San Suu Kyi causes a lack of sympathy for the Rohingya minority population among the majority Buddhist Burmese and support for the genocidal actions of the military. Therefore, the two causes, which are immediate and long-term, lead to the carelessness and heartlessness of the Burmese Buddhist majority in the Rohingya crisis.




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