Myanmar is cracking up under a Buddhist siege mentality

opinion February 28, 2014 00:00

By Kyaw San Wai

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Fear of being swamped by other cultures, plus a prophesy that Buddhism will eventually disappear, are stoking interfaith violence

The religious violence that erupted in Western Myanmar in 2012 and quickly spread to other parts has inspired countless analyses on the plight of the stateless Muslim Rohingya and the underlying causes of the conflict. Regarding the causes, much emphasis is placed on the actions of Buddhist nationalists and a controversial group of extremist monks called the 969 Movement. 
Analysts also attribute the violence to the loosening of military control and of censorship, weak rule of law, and disgruntled factions within government. President Thein Sein’s administration has also been accused of inaction and even involvement in the attacks. While these are recent factors behind the violence against Muslims in Myanmar, other critical issues have been overlooked – especially a long-standing siege mentality among the populace that draws on Buddhist millenarianism and a sense of being demographically besieged.
There is a widespread belief in the country that Buddhism will disappear in the future. While international coverage discredits fears of Islamic encroachment by pointing to Myanmar’s Buddhism-majority demographic, local Buddhists have a starkly different worldview in which their faith is besieged by larger, well-funded and better-organised faiths. This millenarianism can be traced to a scripturally unsupported but widely believed prophecy that Buddhism will disappear 5,000 years after its founder’s death. As 1956 is considered the halfway point, the belief is that Buddhism is now declining irreversibly.
The collapse of state support for Buddhism following British colonisation, the colonist’s tacit support for Christian missionaries and the large influx of migrant labour from British India created a sense of religious and demographic encroachment, fuelling millenarian narratives which culminated in the 1930s Saya San rebellion.
Furthermore, Buddhism’s historical decline and Islam’s subsequent dominance in parts of Asia gave rise to a certain narrative: that Islam might be Buddhism’s nemesis and that the 21st-century will be a decisive juncture in the dharma’s prophesised destruction.
Compounding the millenarian beliefs is an acute sense of  demographic besiegement. Most Myanmarese are well aware their country borders the populous countries of China, India and Bangladesh, with a combined population of over 2.7 billion. Furthermore, unchecked immigration from China’s Yunnan province since the late 1980s has created tensions, with an estimated two million illegal Chinese immigrants living in Northern Myanmar. 
With the large-scale colonial-era influx of migrant workers from South Asia, resentment at the perceived economic dominance by Chinese and Indian businessmen, and the view of Myanmar being richly endowed with resources, it takes little imagination to construct a narrative where these three populous countries are scheming to swallow up the country through demographic pressure. 
And within Rakhine state itself, the Buddhist Arakanese have an acute sense of being besieged politically, economically and demographically by both Myanmar’s majority Bamar ethnic group and Bangladeshis, causing many to be extremely prejudiced against both Muslims and non-Arakanese Buddhists.
As coverage of Myanmar’s religious violence proliferates, there is a growing perception within the country that the international community and media only concern themselves with the Muslim Rohingya version of events. The Myanmarese Buddhist perspective is neglected, or confined to the extremist views and actions of Buddhist monk Wirathu and the 969 movement, say local critics. 
The way a selection of foreign commentators summarily dismiss what the Buddhists say are legitimate concerns has given rise to a new sense of siege and an antipathy towards the international media, fuelling an equally dismissive view within Myanmar, where international reports of the violence and the Rohingyas’ plight are seen as sensationalised propaganda.
The manner in which some coverage has tarred local Buddhism with the same brush as the 969 movement has also prompted defensive attitudes from moderate Myanmarese, hampering domestic debate on how to solve the Rohingya issue.
And while the former junta remains widely reviled, its defiance of international pressure has instilled among ordinary Myanmarese the notion that Myanmar need not bow to external pressure regarding the Rohingya issue.
Some commentators are quick to dismiss the Buddhist siege mentality as based solely on paranoia or as the Myanmar military’s creation to cement its role in politics. But dismissing the siege mentality and offering simplified portrayals of sectarian violence only serve to misdiagnose the root causes and make a viable solution more elusive.
Instead, analysis of the issue needs to incorporate endemic poverty, polarised grassroots media, geopolitical competition, historical issues and the political elites on both sides who are exploiting the propaganda potential of the situation. It should also take account of Myanmar’s changing civil society landscape and self-serving actions by external actors. 
Needless to say, the Myanmar government also has to be decisive in tackling hate speech, enforcing police impartiality, addressing the lack of training and equipment for law enforcement agencies, enforcing rule of law, and ensuring the security of all inhabitants regardless of race, creed or citizenship status. In order to solve such a complex and complicated problem, all its components and nuances must be recognised and taken into account.
Kyaw San Wai, a Myanmar national, is a senior analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. 
His research focuses on Myanmar politics, political Buddhism, Southeast Asian affairs and Biosecurity.