The military-led coup in Myanmar has met with widespread protests by people of diverse backgrounds, including Buddhist monks. The demonstrations by the monks hold a strong resemblance to the Saffron Revolution, extensive protests held in 2007 against the military regime. The revolution laid the founding stones for democracy in Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi’s eventual election victory in 2015.[i] Suu Kyu’s election may have ushered in democratic reforms, but her continued oppression of the Muslim Rohingya minority demonstrates the influence of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar’s politics.
The roots of Buddhist nationalism lie in the country’s colonial past. Britain colonized Myanmar in 1824. Under British policies that promoted internal migration, administrators moved local populations to different colonies. Indian Hindus and Muslims moved to Myanmar, then known as Burma, to serve in the colonial administration. The surplus pool of cheap migrant labor helped the British increase their profits through the cultivation of rice, rubber, tobacco, and coffee.[ii] This movement led to a drastic increase in the Muslim population. Many Rohingyas entered Myanmar as a part of these policies.[iii] The influence of Indian businessmen also increased in some sectors of the economy.[iv] Between 1871 and 1911, due to the influx of Muslim businessmen, the Muslim population tripled.[v] The Buddhists saw this as a threat to the local population. Due to this, violence broke out between Buddhists and people of Indian descent, particularly Muslims. As the protests against the colonizers increased, non-Burmese residents faced pressure to leave.[vi]
Myanmar gained independence in 1948 and struggled politically for many years, but the resentment of Muslims remained. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized control of government and oppressed Muslims. In 1950, the Rohingyas rebelled against the Government, demanding citizenship. The movement was ultimately crushed. In 1962, a military coup led to the formation of a one-party military state, further worsening the situation for Rohingyas.[vii] When the military undertook a drive to register citizens in 1977, the government deemed Rohingyas illegal immigrants. In 1982, a citizenship act was passed which formally denied them citizenship rights.[viii] Eventually, Buddhist militias destroyed Rohingya property and Buddhists resettled in many of their villages.[ix]
In 2013 and 2014, the Buddhist nationalist organizations 969 Movement and Ma Ba Tha were founded and began to gain popularity. They spread anti-Muslim propaganda, boycotted Muslim businesses, and worked towards increased restrictions on Muslim freedoms. These organizations held close ties with the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and received support from them. The USDP-led parliament even passed “race and religion laws” in 2015 to limit the growth of the Muslim population through conversion and restrictions on interreligious marriage, polygamy, and births.[x] The Suu Kyu government attempted to control the influence of the Ma Ba Tha and banned it in 2017, but this did not decrease support for the organization. They rebranded themselves as Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Organization.[xi] Influenced by the teachings of Buddhist nationalist organizations, Buddhists began attacking Muslim villages. These mobs had the support of state security forces, which participated with them in the violence.[xii] By August 2017, thousands of Rohingyas were killed and more than a million fled to Bangladesh.
The coup has presented opportunities for Buddhist nationalists. The main
opposition to the National League for Democracy (NLD), the USDP has the support
of the military and the Buddhist nationalists. During election campaigning, the
USDP clearly courted nationalist monks by adopting the theme of “protecting
religion” by portraying NLD as a “religion-destroying party”.[xiii]
Their extremist views were explicitly tailored to corral support from Buddhist
nationalists. This demonstrates the importance of the support of nationalist
monks for the UDSP. Thus, this shows the willingness of the pro-military USDP
to promote a Buddhist identity of Myanmar.[xiv]
If the Buddhist nationalists continue to maintain their loyalty to the military,
they may play key roles in an official capacity and help reinforce state power.[xv]
On the other hand, some Buddhist monks are
protesting against the military and fighting for democracy. Some have even been
arrested by the military.[xvi]
But one view that hardliners and pro-democracy monks share is that they
consider Rohingya Muslims ‘outsiders’ and want them sent to detention centers
Thus, it seems whatever the future of the country may be, the future for
Rohingyas in Myanmar looks bleak.
[i] Anders C. Hardig and Tazreena Sajjad, “The Military Coup in Myanmar Presents Opportunities to Buddhist Nationalists”, American University, February 8, 2021, https://www.american.edu/sis/news/20210208-the-military-coup-in-myanmar-presents-opportunities-to-buddhist-nationalists.cfm?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=sis_org_fy21_spring_theconversation_myanmarcoup.
[ii] Ritesh Kumar Jaiswal, “Indian Labour Eigration to Burma (C. 1880-1940): Rethinking Indian Migratory Patterns”, Indian History Congress, Vol. 75, Platinum Jubilee (2014).
[iii] Abdelkader, “The history of the persecution”.
[iv] Hardig and Sajjad, “The Military Coup”.
[v] Aye Chan, “The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar)”, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005, https://www.soas.ac.uk/sbbr/editions/file64388.pdf.
[vi] Andrea Malji, “A Coup Can’t Destroy an Ideology: The Future of Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar”, Georgetown University, Berkley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, March 12, 2021,
[vii] Abdelkader, “The history of the persecution”.
[viii] Abdelkader, “The history of the persecution”.
[ix] Poppy McPherson, Simon Lewis, Thu Thu Aung, Shoon Naing and Zeba Siddiqui, “Erasing the Rohingya Point of No Return”, Reuters Investigates, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-rohingya-return/.
[x] Malji “A Coup Can’t Destroy an Ideology”.
[xi] Hardig and Sajjad, “The Military Coup”.
[xii] Malji, “A Coup Can’t Destroy an Ideology”.
[xiii] Hardig and Sajjad, “The Military Coup”.
[xiv] Malji, “A Coup Can’t Destroy an Ideology”.
[xv] Malji, “A Coup Can’t Destroy an Ideology”.
[xvi] “Three Buddhist monks arrested as concerns for coup impact on FoRB mount”, CSW, February 3, 2021, https://www.csw.org.uk/2021/02/03/press/4967/article.htm.
[xvii] Joe Freeman, “The ‘Good Monk’ Myth”, The Atlantic, September 29, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/saffron-revolution-good-monk-myth/541116/.