Burma, Imperialism, and the Buddhist-Muslim violence

Shan Buddhist Monks in Burma

Two Shan Buddhist monks pass in a dusty street in Nyaungshwe, Shan State, Burma (Photo by Justin Whitaker / 2011)

The Irrawaddy Newspaper reports today that fighting has resumed in northern Shan State between government troops and ethnic militias. This fighting, and outbreaks of similar violence throughout the country should underscore the fractious nature of Burma today and the fragility of its movement toward democracy. The Shan are devout Buddhists* and currently spread mostly through northern Thailand and in the Shan State of Burma. The Bamar, the numerically largest ethnic group in Burma, are also devout Buddhists. Their fighting has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with politics, land rights, self-determination, and associated issues. In the north of Burma is Kachin State, home to yet another ethnic group, the Kachin. They are predominantly Christian with a sizable Buddhist minority. They too have been fighting with the central government for decades. And don’t forget the Karen, also mostly Buddhist but with around 15% Christians and a small number of adherents to indigenous religions; they also have an army which is at war with the the central government.  In fact, Burma is home to the longest running civil war in history.

None of this is meant to deflect from the recent violence against Rohingya Muslims there, but merely to break down some of the modern myth that Burma is a peaceful Buddhist nation of monks and temples that has only recently and surprisingly seen inter-ethnic (and inter-religious) violence. While certain factions among the Rohingya have also formed militias to fight for independence from the central government, it is fair to say that the reaction against the Rohingya people, both in the past and in the last year or so, has been far more severe than what other groups have faced.

The country, like most of those in the Middle East, is the result of (mostly) British colonialism and ad hoc carving up of nations as the sun began to set on the mighty British Empire. Books have been written on the the clever intrigue, the divide-and-conquer strategies, and the backroom deals that left nations as hodgepodges of ethnic and religious groups unified only by some very vague sense of nationality and the strong hand of a military backed dictator. Having just watched an excellent BBC documentary on Syria, I get the distinct impression that the war there is not a war about religion in the slightest, even though pundits quickly point out that Assad is an Alawite Muslim and the majority of opposition fighters -and the country itself- are Sunni. Instead the war is about failed colonialism and ongoing geo-political interests.

Burma, too, is the result of abandoned colonial exploits and it too has been held together only under the fist of military dictatorship. As that fist lifts I fear we will see more inter-ethnic and religious violence. But before we focus too much on the religious views of those perpetrating the violence, lets remember our history lessons and keep in mind that while religion may be a tool used or an excuse for the next rounds of violence, there are always deeper issues at play.

* I believe 90+% would be a fair estimate of the number of Shan people who are Buddhist, with perhaps up to 5% being Christian due to efforts of missionaries in the 19th-20th centuries and perhaps a very small percentage maintaining pre-Buddhist indigenous religions.

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  • humactdoc

    “While certain factions among the Rohingya have also formed militias to fight for independence from the central government…” These militias represented the minority of Rohingya and were disbanded decades ago. Where as that has not been the case for the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist independence groups that have been active recently. The Arakan Liberation Party signed a ceasefire with Myanmar’s government in May 2012 and have been very active in the current anti-Rohingya campaign.

  • Alex Caring-Lobel

    I’m afraid the “modern myth that Burma is a peaceful Buddhist nation of monks and temples that has only recently and surprisingly seen…violence” is an utter fabrication. The country’s current president himself has called the civil war in Burma since its independence “the longest-running set of armed conflicts anywhere in the world.” No such myth exists.

    The statement that Burma has not only been held together “only under the fist of military dictatorship” is also patently false. Perhaps this is a “modern myth.”

    It is also an utter fabrication that the Rohingya have “formed militias to fight for independence from the central government.” RSO, which you reference, does not operate within Burma, nor is there reason to think that they’ve been militarily active anytime recently.

    (Violent radical Islamist groups in Indonesia have claimed the existence of a Rohingya insurgency, in part by disseminating old photographs taken in Bangladesh of other groups, in order to bolster support for their organizations within their country, exploiting the plight of the Rohingya as a recruiting tool for their own human rights abuses. Buddhist nationalists in Rakhine State are likewise using precisely this propaganda in order to fuel anti-Muslim sentiment. As of late, this has been one of the leading pretenses driving ethnic cleansing and anti-Muslim violence in both Indonesia and Burma. And here you state this as a fact and list unconfirmed reports and spurious sources.)

    Moving on, this is a very simplistic and one-sided treatment of nationalism. Without it, Burma would still be under colonial rule. Here’s a brief treatment I wrote last week on Burma’s independence and its relevance today that might shed some light on this: http://www.tricycle.com/blog/martyrs-day-burmas-past-meets-its-future

    • justinwhitaker

      Alex, I thought we had come to more of an agreement on the “myth” part when you said on twitter: “I suppose that’s understandable. I witnessed something similar in Nepal when great ferment was happening there.” It’s the same in India, Thailand and anywhere that people suppose (or hope or fantasize) to be somehow completely ‘other’ than the greedy, violent West.

      I’m not always a fan of colonialist/post-colonialist theories, but they are quite correct I think in pointing out these myths of ‘the other’. The opposite myth suppresses the ‘other’ as low, backward, in need of our advancement and technology and religion, etc. I presume you have read “Prisoners of Shangri La,” about the myth(s) of Tibet. Statements by politicians, monks, scholars etc to clarify/dispel these myths are helpful but the myths themselves are not fabrications of the 21st century. I’m not sure how you can admit that you’ve experienced this yourself in Nepal but not see that the same is happening/has happened in nearby Burma.

      I’m sorry you see my sources as unconfirmed and spurious; if you have better, I’d be happy to see it. I wasn’t trying to cover the whole of Burmese nationalism (in 500 or so words), but merely to point out “the fractious nature of Burma today and the fragility of its movement toward democracy.” Your article speaks to a lot of the hope people have regarding Burma and I admit I share in some of that hope, but it does us no good to ignore longstanding ethnic divisions within the country or pretend that they will just go away in the near future.

      • Alex Caring-Lobel

        You’ve taken my reply out of context. It was in direct response to “perhaps I’ve just met a few more nostalgic meditator-tourists than you,” as anyone can see on Twitter. It does no good for anyone to treat your readership like a bunch of dolts.

        • justinwhitaker

          You’ll have to forgive me for the decontextualizing; I had thought that your tweeted response was your response. But nevermind that; what I’m a bit worried about is how we got from propagators of myths – which I then spelled out a bit in my last comment – to, in your words “a bunch of dolts.”

          That’s rather harshly judgmental, I would say.

          I suppose I shouldn’t have presumed that the “Prisoners of Shangri La” or colonialism references would help, but I did. The promulgators of the myths covered there, like those who promulgated myths about India, Thailand, heck, about Native Americans, and on and on and on (now let me be very clear) *are not* and *were not* dolts. They are ordinary human beings, some of whom are/were very bright, who simply got attached to a particular vision of a place or people or culture and failed to see (or at least mention) the rest of the story.

          If I’ve missed something, please make use of the space here and give more than 3 sentences to spell out what, exactly, you’re so upset about.

          • Alex Caring-Lobel


            My concern here is that this post is filled with misleading information and straight up fallacies, several of which I’ve enumerated above. You’ve created one or two “myths” yourself, it seems. I’d agree that what you mention is harsh judgment, but it’s yours – avowed or not.

            There are plenty of myths to be slain – such as those that stunted the response of most Buddhist publications and organizations, most notably Buddhist Peace Fellowship, which you site here. I haven’t responded in great length, and I think it was a terrible idea to comment, as you requested me to, in the first place, as my responding to this to some extent validates your myth-creation, you words as statements to be taken as true until proven fallacious, when in fact they’re practically conjured out of thin air.

            The issue here might be shaky extrapolation, with your references to Tibet and India and Native Americans. No one would assume Burma – under military rule from ’62 until recently, ruled with an iron first, routinely firing on demonstrators and torturing and imprisoning activists; one that that raided monasteries and murdered its sangha, execution style, en masse – a “peaceful nation.” And the implication that I’ve ignored “longstanding ethnic divisions within the country or pretend that they will just go away” is not only absurd but offensive considering the work (and the RESEARCH) I’ve put into this issue ON INTER-ETHNO-RELIGIOUS CONFLICT in the region and its history. Please don’t patronize me with references to “Prisoners of Shangri-La.”

            The myth here, which you’ve completely, utterly, tragically missed, is that of the role and influence of the Burmese sangha and the righteousness of the Burmese sangha. That, and the Saffron Revolution, might be somewhere to start. (Or the feature “Buddhist Nationalism in Burma” I developed for the mag.)

            - Alex (@helloalexcl)

            • justinwhitaker

              Alex, you seem to have a lot invested in this, so it might be best to leave it at a difference of opinion with different sources and perhaps different levels of credibility given to those sources. You seem to have pointed out two clear problems: 1) the questionable existence of Rohingya militants and 2) the question of whether there is a myth of a peaceful Burma. I provided some sources to cover the first; you don’t like them but haven’t provided anything of your own, that’s fine by me. As to the myth point, that’s a bit more difficult to just point out a source. I’m still not sure if you read or agreed with Lopez’s work, but I did and agree with the premise that myths were created about Tibet being a peaceful happy land. And these myths exist today in various forms. Burma has undergone similar treatment (I’ll keep in mind as a potential future blog post topic) whether through poetry of Rudyard Kipling or contemporary travel-logs depicting “exotic Myanmar – Happy memories” to friends back home. Perhaps read the Destination-Asia page on Myanmar. My readers, while certainly not dolts (again, the creators of these cheerful narratives are not dolts either), might have absorbed enough of this myth that it is worth noting. That is all.

              If you have substantive issues with the BPF, it would be more productive, in my opinion, to tell them or write about it at your own blog. No need to use the comment section here for swipes at them. From what I have seen they are doing a good job on this.




              • HelloAlexCL


                That was intended to be my final post but now need to defend myself. That’s not my intention with BPF. I dig BPF. I think the criticism I make is fair, and as I intended to convey, not in any way exclusive to BPF.

                An Indonesian Islamist group leaked 28 photos of a “Rohingya militia” and misattributed them in order to further their own interests. There are numerous reports regarding this and other instances of propaganda, but I really don’t have time to dig up more sources for you. This one’s especially clear and from an excellent magazine: http://www.irrawaddy.org/archives/40075. (The Irrawaddy and its editors are an excellent source, btw.)

                The report you submitted earlier was unconfirmed. If I remember correctly, it was reporting on a warning given by Indian intelligence, and not on any other determinate event. There have been a number of misleading reports, often intersecting with speculation regarding the Bodh Gaya bombing and political concerns.

                You are better suited to judge the knowledge of your audience than I am. So I might have jumped the gun there. Perhaps they are convinced that Burma is a peaceful nation, though I’m not sure in what capacity they could possibly think that. (That the people are nice and peaceful?)

                To reiterate, I think the real myth here is that the sangha is peaceful, or an inherently positive force. That’s the myth we tried to disabuse ourselves of with the article I mentioned. That was the thesis of “Buddhist Nationalism in Burma.” This is a totally understandable myth, given the sangha-led resistance during the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007. Or that the sangha is somehow otherworldly (though those aware of the real world economic origins of the “Saffron Revolution” would already know this to be false).

                There are a number of other problems I have not only with your facts but with your argument here. The mythology you speak of is not some Western colonial relic but one actively promoted by Burma’s majority Buddhist ruling class. It wasn’t always that way, though. And, related to the “post-colonial theories” you mentioned, you’ve deprived the Burmese even of their own myth-making! This myth is precisely what a radicalized segment of the sangha has been harping on. Part of why I’ve responded so sharply here is because I see the same wrongheadedness at the roots of this conflict (its history).

                As I told you immediately after I read this, I usually enjoy your posts. Please email me if you have anything else you’d like to communicate.

                Best wishes,

  • justinwhitaker

    Another good article I would point to on this (giving a great breadth of the context around current conflicts) is here from Nathan Thompson:


    As well as his earlier:


  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

    There is a rot at the center of Burmese Buddhism and it goes by the non-religious lable of “PATRIARCHY.” This has nothing to do with Buddha Dharma itself, but with the cultural baggage thrown on top of the Buddha Dharma and veiling it’s true radiance. The iron grip of Patriarchy in both the military and in the religious sphere is what has created the illusion of social stability in Myanmar. The sad and disturbing story of the perversion of the Buddha Dharma by fundamentalist militancy in the ranks of the monks is just the new availablity of information about an old story of the corruption of patriarchy in a traditionalist society. Buddhism in Myanmar will not get back on the right track of the Eightfold Path until women are given full ordination as bhikkhunis with full equality with the bhikkhu-monks. Until then, the Buddha Dharma in Myanmar is held captive by patriarchy instead of being the light to show the way to manifest the complete four-fold mahasangha (great community) of the Buddha Dharma. The true Buddha Dharma is revealed only where monks and laypeople, men and women, are all recognized as completely equal in the Buddha’s Dharma Eye.

    • justinwhitaker

      Gregory – agreed. East Asian Buddhism (I’m familiar at least with Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan) seems to have bucked some of this trend, and many Buddhist orgs in the West have as well. But yes, the Burmese have a long way to go with this (as do many others). Things are coming along though and we can all do our best to support the move to gender equality… My buddy Danny Fisher’s latest from the Shambhala Sun is a step in that direction:


      • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

        Thanks for the link to the Shambala Sun interview with Dr. Michaela Haas. I am not very familiar with Tibetan Buddha Dharma so it is good news that they too are finally allowing women to take the Geshe exams. The Theravadin bodhisattva Ajahn Brahm (Phra Brahmavamso) has initiated bhikkuni/nun ordination in Australia and has had his lineage connection with his Thai sangha cut as punishment. The Thai sanga has adopted the very strange position based on an absurd technicality of their interpretation of vinaya (sangha law) that national political borders prevents the ordination of nuns in Thailand forever. In my view these legalisms applied ot Buddha Dharma are in fact abuses of karma, not examples of beneicial karma in action.

        • justinwhitaker

          Hi Gregory – yes, I agree that it’s unfortunate how, as you say ‘legalisms’ and ‘cultural Buddhism’ have taken form in many places. Ajahn Brahm is a wonderful example of people challenging those rigid systems and there are more like him worthy of our support and encouragement… I’m optimistic that we’ll see widespread change (though there will always be pockets of conservatism) in the next 20-50 years.

  • Duane Reichert

    Everywhere the Muslim world rubs up against the rest of us, there is war. I don’t blame the non-musilms in Burma for taking a hard stance. They are fighting for the preservation of their culture.