Myanmar needs a new nationalism
By Matthew J Walton
Many outside observers have been shocked to see Buddhists in Myanmar leading recent violent actions against Muslims. Our recollections of tens of thousands of Buddhist monks chanting loving-kindness while demonstrating peacefully against the former military government in 2007 clash with recent images of monks using their sermons to advocate for a boycott of Muslim businesses and in some cases even leading mobs to destroy mosques and physically attack Muslims.
What would lead a Buddhist monk like U Wirathu to exhort his followers to practice discrimination rather than follow the Buddha's example of compassion for others? And what motivates the rapid spread of the anti-Muslim 969 Buddhist boycott campaign in
Myanmar? The symbolism and actions of the 969 campaign are deeply embedded in Burmese Buddhist culture and can invoke seemingly contradictory interpretations and responses. Yet the current government response, focused on strengthening rule of law, inadequately recognizes these dynamics and ignores the pervasive need for a reappraisal of the role of Buddhism in Myanmar's transition to a modern, democratic state.
U Wirathu is a complex figure, with a career that recalls Burmese monks of the early decades of the 20th century. At that time, some monks played leading roles in the nascent independence movement in Myanmar, then known as Burma, by giving fiery speeches criticizing British colonialism, organizing monastic political groups, and even conducting political trainings in rural areas. Burmese nationalism of that time was primarily constructed as a national movement for the majority group, ethnic Burman Buddhists. Anti-British sentiment was often expressed through anti-Indian demonstrations, the most violent of which were riots that spread throughout the country in 1930.
The current situation reflects this history in important ways. U Wirathu epitomizes the all too common model of a nationalist leader who fights for expanded political freedoms for some citizens but also uses religious reasoning to justify the exclusion of groups considered to be outside the national community. He spent nine years in jail, having been arrested in 2003 for inciting anti-Muslim riots in Mandalay.
U Wirathu, however, frames his detention as just one of the many ways in which the former military regime limited freedom of expression. He was released in a mass amnesty on January 13, 2012 and promptly returned both to his monastic duties at Masoyein Monastery in Mandalay and to political organizing.
U Wirathu has been a prominent figure in the ongoing protests against the Chinese-run Letpadaung copper mine in Monywa, west of Mandalay in central Myanmar, and organized a number of monks to join the demonstrations to provide protection for the local population. The protests - initiated in mid-2012 by villagers who were unhappy with forced displacement, inadequate compensation for seized land, and environmental damage - escalated when local authorities attacked the demonstrators on November 29 and injured over 100 people, including many monks.
Most observers would agree that protests such as this reflect the admirable demands of Myanmar's citizens for a greater voice in the country's political process and for more equitable and responsible economic development. But U Wirathu has also been at the front of more controversial incidents. After fighting between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya in western Myanmar worsened near the end of 2012, President Thein Sein initially suggested that the best solution would be to remove the Rohingya to another country that would accept the estimated 800,000-strong population.
On September 2, U Wirathu led a march of thousands of monks in Mandalay, calling for citizens to democratically support the President's proposal and casting the Rohingya as a threat to the Burmese "Motherland". He also traveled to Meikhtila in the days following the recent violent conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar; he was ostensibly there to be a "peacemaker" but in interviews and speeches continued to spread uncorroborated reports of the fighting that put the blame almost solely on Muslim residents.
Buddhism and nationalism have become almost inseparably intertwined in Theravada Buddhist majority countries like Myanmar. Historically, Buddhist kings drew their legitimacy from their institutional support of the monkhood and from a cosmology that presented the well-being of the Buddhist community as an indicator of the strength of the nation. Thus, threats to Buddhism also function as threats to the nation and calls to defend the "Motherland" (especially when shouted by groups of monks) reiterate the belief that the "nation" is at its core Buddhist and that non-Buddhists can at best enjoy conditional membership in the national community.
The 969 movement also has complex, culturally embedded elements and appears to be a contemporary re-purposing of Buddhist symbolism, deployed as part of an anti-Muslim campaign. Lists of attributes are commonly found in Theravada Buddhist teachings, most likely originating as a memorization device when the religion was transmitted orally. The Buddha, the dhamma (his teachings), and the sangha (the community of monks) are known as the "Triple Gems" and it is common for Buddhists to pay respect to these three objects as part of their daily devotional practice. There are nine distinctive noble qualities of the Buddha, six of the dhamma, and nine of the sangha, and Burmese Buddhists occasionally use "969" as shorthand to refer to the Triple Gems.
The origins of the contemporary 969 movement are not entirely clear, but U Wirathu has emerged as one of its strongest proponents. The movement imagines 969 as a symbolic counter to the number 786, a numerological shorthand for Islam used among some Muslims in Asian countries. 786 has a practical purpose, as Muslim businesses (especially restaurants) display a 786 sticker to indicate to customers that they serve halal food, although it also functions as a more general notification that the business is Muslim-owned. The 969 movement has sought to institute a similar self-identification practice by Buddhist-owned businesses through the distribution of 969 stickers and encouragement of Buddhists to only patronize Buddhist-owned establishments.
In this way, 969 has functioned as a sort of "Buy Buddhist" campaign and its supporters claim that they are merely responding to similarly insular buying practices in Islamic communities. But some 969 literature and monastic sermons have also directly criticized Islam and spread unsubstantiated rumors about Islamic practices in Myanmar. One of the most persistent is that Muslim men are paid to marry Buddhist women and convert them, thus making their offspring Muslim as well.
This unfounded claim has been around in many forms for generations in Myanmar, although it has acquired a new dimension in the age of globalization, as monks like U Wirathu claim that these "paid marriage/conversions" are funded by Saudi oil money. While 969 defenders argue that they are merely encouraging Buddhists to more fervently practice and defend their religion, the movement's literature presents Islam as both a threat to Buddhism and to the Burmese nation and often exhorts Buddhists to "take action" against the threat.
When U Wirathu's actions and the 969 boycott movement are framed as "defending Buddhism", it can be very difficult for lay Buddhists to criticize or question them. U Wirathu, in addition to his political activities, appears to possess acknowledged expertise in Buddhist teachings, giving him substantial legitimacy in traditional monastic fields. When 969 supporters present their movement as simply using one's economic resources to support one's own religion, there is significant social pressure to display a sticker.
Additionally, some monks have recently noted that Buddhists have long believed that exhibiting the number 969 could confer a general blessing on one's home or business; many Buddhists would not want to be seen as rejecting this religious benefit (especially if a monk suggests it) even if they did not agree with the anti-Muslim nature of the movement. These dynamics demonstrate the challenges of navigating a changing political landscape in Myanmar where reforms have opened up space for freer speech, but religious norms still prevent public questioning of monks or their interpretations of Buddhist teachings.
The Sangha Maha Nayaka, an official council of elder, high-ranking monks, has been noticeably quiet during the recent unrest. Many (if not most) Buddhists in the country perceive this group to be a mouthpiece for the government so, even if they are accorded the usual amount of respect due to senior monks, the public and at least a portion of the monastic population is skeptical of their pronouncements.
To date they have not publicly reprimanded any of the monks who have been preaching anti-Muslim sermons or leading destructive mobs, despite the fact that they have been quick to censure certain monastic political activities in the past, including the eviction of Shwe Nya Wa Sayadaw from his monastery in 2012 for giving a political sermon at the opposition National League for Democracy's offices in Mandalay.
Tolerance over hate
This is why the recent sermons and statements of a few prominent monks condemning the violence and insisting on the core Buddhist values of loving-kindness and tolerance have been so critical in galvanizing a broader public response to anti-Muslim sentiments.
The public statement issued by Sitagu Sayadaw and the roles played by respected monks Ashin Seikkeinda and Ashin Sandadika in leading recent inter-faith gatherings have created space for lower-ranking monks and lay people to speak out and challenge the hitherto dominant narratives of hate, fear, and exclusion. Once more senior monks provide their "protection" and approval of a counter-interpretation, others may feel more confident in speaking out to challenge the monks who are preaching hate sermons.
One way to understand and respond to the exclusionary violence of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar would be to acknowledge the problematic historical framing of national sentiment in limiting ways, yet look towards a more inclusive nationalism in the future that reflects Myanmar's religious, ethnic, and racial diversity. From this perspective, persistent discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities is a hurdle to be overcome through social, political, and economic policy and through a reinterpretation of the "defense of Buddhism".
But the uncomfortable truth might be that nationalism, by nature, has always been an exclusionary force, where the unity of a majority is dependent on, and in some cases actually created by, demonizing and ostracizing a smaller, weaker group of "others." From this perspective, nationalism is unlikely to ever be a unifying phenomenon in a country with the religious and ethnic diversity of Myanmar.
Similarly, the insistence of the government and much of the democratic opposition that these conflicts are primarily a reflection of a lack of rule of law fundamentally misjudges the degree of institutionalized religious discrimination in Myanmar and the limitations of Burmese nationalism as it is currently constructed. By focusing only on the rule of law, they also misread the necessary response to prevent these types of incidents in the future.
Burmese Buddhists face a crossroads in which they need to initiate conversations about the ways in which the Buddhist community should adapt to the empirical reality of multiculturalism without abandoning its distinctive core values or discounting its pervasive influence on many aspects of Burmese culture as the majority religion in the country.
These conversations will need to include monks - because of their respected role as guardians and interpreters of the Buddha's teachings - but should also incorporate the perspectives of nuns (one of the most marginalized groups in the country), diverse populations of lay Buddhists, and even non-Buddhists. They will also eventually need to address issues such as gender discrimination, abuse of power, and monastic political activity, but the most pressing problem Burmese Buddhism faces today is its inability to co-exist peacefully with other religions in times of crisis and uncertainty.
Those who aspire to a more inclusive Myanmar characterized by consolidated democratic values of freedom and tolerance might hold out hope for a new nationalism that challenges historical patterns of discrimination and seeks to acknowledge and incorporate the most marginalized of the country's communities. But it would not be surprising if Burmese nationalism continues to manifest as violent intolerance driven by religious fear and ignorance. At the heart of the project of tempering the destructive tendencies of Burmese Buddhist nationalism is a much-needed re-imagining of the role of Buddhism in a future democratic Myanmar.
Matthew J Walton is an adjunct professor in political science at The George Washington University. This autumn, he will become the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony's College, Oxford. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.