Country Profile


Situation Report

Religious dimensions in Myanmar need to be taken seriously, and viewed as a matter of urgency, in a country where identities are bound to religious beliefs and histories. The world, and particularly close neighbours are watching to see how the present situation in Rakhine state develops and what solutions are can be adopted more widely in the country writes Katherine Marshall of Georgetown University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

Myanmar is at a crossroads. Some paths lead towards rekindled hope for a beautiful country, well endowed with rich human and natural resources. One of the world's poorest nations today, after years of self-imposed isolation and harsh autocratic rule, Myanmar has far to go to catch up, but recent political and economic reforms point in positive directions. Myanmar in the 1940s was the region's wealthiest nation and it has the endowments to take that direction again. Other paths, however, point in dangerous directions, towards religious extremism, ethno/religious conflicts, weak human development, and economic stagnation. Whatever the path taken, the nation faces dangers and challenges, above all because institutions and governance are weak and there will inevitably be the conflicts that go with development and managing natural resources. Sharp tensions, especially in the western Rakhine state but also across the nation and the still to be resolved conflicts along the borders spill over into international relations in a complex and rather volatile region.

It is a situation that calls for active efforts to address both the proximate and root causes of the full spate of current conflicts. That means taking their religious dimensions seriously.

Overall Tensions and Violence

A first important fact is that Myanmar is a country with rich religious traditions and a large and influential religious establishment. Core national and other identities are quite tightly bound to religious beliefs and histories. Buddhism was firmly tied to authority and prosperity over a long history. Especially since the 1930s and 1940s when organised movements based on nationalism emerged, national and political identities have been closely tied to the Buddhist faith of a large majority of the population ( estimated at 75 percent). Complicating the picture is the strong association of the identity of the Burmans (the majority ethnic group) with Buddhism. Ethnic and religious minorities ( Christian estimated at 8-10 percent of the population, Muslim at 4-7 percent, with large margins of error given the length of time since the last census), tend to be associated with one another.

Since 2012 communal violence has erupted in Myanmar

Communal violence has erupted in Myanmar since 2012 in some unexpected ways, even given Myanmar's long history of tensions over the roles and rights of both ethnic and religious minorities in a self-consciously Buddhist state. As is almost always the case, conflicts in Myanmar are not about religion per se but increasingly do follow religious lines. Religion and ethnicity are intertwined and often overlap. Longstanding intra-regional tensions take on a religious guise. Economic and class differences are also intertwined with religious identities. And historical memories of resentments, for example of groups favoured by certain regimes, are long. It would be a mistake to see the tensions as primarily religious, but it would be equally foolish to downplay their religious nature.

Current tensions are commonly traced to the British colonial era, and particularly to the practice of indirect rule that disrupted traditional patterns of authority and favoured leadership and education of minority ethnic groups, some of which tended to be Christian. Then during the decades of rule by the military junta, close ties were forged with at least part of the Buddhist Sangha as both symbols and realities of authority and legitimacy (notwithstanding the tensions during the 2007 Saffron revolution). Many tensions repressed during the long years of authoritarian rule in Myanmar are now coming to the surface, often taking new forms, as the country has begun to open up.

Adding a religious aspect to conflicts is the emergence of a militant Buddhist minority, notably the 969 group, with a specific organisational face and a monk as leader, Ashin Wirathu. The group's ideology is fiercely nationalistic and explicitly hostile to the Muslim minority. Its ideology focuses on ethnic and religious purity. While the movement overall does not advocate violence, some leaders have indeed spoken in extreme and violent terms. Wirathu has reportedly called himself the "Burmese Bin Laden", and made publicly offensive and clearly racist comments, for example claiming that Muslims rape Burmese girls. He told a Guardian reporter "In every town, there is a crude and savage Muslim majority." A part of the rhetoric focuses on the perceived high birth rates of the Muslim minority and what should be seen as an exaggerated fear that the Muslim minority will engulf the Buddhist population and character of Myanmar. This group represents a small but forceful minority among Myanmar's estimated 500,000 Buddhist monks, but Wirathu has thousands of followers at his monastery and on Facebook and other social media.

The Rohingya Crisis

The most acute conflict, with the most overt religious overtones, involves brutal tensions in Rakhine state (formerly called Arakan), where the Rohingya population, which is largely Muslim, is pitted against the state's Burmese Buddhist population. Estimates of population are rough but the Rohingya population in the state is thought to number 1.3 million out of a total state population of 3.3 million. The region, on Myanmar's western coast, is relatively isolated and is physically close to Bangladesh. The Rohingya conflict is distinctive and of long standing and it has drawn specific international focus, including successive reports by the United Nations Rapporteur on Human Rights and attention from groups such as the Elders and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The Myanmar government's failure to address the crisis openly and effectively has come in for wide criticism.

The Rohingya population originated, a long time ago, largely from what is today Bangladesh (the Rohingya language is a dialect of Bengali and has elements from Sanskrit, Arabic, Bengali, and Urdu). Though there is extensive evidence that the population has long been established in the Rakhine region, a core issue is that they are viewed not only in popular politics but in law as foreign (even though all residents of Myanmar are recognised as citizens in the 1947 Constitution).

The original Rohingya crisis dates back to the 1970s

The Rohingya crisis dates back at least to the 1970s. Active government efforts to "purify" Myanmar by driving out non-Burmese communities began as early as 1962. Two major crises affecting the Rohingya occurred, in 1978 and in 1991. In 1978, after many Bengalis fled to Myanmar during the troubles surrounding Bangladeshi independence, the government campaign known as Naga Min focused on the Rohingya, with the aim of forcing refugees out of Myanmar. There were arbitrary arrests, desecration of mosques, destruction of villages, and confiscation of lands. Large numbers of Rohingya (including many who had been long settled in Rakhine state) fled to Bangladesh, where the government set up makeshift camps and appealed to the United Nations for aid and assistance. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set up some official refugee camps but an agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar in July 1978, allowed for the repatriation of 200,000 refugees back to Myanmar. By the end of 1979, roughly 180,000 Rohingya had been returned to Rakhine state, despite refugee protests which produced clashes with the Bengali officials and hundreds of deaths. Rohingya also returned to Myanmar because of awful conditions in the refugee camps, the arrest of Rohingya community leaders, and inadequate food rations.

Then again in July 1991 the Myanmar government implemented another campaign that led roughly 250,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. This time they were not welcomed as refugees and still today they live there in makeshift camps as stateless people. There are an estimated 300,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh.

In Myanmar, the government in 1994 stopped issuing Rohingya children birth certificates. In the late 1990s, Myanmar also began to require the Muslim population alone to be granted official permission from local authorities to marry (although legislation was never passed institutionalising this practice). This permission is largely obtained through bribes and can take several years. Cohabitation and sexual contact outside wedlock are both arrestable offenses. In short, for decades the Rohingya population has been deprived of a wide range or rights that include access to education and health care. Other plausible claims of persecution of Rohingya include deliberate rape of women and forced labour for construction of various public facilities.

The simmering crisis surfaced again when Myanmar began to open up from 2011 on. Fresh violence broke out in Rakhine state in 2012, continued at a low level through 2013, and erupted again in January 2014. It prompted more restrictive measures against Rohingya people, a de facto separation that some characterise as apartheid, and the expulsion of international groups working there, notably Médecins sans Frontières. Despite government restrictions on access and reporting, journalists have covered the situation and the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights has raised alarms about the situation at the United Nations.   United Nations General Assembly, "Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana", 2 April, 2014, But the government has restricted access and to date there is no meaningful response.

The Rohingya are confined largely to poorly equipped camps

Citizenship is a central and live issue, with Rohingya denied Myanmar citizenship by a law of 1982. Among measures that specifically target the Rohingya is a law (now under consideration) that restricts the number of children a Rohingya family can have to two (no other group, ethnic or religious, is subject to similar measures). Waves of violence have resulted in an exodus of people, mostly to Bangladesh but also to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. This is often in unsafe boats with many reports of drownings, and no safe haven. The Rohingya appear to be unwelcome in many places and within Rakhine state are confined largely in poorly equipped camps. The situation is tense with sporadic violent outbursts that leave behind destroyed villages and communities. While Rakhine Buddhists contend that atrocities go both ways, and there is some truth there, it is clear that the main sufferers by far are the Rohingya.

In short, the plight of the Rohingya is horrific and the terms genocide and persecution are widely applied. As the UN Special Rapporteur observed: ".. the Special Rapporteur is concerned that influential community, political and religious groups are propagating an agenda to rid Rakhine State of the estimated one million Rohingyas who live there."

More recently, in November 2014, the conflict in Rakhine state has reportedly lead to the mass displacement of over 100,000 Rohingya Muslims since 2012 with an average of 900 leaving Myanmar per day. In addition to this there are still uncertainties over the government's proposed new Rakhine State Action Plan, published in draft in October 2014, and how this may affect the identity of the Rohingya.

Looking ahead, the Rakhine state crisis can be seen both as a test or trial for Myanmar in terms of human rights and civic standards and identity, and as a microcosm of what is at stake in building a viable nation with a strong core identity, but also a rich pluralist reality. As a recent study observed, "In short, the people of Rakhine state will determine if they get rich together or stay poor together."  "A Fatal Distraction from Federalism Religious Conflict in Rakhine", Prepared for Proximity Designs, Myanmar, 8 April, 2014

Religious Conflict Beyond Rakhine State

Conflicts, mostly sporadic, have increased since 2012 in other parts of Myanmar, many involving Buddhists and Muslims. However, this needs to be seen against the reality that Myanmar has been at war with ethnic groups for over a half-century. The conflict still flares in the northern states of Kachin and Shan and, while many of the combatants seeking autonomy are Christians, the conflicts do not have a primarily religious character. What appears to be new are incidents across the country pitting Buddhists, including monks, against Muslims. Usually provoked by a perceived or real incident (a commercial dispute or an alleged rape, for example), Buddhist groups target Muslim property and communities. Anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be widespread and is reported to be on the increase. To date similar tensions involving Christian communities have not been reported but are feared. One observer characterises the situation as "a difficult witches' brew of issues that would challenge any government". Knox Thames, 14 May, 2014,

Religion is now an important factor in Myanmar's border conflicts

Further complicating the situation are the more longstanding conflicts that have led to violent conflicts with government forces, largely along Myanmar's borders with Thailand and China. Several ethnic groups are centrally involved, and religion, always a secondary factor in identity among different groups, is taking on increasing importance. With important mineral and other resources at issue, arrangements for resource sharing and autonomy are central to resolving the conflicts. Conflicts have been aggravated by human rights abuses by government forces so setting standards and efforts at reconciliation are important. With large refugee communities especially in Thailand, international cooperation and resettlement are parallel issues. Over the long term sustainable and equitable economic growth and a dynamic programme of human development that allows Myanmar's citizens to catch up with neighbouring countries in education and health are vital.

There are also international, geopolitical realities to take into account. Indonesia lies just south of Myanmar, with almost 200 million Muslims, and Bangladesh's Muslim population numbers about 150 million. It seems deeply unwise for Myanmar to allow this heightening of tensions with its Muslim minority. The Rohingya issue is also becoming notorious within global Muslim circles (the OIC for example). Muslim extremists could well see Myanmar as a target for heightened activism. In this, and other ways, religious divisions could weaken Myanmar, impeding its prospects of emerging as a prosperous, united and democratic nation.

Looking Towards Solutions

There are four tracks in looking towards solutions to Myanmar's immediate interreligious conflicts:

Efforts to address the Rakhine/Rohingya crisis

The Rakhine/Rohingya situation appears to be stalled, even after recent comments from world leaders following the November 2014 ASEAN Summit, with no viable efforts underway to address what clearly amounts to a humanitarian crisis, with starvation looming, lack of urgent medical care, a refugee crisis, and mounting international attention that detracts from Myanmar's reputation at a time when allies are urgently needed. All eyes are on the constructive parts of the government to take action.

Buddhist led efforts to counter extremist tendencies and exercise leadership for peaceful solutions

Buddhist leadership is needed to address the extremist fringe that is contributing to violence and blocking positive solutions. This is complicated because the official Sangha leadership is closely allied to (and controlled by) the government so that strong leadership from within official hierarchies is improbable. In practice the approximately 500,000 monks in Myanmar are highly decentralised, centered on monasteries and communications are fragmentary. This suggests that a wide net of communications and efforts to engage and educate are needed and support from Buddhist leaders in neighbouring countries could play a part.

Myanmar led interfaith efforts to broker peace and address root causes of tensions and conflicts

Quite a wide range of efforts by leaders of the different religious communities (Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian above all) to lead in addressing conflicts and working for sustainable peace are underway. They have promise but their real impact is unclear. International support, for example by Religions for Peace (supporting the creating of a Myanmar Interreligious Council), the Institute for Global Engagement, and the US Institute of Peace helps in bringing leaders together. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Catholic Church have also sent emissaries.

Southeast Asia and international conflict resolution initiatives that take into account the conflicts' religious dimensions

ASEAN, as the leading regional organisation, has a limited track record in addressing religious issues but may be seen as an acceptable partner in mediation and conflict resolution. The Summit of ASEAN leaders in November 2014, including the involvement of the United Nations raised concerns over the Rohingya population again, but it is difficult to know how this will be followed up. The voice of the United Nations and major bilateral partners, including the United States and United Kingdom, but also Japan could make clear both the political and practical significance of national failure to take religious dimensions of conflict and development options well into account. President Obama called for the need to protect the Rohingya community in November 2014 at a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, and these calls must now be acted upon.

Religious Factors 

Looking towards the longer term, religious factors need to be taken into account, both in the design of the constitution and laws (and specifically arrangements for autonomy) and resource sharing arrangements, and thus in national development strategies and programs, and in civic education, where the values of pluralism in a clearly plural society need to be inculcated if not introduced. Observers look to the leadership of respected political figures, notably Aung San Suu Kyi, in furthering these agendas (short and longer term) but, in the charged and complex pre-election climate such leadership has yet to emerge.

The next election is now due to take place in late 2015, but there are still uncertainties as to whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to run for the presidency. The 2014 census, the first in 30 years, has also been identified as a flashpoint because of the sensitivity of the religious and ethnic data that it collects. Inter alia the Rohingya people are not even listed as a category and careful handling of release of data is essential.

In the short term, the Myanmar government's reluctance to acknowledge problems, to share information, to work with groups seeking to address conflicts (especially in Rakhine State) are generating ill will and leading to missed opportunities to improve a situation which is looking increasingly desperate.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

This situation report was first published on 16 June 2014.

It was updated on 4 December 2014.