The Roots of Religious Conflict in Myanmar

This article is part of “Southeast Asia: Refugees in Crisis,” an ongoing series  by The Diplomat for summer and fall 2015 featuring exclusive articles from scholars and practitioners tackling Southeast Asia’s ongoing refugee crisis. All articles in the series can be found here.

Understanding narratives is an important step to ending violence.

By Matt Schissler, Matthew J Walton and Phyu Phyu Thi

August 06, 2015

This article is part of “Southeast Asia: Refugees in Crisis,” an ongoing series  by The Diplomat for summer and fall 2015 featuring exclusive articles from scholars and practitioners tackling Southeast Asia’s ongoing refugee crisis. All articles in the series can be found here.

Myanmar has been the site of serious conflicts between Buddhist and Muslim communities, particularly in Rakhine State where at least 146,000 persons have been displaced since the first riots in June 2012. This violence has prompted international organizations dedicated to early warning of mass violence to issue alarms, but the dynamics of this conflict are understood differently in Myanmar. In May, three Nobel laureates called violence and persecution of Muslims in Myanmar “nothing less than genocide.” A few days later, U Zaw Aye Maung, the Rakhine Affairs Minister for Yangon Region, was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying, “if genocide was taking place in Rakhine State, then it was against ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.”

Such a statement is not simple intransigence in the face of external criticism. It illustrates a conception of victim and violator that is diametrically opposed to the one made visible in international discourse. In Myanmar’s domestic context, such a conception is closer to the norm than otherwise. Other state authorities use similar rhetoric. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, meanwhile, told the BBC in October 2013, “Fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well. There’s a perception that Muslim power, global Muslim power, is very great.”

Over the last seven months, we have been conducting a ‘Listening Project’ seeking to understand how people talk about concerns for their local communities and country. In this research, conducted across six regions in Myanmar, we have regularly noted discourses that construct Muslims as an existential threat, in which Buddhism is vulnerable and needing protection lest Islam supplant it as the majority religion. Fear of a Muslim takeover is based on a conception of Islam as intrinsically violent, justified with arguments that are strikingly reminiscent of discourses common in the United States and other countries since September 11th 2001. People regularly raised examples of alleged violence by Muslims in Myanmar as well the actions of ISIS and Al Qaeda. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was pilloried by non-Burmese observers for her 2013 interview, but in situating domestic fears in a global context she was descriptively accurate. Fear in Myanmar is not (only) of a small minority within Myanmar, but of a global threat felt to be both surrounding the country and growing within it.

Understanding these narratives is important because it helps to explain the ferocity of domestic backlash against international responses to recent violence: rejecting calls to recognize Rohingya citizenship is seen by many in Myanmar as integral to national security. Rakhine State is often referred to as the country’s “western gate,” the front line in a battle to protect Myanmar from an invasion described as both external, via immigration from Bangladesh that is dated to the British colonial period, and internal, via expansion in domestic Muslim populations believed to be driven by large families, inter-faith marriage, and forced conversions. This narrative of threat also helps to justify discriminatory laws, disregard for the suffering of a religious other, and even violence as forms of virtuous self-defense. It should be no surprise, then, that perpetrators of anti-Muslim riots have been described shouting both “Muslims, be gone” and singing Myanmar’s national anthem or shouting, “We are Buddhist martyrs.”

Examining these narratives also highlights the ways in which they are emergent works in progress, as are the groups seeking to produce them. Many of the people we spoke with said things that matched the rhetoric of nationalist forces like 969 and Ma Ba Tha, but this was not the case for everyone. Similarly, while these groups present a view of long-standing and irreconcilable Buddhist-Muslim antagonism, many people still remember histories of religious co-existence. Relations between communities defined in religious terms are tense across Myanmar, not just in Rakhine State. But this has not always been so; a core component of conflict is erasing memories of everyday harmony and solidarities that crossed or blurred communal lines. It would be sad for Myanmar if these memories are forgotten, disavowed, or replaced.

Anyone interested in reducing conflict or promoting peace and reconciliation in Myanmar would do well to start by listening carefully to the ways people discuss violence in everyday life. Firstly, this reinforces the importance of backing local civil society efforts to counter narratives of threat and self-defense. This would not only include those who identify (or are identified) as peacemakers, but also those whose stated focus is elsewhere but who have the credibility, connections, and bravery to work for peace at the most difficult moments. These local actors exist, but they are not always the ones first identified by outsiders who would intervene. Local groups and individuals often have a greater understanding and sensitivity to the ways in which narratives of threat are mobilized, and how they may be countered – as well as who is (or is not) countering them.

Secondly, listening helps underscore the ways that discourse about violence in Myanmar can contribute to the mobilization of that violence. How are instances of riotous violence explained and who is identified as victim and aggressor? How is the historical lineage of contemporary conflict being constructed, and what beliefs about the irreconcilability of religious communities do this support? How is Islam being represented, and is it as a unitary and fearsome other? The ways in which influential actors in Myanmar society answer these questions helps to produce the narratives that can enable and legitimize violence. This is true of 969 and Ma Ba Tha, but it would be a mistake to make them the sole object of critique. When the arrests made after a riot disproportionately target one religious community, this operates as a powerful statement about who has been victimized and who must be defended against. So too are legislative and administrative moves that ‘protect’ one religion from another or privilege public speech and action by representatives of one religious group, along with implicit or explicit condoning of the rationale and rhetoric of 969 and Ma Ba Tha. Most dangerous of all are statements by authorities that imply or assert risks of ‘Islamic terrorism’ in Myanmar.

International discourses about conflict in Myanmar matter as well. Explanations for violence that focus only on the events immediately precipitating a given incident obscure questions about how violence is mobilized, who is involved, and with what direct or indirect support. Lazy historicization that equates contemporary violence with, for example, Indo-Burman riots in the 1930s reinforces attempts to present religious antagonism as inevitable and historically determined. Finally, writing and rhetoric about ‘Islamic terrorism’ has real impacts in Myanmar. Unsubstantiated headlines that crow of a terrorist threat in Myanmar, like those recently published by Newsweek and the Independent, are dangerous and irresponsible. And subtler trends in western discourses about Islam and terrorism are important, too. Myanmar is preparing for hotly contested national elections. We have identified the analogy between discourses in Myanmar and the US after 2001. In the US, similar sentiments and security rhetoric became an integral part of the 2004 elections, supporting political agendas while also demonizing Muslim communities in the US and worldwide; we should expect similar dynamics in Myanmar, while hoping for less violent outcomes.

Finally, listening is necessary as an ethical matter and as a way to de-escalate a growing sense in Myanmar that the fears and perceptions of Buddhists are being ignored. Listening need not equate with agreement, nor entail ignoring the voices of marginalized minorities. But it will lead to more informed responses. Without understanding the nature of narratives that posit Islam as an existential threat and the production and reinforcement of those narratives within Myanmar society, there is no hope for crafting responses that can promote peace and reconciliation, or decrease the likelihood of continued violence.

Matt Schissler is an incoming PhD student in anthropology at the University of Michigan and a Graduate Fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. Dr. Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Phyu Phyu Thi is a co-founder of MIDO and Research Manager for the organization. This essay is excerpted from M.MAS working paper 1:1 “Threat and virtuous defence: Listening to narratives of religious conflict in six Myanmar cities” which can be downloaded here.