Democracy Cannot Exist without Social Cohesion: The Myanmar Challenge

By Jonathan Bogais | Adjunct Associate Professor - School of Social and Political Sciences - University of Sydney | Jul 30, 2014
Democracy Cannot Exist without Social Cohesion: The Myanmar Challenge
U Wirathu, leader of the 969 Movement

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation?

The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...

This essay discusses the interplay of two religious traditions within a social and cultural setting that is dominated by one religion and characterized by structural and political violence. It begins with an overview of some vexed laws proposed to protect race and religion and then examines the social, cultural, and political background to this long-lasting sectarian conflict. The essay concludes with a look at civil society’s struggle to evolve in this context.

Proposed Laws

Laws[1] are currently under consideration in Myanmar,[2] which, if enacted, would require Buddhist women to gain permission from parents and government officials before marrying a man from another faith, and non-Buddhist men to convert to Buddhism before marrying Buddhist women. Other sections of the bill seek to ban polygamy and introduce unspecified methods to enforce family planning measures that limit the number of children Muslim women may have to no more than two.

In a long-lasting sectarian feud, this is the latest development, which according to U Wirathu—chairman of Myanmar’s recently constituted Commission for the Protection of Nationalism and Religion—is necessary to resolve “unbalanced social issues that are the main cause of current internal conflicts.” U Wirathu is also the leader of the Mandalay-based ultra-nationalist Buddhist 969 Movement[3] (also known as the Association of Protection of Race and Religion, or Mabatha).

The Commission for the Protection of Nationalism and Religion is a government response to the intense anti-Muslim prejudice that has swept many areas of Myanmar. Spurred by some highly nationalistic Buddhist monks, petitions calling for tough laws against Muslims to protect the country’s national race and religion have circulated among the population and gained well over a million signatures. U Wirathu has repeatedly cast Myanmar’s Muslim minority—which represents around 5 percent of the country’s approximately 55 million people—as a threat to Theravada Buddhism, the faith embraced by the majority of the population since the eleventh century.

The proposed laws have support from both the central government and regional authorities. Thura U Shwe, Speaker of the Pyithu Hluttaw (the lower house of the Myanmar parliament), said that the laws “are very important for the sake of the people and the state, but also touch on complicated religious issues.”[4] Rakhine State, also known as Arakan,[5] is where most of the sectarian violence is taking place. U Tun Aung Kyaw, from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party,[6] agreed that the laws were long overdue.

Acknowledging that the laws might not conform to international human rights standards, Daw Nan Sae Bwa from the Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party[7] said, “they [the laws] were needed to preserve the rights of Buddhist women, they were suitable to Myanmar’s current circumstances and did not discriminate against any particular religion.”[8]

Contemporary Social and Political Context

Derogatory speeches and propaganda aimed at Muslims are embedded in the nationalist rhetoric of the anti-Muslim movement. They have become synonymous with nationalist movements within the Myanmar Buddhist Sangha (Buddhist monastic order)[9] in recent years, even though the 2008 Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar[10] respects the right to practice other religions―subject to the usual caveats about national unity, morality, and public order.

Not everyone supports “hate speeches.” Some moderate Buddhists are concerned that discriminatory laws and denial of human rights could tarnish the international image of Buddhism in Myanmar and cast a shadow on the integrity of the pro-democracy process ahead of the 2015 elections. Radicals, however, have condemned those critics who, according to a statement released by the 969 Movement, are “backed by foreign groups ... raising the human rights issues, not working for the benefit of the public, and not being loyal to the state.”[11]

This strong rhetoric has had adverse consequences for the Muslim Rohingya people living in Rakhine State, who are dependent on the assistance of international humanitarian organizations following waves of sectarian violence which, according to the government-sponsored Inquiry Commission on the Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State in 2012,[12] led to 192 deaths, the destruction of over 8,600 houses, and the displacement of over 100,000 Muslims. (International NGOs have suggested the numbers were greater.) Amid allegations of bias in favor of Muslims made by local Rakhine Buddhists against Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF),[13] the Myanmar government ordered the humanitarian organization to suspend all its activities in the Rakhine State on 26 February 2014, even though MSF was providing essential medical services for a population of approximately 700,000—including almost 200,000 displaced people, most of them Muslim—living in camps and isolated villages. As of April 2014,[14] the government allowed provision of essential services to resume under strict conditions, including that local MSF staff may not carry identification and cannot use communication systems. As of July 2014, foreign MSF volunteers, who make up the bulk of the effort, have not yet been allowed to return.

Daw Aungh San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party National League for Democracy,[15] has been reluctant to speak on the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingyas. Her comments suggesting that the core of the crisis lies with Bangladesh’s failure to control its border with Myanmar to stop migration[16] are seen by nationalist Buddhists as a de facto support for their actions against the people they call “Bengalis,” as the name “Rohingya” is not recognized in Myanmar. According to the government, local authorities, and the large majority of the Myanmar population, “Bengalis” are illegal immigrants of a different faith and as such do not have a recognized identity.

The nationalist paradigm behind the protectionist movements promoted by Myanmar’s Theravada Buddhists suggests a deep-seated consciousness of the fragility of their cultural identity. The large populations of nearby countries—China (1.35 billion practicing Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism), India (1.24 billion, 80% practicing Hinduism and 13% Islam), and Bangladesh (155 million, mostly practicing Islam) —are perceived as a threat by Myanmar’s Theravada Buddhists, who represent over 80% of the country’s population.[17] This is complicated by the belief among hard-line nationalists that Islam is not compatible with Theravada Buddhist values.

Cultural Origins

This keen sense of fragility may have its origins in the historical and cultural roots of the populations now residing in the area. In the history of Arakan, Islamic economic, cultural, and political influence can be traced back to the middle of the eighth century, when the Muslim population along the southern coastal regions of China grew because of immigration from the eastern Mediterranean. This demographic change was due not only to commerce, but also to displacement resulting from Shi‘a-Sunni conflicts. A period of expansion of Muslim shipping in Asia, spreading along the coastal regions of India and the countries to the east, continued until the end of the fifteenth century. In this migratory process, Muslims eventually settled in several places, successfully developing a number of trade colonies. This long history of trade and trading settlements contributed to the Muslim population in Burma. However, large-scale Muslim-Indian immigration reached Arakan following British expansion immediately after the three Anglo-Burmese wars (1824–1885), which culminated in the total conquest of Burma. Once Burma became a province within the Indian empire, Muslim Indians could enter not as immigrants, but as residents moving from one district to another within the land. This gave a tremendous stimulus to immigration and caused a social-economic problem that remains to this day. Burma’s need for these immigrants derived from the changes in the economic structure the British had begun to develop. Foreign markets were opened to Burmese rice and, as a result, large areas were put under rice cultivation. (In 1845, there were 354,000 acres of land under rice cultivation in Burma, as compared to 12,370,000 in 1930.)[18]

Current Ideological Conflict

Although peace is central to Buddhism, Buddhist ideology does not preclude war. The dharma yuddhaya (Sanskrit term for “righteous” or “religious” war),[19] which refers to the struggle one faces in attempting to protect Buddhism in an incompatible political and religious environment, is invoked by nationalist Buddhists as a right to protect race and religion—especially in the Rakhine State, which has the greatest population of Muslims in Myanmar.

An article published in Bauddha Peramuna on 11 March 1961 made the following claim: “According to Buddhist principles as found in the Pali canon of the Theravada tradition, believers should always practice maitri [loving-kindness]. However, when Buddhism is threatened, thus in order to protect the religion, we cannot merely practice maitri, and any government, however dharmistha [righteous] it may, has a duty to protect at any cost the life and property of its citizens.”[20] This justification of defensive war when the state acts in the interest of the well-being of the majority of its citizens helps in understanding the overwhelming support of the population for the new laws to protect race and religion.

An analysis of the interplay of two different religious traditions in a social and cultural setting dominated by one gives insight into the convoluted challenge of adaptation and acceptance currently facing the followers of both faiths. In Myanmar, not only has Islam to come to terms with the fact that it is a religion followed by a minority population, it has also to address the question of its contemporary relevance in a social and cultural context that is fraught with conflict and hostilities.

For its part, Theravada Buddhism is challenged by a minority population perceived as a threat to its cultural integrity in a state expected by the international community to comply with human rights and promote civil society. 

Conclusion: Social Cohesion Must Exist for Democracy to Prevail

Some civil society groups in Myanmar have grown increasingly concerned that the proposed Law on Protection of Race and Religion would violate basic international human rights standards. But, as the International Crisis Group stated: “Since Myanmar has been under military rule for so long, few people today understand the role that civil society is meant to play in a democracy or that a healthy democracy requires broad-mindedness and a dispersion of power.”[21] Until recently, civil society in Myanmar has been in dichotomous contrast to state institutions, reflecting a long-lasting tradition of dualism in Western philosophical thought that fails to acknowledge current social realities in many parts of Asia. As a result, it is often associated with anti-state, or anti-state institutions.

Myanmar needs an active civil society that can challenge, support, and complement the state. However, in an ethno-cultural, post-colonial political environment, civil society hinges on how democratization can evolve in a state over-determined by ethnicity and religion, and in which political and cultural development is also intrinsically connected to economic development. Developing civil society in Myanmar is a delicate balancing act, as the future role and influence of indigenous civil society organizations will depend on their ability to address critical issues, access new legislatures, and influence policy-makers and politicians.

Meanwhile, the difficulties faced by Myanmar to address sectarian violence are no doubt related to the lack of willingness by both the government and the opposition to promote social integration by recognizing and respecting the identities and differences of all actors involved and encouraging a dialogue to achieve and maintain peaceful cultural social relations. This recognition is the basis for common ground and is central to social cohesion.

By emphasizing uniformity through laws to protect one class of race and religion, Myanmar legislators are advancing a device for oppression, breaching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which recognizes “… that human rights should be protected by the rule of law …”[22] A challenge to the Myanmar nationalistic conception of the rule of law in its current state is that it is overly narrow and discriminatory, and as such it predetermines the conclusion that some acts of oppression are morally justifiable. If enacted, the Law on Protection of Race and Religion would not only breach international conventions; it would also preset the conditions for further sectarian violence.

To retain legitimacy, Myanmar must apply a balance between centralism and devolution, between unity and diversity. The issue at stake becomes that of the appropriate balance between the rights and freedoms of all individuals, on the one hand, and the needs and vision of the state on the other.

[1] Lawi Weng, “Thein Sein Orders Commission, Court to Draft ‘Protection of Religion’ Law,” The Irrawaddy, 7 March 2014,

[2] I use the name Myanmar in this essay in accordance with United Nations protocols. I use Burma in relation to the pre-1947 era. See Avijit Gupta (ed.), The Physical Geography of Southeast Asia (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] Regarding the 969 Movement, see Andrew R.C. Marshall, “Special Report: Myanmar Gives Official Blessing to Anti-Muslim Monks,” Reuters, 27 June 2013,

[4] “Speaker sends four religion-focused laws back to government,” Myanmar Times, 27 February 2014,

[5] Charles Higham, Burma’s Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arakan (Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2002).

[6] Rakhine Nationalities Development Party,

[8] “Speaker sends four religion-focused laws back to government,” Myanmar Times, 27 February 2014,

[9] Robert E. Buswell, Jr., Encyclopedia of Buddhism (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004).

[10] The 2008 Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar,

[11] “Nationalist Monks Call NGOs ‘Traitors’ for Opposing Interfaith Marriage Bill,” The Irrawaddy Magazine, 12 May 2014,

[12] Final Report of Inquiry Commission on Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State – Republic of the Union of Myanmar,

[14] Latest information dated 18 April 2014 was emailed to this writer by MSF’s director of communications.

[15] Karen Christensen and David Levinson, “National League for Democracy,” in Encyclopedia of Modern Asia (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003).

[16] “Bangladesh Slams Suu Kyi’s Comments on Rohingya,” AFP/DVB Reports, 19 November 2012,’s-comments-o....

[17] Paul Hattaway, Peoples of the Buddhist World (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2004).

[18] Moshe Yegar, The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group (Weisbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1972), 29,

[19] Tessa J. Bartholomeusz, In Defense of Dharma - Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka (London and New York: Routledge Curzon, 2002).

[20] Ibid.

[21] International Crisis Group (ICG), Myanmar: The Role of Civil Society - ICG Asia Report, No. 27/2001,

[22] United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,