Myanmar’s Religious Violence: A Buddhist ‘Siege Mentality” at Work

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No. 037/2014 dated 20 February 2014

By Kyaw San Wai


The root causes for the violence by Burmese Buddhists against Muslims in Myanmar are complex. Contrary to the simplified narratives carried by the international media, a nuanced understanding of the situation is needed to attain a viable solution.


SINCE RELIGIOUS violence erupted in Western Myanmar in 2012 and subsequently spread to other parts, there has been a litany of analyses on the plight of the Rohingya and the underlying causes of the conflict. Regarding the causes, much emphasis is placed on the actions of nationalists and a controversial group of chauvinistic monks called the ‘969 Movement’.

Analysts also attribute the violence to the loosening of military control and of censorship, absence of the rule of law, and machinations of disgruntled factions within government. President Thein Sein’s administration has also been accused of inaction and even deliberate involvement. While these are recent factors which have precipitated violence against Muslims in Myanmar, other critical isssues have been overlooked – especially a long standing siege mentality of the Burmese populace drawing on Buddhist millenarianism and a sense of demographic besiegement.

Buddhist millenarianism

Among Burmese Buddhists, there is a widespread belief that Buddhism will disappear in the future. While international coverage points to Myanmar’s religious demographics to discredit fears of Islamic encroachment, Burmese Buddhists have a starkly different world view where their faith is besieged by larger, well-endowed and better-organised faiths. This millenarianism can be traced to a scripturally unsupported but widely believed ‘prophecy’ that Buddhism will disappear 5000 years after the Buddha’s passing. As 1956 is considered the halfway point, the belief is that Buddhism is now declining irreversibly.

The collapse of state support for Buddhism following British colonisation, the colonial government’s tacit support for Christian missionaries and the large influx of migrant labour from British India created a sense of religious and demographic encroachment, fuelling millenarian narratives which culminated in the 1930s Saya San rebellion.

Furthermore, Buddhism’s historical decline and Islam’s subsequent dominance in parts of Asia combined with misinterpretation of the ‘786’ symbol – representing the Islamic Bismillah phrase and denoting Muslim ownership, as seen in Muslim establishments – gave rise to a certain narrative: that Islam might be Buddhism’s nemesis and that the 21st century will be a decisive juncture in Buddhism’s prophesised destruction.