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


An excellent article by Kyaw San Wai in the eurasiareview.

It’s very much an insider’s analysis, as he states:

‘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.’

Though these could be considered harsh sentiments about non-Burmese media, his points are well made. He suggests that the standard narratives describing the violence and discrimination are valid he goes onto suggest that there is a ‘long standing siege mentality of the Burmese populace drawing on Buddhist millenarianism and a sense of demographic besiegement.’

He goes on to describe this proposed 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.’

He highlights the role of colonialism in creating the juncture between State and Sangha culminating in the 1930s Saya San rebellion. Added to this is what he describes as ‘demographic besiegement’ in which ‘most Burmese are well aware of the fact that Myanmar borders the populous countries of China, India and Bangladesh, with a combined population of over 2.7 billion.’ This gives rise to what he describes as ‘a new siege mentality’:

‘As coverage of Myanmar’s religious violence proliferated, there is a growing perception within Myanmar that the international community and media only concern themselves with the Rohingyas’ version of events while neglecting the Burmese Buddhist perspective, save perhaps the spotlight given to Wirathu and the 969 Movement which he represents. Even then, it is done primarily to discredit Burmese views.’

His suggestions are well taken and simply implores for a more subtle and intricate understanding of the religious and Nationalistic factors at play in Burma:

‘Although many aspects of this siege mentality stem from sensationalism and paranoia stoked by nationalists and radical monks, the situation warrants a more nuanced understanding rather than being summarily dismissed. Factors including historical sentiments, lack of journalistic access, activist journalism and a hyper-active rumour mill, also need to be considered to better comprehend and address the siege mentality.

However, some commentators are quick to dismiss the Buddhist siege mentality as based solely on overhyped paranoia or as the Burmese military’s creation to cement its praetorian role in politics. A flippantly dismissive view of the Burmese siege mentality and the simplified portrayals of the sectarian violence only serve to misdiagnose the root causes and make a viable solution more elusive.

This does not mean legitimising the nationalists’ fear-mongering, justifying violence against anybody or leaving widespread institutionalised racial and religious prejudice unattended. Rather, it means that a more nuanced understanding and approach to the situation is needed, and that the issue is more complicated than what is portrayed by the over-simplified narratives regurgitated incessantly within and outside Myanmar.’

A reworking of the article appears in The Nation on 2 March 2014.


One thought on “Myanmar’s Religious Violence: A Buddhist ‘Siege Mentality’ At Work

  1. Thank you for bringing this article to my attention. I would not like to hide my opinion that the article is lacking of internal validity; nor it can be extrapolated as the general truth.

    It doesn’t mean I am dissenting your opinion of ‘excellence’. All 62 false views entitled to called excellent in their own way. In addition, I think your intellectual decision will not be identical as your momentary like towards an alluring analysis. Feel free to post your views and opinions as usual. I appreciate your sincere and generous efforts in this blog alive.

    This article might be one of the minimally harmless among the hypocritical scientific papers prevalent in Burmese language and Burmese media. Nonetheless, it is only minimally harmless in a sense because I can’t estimate how much is the extent of endless harms similar rampant false analyses would bring Burmese people in their depraved future.

    First with my due respect to your impression, I am a little skeptical of ‘the insider’s analysis’, which endows the writer more credit of a “Burmese community representative” than his merit is worth receiving. I have extensively traveled to Rohingya communities as well as numerous marginalized ethnic communities in various regions of Burma. I am self-evident how much Burmese Government has been deliberately shaping institutions to oppress various ethnic communities, depriving them of health, education, and even their right to freely exercise their labor. Many community representatives openly talked to me about their woes but such a very rare experience does not inspire me to think myself I can make an insider’s analysis because I can never reach the status of the same suffering identical with these victims, who have been endured to the despicable oppressions of Burmese Government for their lifetime and generations.

    In addition, I feel that while it is their right for the oppressed to freely voice against oppressions, I am not sure whether a kind of “right” exists for the oppressors to freely voice their opinions for their reasons of oppressions. So I think the article is one of the unwholesome many that voice to represent the oppressor groups and offer allegedly good reasons their legitimacy of oppression.

    Any way, I have to indicate what a false method this article is based on. While his particular emphasis of the Buddha’s prophecy of 5000 years and its half-way point ( I don’t see any Burmese Buddhist who takes seriously about this prophecy that leads him for hitting a Kalar; I don’t notice even Wairathu, the sectarian hatred leader, ever mentions about this; or the author himself is ever serious for this prophecy, I suspect) is completely invalid, his general method of analysis on Burmese current affairs that is based on “sociologism” is entirely false. He is just superfluously arguing that “siege mentality” arisen in a small society among populous nations : “social situations shape our mentality “.

    Let us notice that we have been among the populous nations for so many decades in the past, too. Whether the siege mentality happens to us is our choice of perceptions. While it is true that social situations largely involve in our perceptions and knowledge, it is we who make our critical moral decisions to avoid harming to others and treat others good.

    Sociologism , if misused as in the current article, supports “irrationalism” : “our perceptions, feeling and passions are unfortunately shaped by the environment”. The social facts in the environment explain the mechanisms of our conducts. The dangerous extrapolation (as observed in this article) is that our passions and feelings are always valid because they are just social effects. A counterpart of such method is a branch within the philosophy of natural laws called “psychologism”, which (if misused) will also make the claim that our feelings and passions (lust, greed, hatred) are inherent in human nature; we can’t avoid our actions regardless of the desirable social facts because ‘urge’ is inherent in us.

    While both theories are true enough to inform our existential human situation, none can be taken as the general truth for our moral justification. Especially for sociologism, this doctrine is the very one used by Karl Marx (sincerely by this great humanist), but it turned out that the doctrine is exploited by opportunists to raise “class spirit”, “group ego”, “group lust” and “group morality”.

    I would like to say adherence of both doctrines (sociologism vs. psychologism) can be summed up by a Pali term “Puttujana Vada” (ignorance justifies our actions). While we all are Puttujana, ignorant as we are, it is also we who can be self-critical to make our moral choice to do the saintly things: be tolerant, receptive, compassionate to the week and willing to treat others as we like.

    Simply enough, while we all are living with ignorance, ignorance shall never be taken as our justification of the truth.

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