Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar

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For those seeking an excellent summary and analysis of recent issues on the religious complexities in Burma ‘Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar’ is available to download for free. Written by Matthew J. Walton (Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford) and Susan Hayward it is, to date, the most thorough analysis of nationalism and inter-religious tensions in Burma. It is published by the Honolulu: East-West Center.

Myanmar’s transition to democracy has been marred by violence between Buddhists and Muslims. While the violence originally broke out between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, it subsequently emerged throughout the country, impacting Buddhists and Muslims of many ethnic backgrounds. This article offers background on these so-called “communal conflicts” and the rise and evolution of Buddhist nationalist groups led by monks that have spearheaded anti-Muslim campaigns. The authors describe how current monastic political mobilization can be understood as an extension of past monastic activism, and is rooted in traditional understandings of the monastic community’s responsibility to defend the religion, respond to community needs, and guide political decision-makers. The authors propose a counter-argument rooted in Theravada Buddhism to address the underlying anxieties motivating Buddhist nationalists while directing them toward peaceful actions promoting coexistence. Additionally, given that these conflicts derive from wider political, economic, and social dilemmas, the authors offer a prescription of complementary policy initiatives.