-“Burma owes most of its social system to its experience… of Theravada Buddhism”. Peter Popham. The Lady and the Peacock.
Myanmar’s close link to religion dates back to more than two thousand years ago, when Buddhism was first introduced into the country. Ever since, Buddhism has become the predominant faith, guiding almost 90% of the 54mn population, mostly in the form of Theravada Buddhism. The country also hosts religious minorities like Christians -who are generally protestant and of Kachin or Karen ethnicity-, Muslims, Hinduists and Folk religious people that worship the Nat (ancestors). However, the predominance of Theravada Buddhism is present in all aspects of Burmese daily life.
This form of Buddhism is considered to be one of the oldest, most orthodox forms -as its name means “School of Elder Monks”- and it’s also predominant in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Theravada Buddhists give high importance to monastic life and to meditation, which is necessary to achieve the state of Nirvana.
As mentioned, religion is an essential part of daily life in Myanmar, which also includes politics. During the military regime, there was a Ministry of Religious Affairs, which Suu’s government transformed into the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture. This ministry alleges to promote all religions equally, but it has allowed Buddhism extremist organizations such as the Association Protection of Race and Religion to directly intervene in politics. It has also passed controversial legislation like the “Protection of Race and Religion Bills” of 2015.
These bills include the Religious Conversion Bill that requires anyone who wants to convert to a faith other than Buddhism to apply through an official state body. It also contains the Buddhist Women Special Marriage Bill, meant to regulate female marriage with non-Buddhist men due to their “vulnerability” to forced conversion. Similarly, the Monogamy Bill criminalizes extra-marital relations, and the Population Control Healthcare Bill ultimately grants the state the ability to regulate pregnancies, births and abortions. Moreover, even the population acknowledges the weight of religion in politics, as more than 52% of the population has admitted that they would never vote for someone who is not of their same faith. Forget the right-left spectrum, we are governing under holy-unholy metrics.
Aung San Suu Kyi herself is a devoted Theravada Buddhist and has repeatedly mentioned how its principles had led and improved her personal life, particularly during her lock-down experiences. She has also admitted that the NLD bases its roots on principles of this religion, especially metta. Thus, since she stepped into power, rather than slowly retracting from the Buddhist nationalism that fueled the military regime, she has rejected secularity and has even been compared by her followers to a bodhisattva; “one who has vowed to become Buddha”.
Myanmar currently hosts more than 135 ethnic groups, each of which has a different historical background and present goals. This variability of identities and desires has given a lot of room for conflict. Around 68% of the population is of Bamar/Burmese descent, which is the ethnic group that has controlled the country since Myanmar gained independence in 1948. The rest of the minorities constitute almost a third of the population, but only hold 11% of parliamentary seats. Due to their lack of political voice and the repeated mistreatment they’ve received from the government, they have responded with the creation of numerous Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs).
The most well-known armed struggle in Myanmar is that of the Rohingya people. Their discrimination on religious and ethnic bases dates back almost two centuries, but in the past few years, they have been particularly persecuted, tortured and murdered under Suu’s government. This has become one of the biggest political issues for Suu, who had supposedly advocated for equality and democracy her entire life. However, the armed struggles against ethnic minorities extend way further. In only the first six months of 2020, there have been 608 clashes in 10/14 states between the army and different EAOs, including the Arakan Army or the United Wa State Army (See more in Security). Unfortunately, due to Suu’s determination for national unity, and to the constitutional roadblocks created by the military, these ethnic conflicts aren’t anywhere near an end.