Myanmar’s previous governments suffered from sociological myopia, which has been the source of the most significant national conflicts that have characterized Myanmar during the past few decades. Although there were expectations that with Suu Kyi in power peace would be restored, violence actually intensified in several regions during the NLD’s rule. Firstly, Suu Kyi ’s government has emphasized the importance of Theravada Buddhism for the Burmese society, to the extent that it systematically allows the exclusion and repression of all other forms of religion. Similarly, all ruling power was bestowed on the people of Burmese ethnicity, which completely ignores the high level of ethnic heterogeneity that constitutes Myanmar. This clear preference for a particular group of society has proliferated the resentment of excluded groups, who -understandably- have risen up against the ruling authorities.
As a result, in the November 2020 elections several parties representing marginalized ethnicities came to the fore and merged to challenge the NLD in the parliamentary race. Suu Kyi and the NLD were able to win, in spite of their failure at sociocultural integration, for two reasons. The first is that the Burmese population accounts for around 70% of the total, making Suu Kyi and her NLD still overwhelmingly popular. The second is that marginalized ethnic groups, namely the Rohingya people, were completely excluded from voting due to Suu Kyi’s reluctance to grant them citizenship status, thus completely excluding a large portion of opposition. After the February 2021 coup however, the military has been applying violence against any and every ethnic group indiscriminately.
-“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 54 million population, mostly in the form of Theravada Buddhism. The country also hosts religious minorities such as Christians, -who are generally protestant and of Kachin or Karen ethnicity- Muslims, Hindus, 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.” It is 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, and this also includes politics. Under the military regime there was a Ministry of Religious Affairs which Suu Kyi’s government transformed into the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture. This ministry was meant, allegedly, to promote all religions equally but it instead allowed extremist Buddhist organizations such as the Association Protection of Race and Religion to directly intervene in politics. The Ministry also passed controversial legislation such as the “Protection of Race and Religion Bills” of 2015.
These included the Religious Conversion Bill that requires anyone who wants to convert to a faith other than Buddhism to apply through a state body. In addition, it contains the Buddhist Women Special Marriage Bill, meant to regulate Buddhist women’s marriage with non-Buddhist men due to their ‘vulnerability” to forced conversion. Other bills include the Monogamy Bill which criminalizes extra-marital relations and the Population Control Healthcare Bill which ultimately grants the state the ability to regulate pregnancies, births and abortions. It is understandable then that the population not only acknowledges the weight of religion in politics, but also enforces it 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, in Myanmar there exists holy-unholy metrics.
Aung San Suu Kyi herself is a devoted Theravada Buddhist, and has repeatedly mentioned how its principles lead and improve her personal life, particularly during her periods of house arrest. She has also admitted that the NLD bases its policies on principles of this religion, especially metta. Thus, when Suu Kyi stepped into power, rather than slowly retracting from the Buddhist nationalism that fueled the military regime, she rejected secularity and has even been compared by her followers to a bodhisattva; “one who has vowed to become Buddha.”
Myanmar hosts more than 135 ethnic groups, each of which has a different historical background and present goals. This has given room for a lot of 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. Other than the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state, other minority states hoping for greater representation in parliament in Myanmar are the Kachin state in northern Myanmar, Chin in the west, and Kayin, Kayah and Mon in the east. In these regions, people speak different languages and profess different religions than the Burman Buddhist majority. Due to their lack of political voice and the repeated mistreatment they’ve received from the government, these minorities have united under the creation of numerous Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs).
The most well-known armed struggle in Myanmar is that of the Rohingya people. Their discrimination dates back almost two centuries, but has been in the spotlight in the past few years as the Rohingya have been particularly persecuted, tortured and murdered by the military arm of Suu Kyi’s government. This has become one of the biggest political issues for Suu Kyi both internationally and domestically as she had supposedly advocated for equality and democracy her entire life, holding a Nobel Peace Prize to prove it. Yet, the armed struggle against ethnic minorities continued under her watch. In only the first six months of 2020, there were 608 clashes in 10/14 states between the army and different EAOs. Due to Suu Kyi’s determination for national unity, and the constitutional roadblocks created by the military, during her time as State Counselor ethnic conflicts moved even further from any finality.