Religious nationalism Myanmar | 27 March 2023

Myanmar: Religion plays a significant role in the conflict

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As International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed out in a comprehensive report published on 10 March 2023, Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy has largely remained silent in the face of the unfolding civil war, which began in 2021. The report states (on page 12}: “Even those monks who might otherwise lean toward supporting the revolution may worry that doing so contributes to a decline in monastic authority in the country. They are keenly aware that the parallel authority, the National Unity Government (NUG), relies for its armed resistance on the support and sanctuary provided by predominantly Christian ethnic armed groups, which many monks expect will push any future democratic government to adopt a more explicitly secular approach.” Meanwhile, Jamestown Foundation published a report on 17 March 2023, which clearly shows that religion is already playing a significant role in the conflict.

World Watch Research analyst Thomas Muller comments: “While the Buddhist clergy’s neutral stance has deeply religious and doctrinal reasons, the ICG report shows that there are also pragmatic considerations playing out. At the same time, war parties and clergy likewise are already preparing for an after-conflict future, however elusive it may currently appear. The ICG report quotes a member of an armed resistance group as saying (page 17): ‘Our leaders are pressuring the NUG not to work with the Sangha because of the bad image MaBaTha has given it. If you want to move to a federal union, you cannot leverage religion.’”

Thomas Muller continues: “It is clear that Christians are playing a prominent role in the resistance. The ICG report emphasizes this on page 20: ‘Most NUG members – and members of the resistance’s legislative branch, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – are Buddhist, though the movement also includes some Christians. But the four ethnic armed groups working most closely with the NUG – the Chin National Front, Kachin Independence Organisation, Karen National Union and Karenni National Progressive Party – have predominantly Christian leaderships and constituencies.’”

Thomas Muller poses the question: “If this is the case, what role will religion play in a post-conflict Myanmar? While it is very possible that, with more young people turning their backs on religion, ultra-nationalist sentiment will gain in influence and the protection of Buddhism may become a potent driving force in the country (East Asia Forum, 10 March 2023), this is far from sure. What is safe to state, however, is that the junta, as USIP reported on 9 March 2023, will do anything to stay in power and consolidate its rule. This may include the killing of citizens and Buddhist monks, with the aim of stirring up religious sentiment and encouraging people to rally along religious lines, as some observers state (UCA News, 16 March 2023). This would lead to even more attacks and increased fighting, especially for the Christian minority which has already been frequently targeted.”


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