Understanding “Buddhist Nationalism” in Myanmar: Religion, Gender, Identity, and Conflict in a Political Transition

Flickr / Vera & Jean-Christophe (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the context of Myanmar’s political opening since March 2011, Buddhist activism has made headlines over the past two years due to outbreaks of communal violence across the country marked by religious difference, that threaten to derail Myanmar’s once-promising transition. Many see a connection between these violent episodes and the rise of new Buddhist networks and organizations, including the 969 and MaBaTha movements. However, aspects of the conflict connected to religious identity are poorly understood and research on this topic needs to carefully address the ways in which anti-Muslim actions are difficult to separate from pro-Buddhist impulses. Equally important is the intersection between religious identities and gender, as much of the nationalist discourse focuses on the protection of women as a way of protecting both Buddhism and the nation. A critical aspect of this approach is to take seriously the fears and perceptions of different groups to understand how they shape attitudes towards others and towards religious and national identity.

This two year research project seeks to critically assess and disaggregate the category of “Buddhist nationalism” in Myanmar by focusing on two complementary aspects of the phenomenon: the creation, deployment, and critical response of differently positioned groups and individuals in Myanmar to various “Buddhist” and “nationalist” narratives, with particular regard to ethnic and geographic identities; and the gendered discourse of nationalism, produced through nationalist rhetoric and both reinforced and contested via the perspectives of women who, respectively, support and oppose it. These research questions will be explored through assembling a database of sermons, speeches, and written materials from Buddhist and nationalist groups; monitoring media reporting on religious conflict; interviews with key actors in the Myanmar government, religious hierarchy, and civil society; and more detailed ethnographic study in particular places to better understand the production, resonance, and evaluation of nationalist narratives.

In the rapidly-changing political environment of Myanmar, the project will make immediate and regular contributions in the form of bi-annual policy briefs distributed to and discussed with religious and civil society actors, governments, foundations, and other international actors supporting these groups. By also analyzing the rhetoric and methods of those working to reduce religious violence, this study can gauge the effectiveness of their work and assist them in crafting campaigns that respond directly to the logic employed by those who are spreading inter-religious strife. Working with these groups will also allow the research team to respond to shifts in tactics and framing by religious organizations, to better track this evolving phenomenon.


Call for Papers

'Interrogating Buddhism and Nationalism', University of Oxford, 27-28 January, 2018

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