The Myanmar coup, Aung San Suu Kyi and Buddhist nationalism

It has been one month (actually a bit longer) since the February 1 military coup in Myanmar (Burma) and the ousting of former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. There have been numerous analyses in the media about the coup itself, Suu Kyi’s role, and the politics leading up to it. Mass sustained protests have brought the popularity into direct confrontation with the Myanmar generals, and the coup’s leader General Min Aung Hlaing.

Myanmar is a Buddhist majority nation. That fact, coupled with the near-universal admiration of Aung San Suu Kyi, has contributed to a widespread misconception which hinders our understanding of the military regime. In the West, the religion of Buddhism (at least, the version we are offered by way of the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere) is associated with meditation, harmony and universal tranquility.

In line with Buddhism’s ostensibly pacifist underpinnings, we also hear the claim that Buddhism is not a religion at all, in contrast to the Abrahamic cousins (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Attempting to rescue that faith from the charge of violence, Buddhism is viewed as a ‘way of life’, or even a ‘mind science‘, with deference to modern psychology. We may also see the ludicrous attempts to reconcile quantum physics with the ancient precepts of Buddhism – the pseudoscientific quantum woo.

The military-monastic complex

The claim that Buddhism, in contrast to the monotheistic faiths, lacks a history of violence does not stand up to scrutiny. The monastic complex, inextricably bound up with the Myanmar military, has a long and bloody history of religious and political violence. Aung San Suu Kyi, while advocating a multiparty plurality to shore up her democratic credentials, is a strong proponent of Buddhist supremacism. The monks have not remained on the sidelines, but have incited violence and ethnic cleansing, particularly against the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Buddhist monks and soldiers make up an army of faithful to take up the crusade against the Rohingya Muslim community. Respected Buddhist abbots – the equivalent of our clerics – have denounced the Rohingya as Muslim ‘invaders’, whose hyperfertile women breed like ‘cockroaches’ for the alleged purpose of conquering Myanmar. The Buddhist organisation Ma Ba Ta, the shorthand reference for Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, is known for its social welfare work, and for advocating genocidal violence against the Rohingya Muslim community.

In Foreign Policy magazine, authors Artinger and Rowand explain that Myanmar’s Buddhists have never been reticent in agitating for (and using) violence in pursuit of ethnocentric goals. Prior to the February coup, thousands of monks demonstrated in favour of the military, the Tatmadaw. As Foreign Policy explains:

The military advances the goals of Buddhist nationalists by protecting Buddhism against the Muslim threat, and Buddhist nationalists provide the military with religious and cultural permission for their atrocities.

Ethnic cleansing

Aung San Suu Kyi, while criticising the military’s grip on power, never challenged the Buddhist supremacism underlying military rule. In fact, she has gone out of her way to defend Myanmar’s policy of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim community. Suu Kyi became the West’s favourite politician in Myanmar because of her promotion of privatisation and IMF-style economic reforms. When one promotes neoliberal changes, one’s majoritarian racism gets a free pass.

The main targets of ethnic hatred in Myanmar have been the Rohingya people. Predominantly residing in Rakhine state, they have been excluded from citizenship in a form of ethnic apartheid. Portrayed falsely as ‘invaders’, the Rohingya have been subjected to discrimination and persecution by the Myanmar authorities. Since 2017, the military launched a sustained offensive in Rakhine province, killing thousands of Rohingya Muslims and driving more out as refugees.

During all this time, Suu Kyi deliberately defended the military’s campaign, denying that it amounted to genocide, and spoke of Islam as an ‘existential threat’ to the Buddhist way of life. When the International Court of Justice (ICJ) charged Myanmar’s military with genocide, it was Suu Kyi who rushed to the military’s defence. Her Islamophobic rhetoric corresponds to the outlook of European ultranationalist politicians.

The democracy icon has fallen from favour in the West. Rather than being an icon, she has more in common with late Israeli political figure Golda Meir. Both advocated a racist nationalism which turned a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim populations in their respective nations. Suu Kyi was not the only one to contemptuously dismiss claims of Rohingya genocide.

In 2017, at the height of the military’s ethnic cleansing campaign, there were no mass protests against that particular criminal undertaking. The assault on the Rohingya Muslim community was met with virtual silence, although there have been some protesters over the last month raising the Rohingya issue. It is interesting to note that Rohingya refugees, stuck in Bangladeshi refugee camps, condemned the military coup, but blasted Suu Kyi’s complicity with the military and Buddhist supremacism.

While the cement of Buddhist nationalism remains unchallenged, the military-monkhood complex will continue to shape the political order in Myanmar – in an authoritarian and ethnonationalist direction. Aung San Suu Kyi has done her part to maintain this state of affairs.

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