Poll Finds Burmese Public Linking Citizenship to Buddhism

Myanmar, Burma, The Irrawaddy, Buddhism, Islam, Myanmar Egress, poll, survey, citizenship, Bamar, Rohingya

An Arakanese woman and children shelter at a Sittwe monastery in June 2012, after being displaced from their homes during Buddhist-Muslim clashes in Arakan State. (Photo: Simon Roughneen / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — A new survey of mostly middle-class Burmese suggests that many of the country’s citizens “seem to think that in order to be Myanmar one has to also be Buddhist.”

The report, Citizenship in Myanmar: Contemporary Debates and Challenges in Light of the Reform Process, was published by Myanmar Egress, a Rangoon think-tank that has advised Burma’s government in the past.

The report is based on a survey of just over 2,000 Burmese spread across the country, polling ethnic minority regions as well as seeking the views of Rohingya, a Muslim minority numbering around one million people, most of whom live in western Arakan State and are denied Burmese citizenship.

The findings suggested that “a very large number of respondents within the Buddhist ethnic groups—i.e. not only Bamar respondents, equate citizenship with religion.”

“Myanmar is Buddhist and patriotic,” said one of those surveyed in the report, identified as “Bamar, Buddhist.”

“[Myanmar is] ‘The person who is Buddhist,’” said another respondent, listed as “Rohingya, Muslim.”

The findings come amid ongoing ethnic and religious tensions in Burma, which is scheduled to hold its first census in over three decades at the end of March and in which respondents will be asked to denote their religion as well as ethnicity.

For now, however, Burma’s demographics are guesswork, with the country’s population estimated at between 48-60 million people, of which around 90 percent are thought to be Buddhist and around 60 percent Burman (also known as Bamar), the ethnic majority from which the country’s name is derived.

Various groups have warned that the upcoming census could inflame religious divides, and reflecting on their citizenship survey findings, the Myanmar Egress report’s authors suggested that the Burmese government ensure that citizenship and religion be kept separate under Burmese law.

Burma’s 2008 Constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes,” but also recognizes the “special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The government and various political parties are pushing for laws advocating “protection of race and religion,” in proposed legislation that would further elevate Buddhism above Burma’s other established faiths.

Non-Buddhist men could be required to convert to Buddhism or face 10 years in prison if they want to marry a Buddhist woman. Buddhist women, in turn, would be required to seek permission from their parents and local authorities to marry a man of a different faith.

The proposals have the backing of a petition signed by 1.3 million Burmese and are being pushed by the “969” Buddhist-supremacist movement. The 969 leader U Wirathu, a Buddhist monk, has been accused of fomenting recent anti-Muslim violence in Arakan State and elsewhere in Burma.

“This religious nationalism, if not dealt with carefully, could serve to alienate other groups with a different religious identity,” cautioned Myanmar Egress, referring to the linking of Buddhism and citizenship by many respondents in the new report.

The survey was carried out between February 2012 and June 2013 and focused on educated middle and lower-middle classes who, Myanmar Egress said, “were expected to be able to articulate their views with regard to the changing nature of the state.”

Reflecting on changing times since a reform-inclined government took office in 2011, the report found a growing level of political interest among Burmese, with between 55 percent and 65 percent of respondents from most ethnic groups saying they were interested in politics. Ethnic Mon respondents were the exception, with only 28 percent saying they were interested in politics.

“There has been so much active avoidance of politics over decades that today political literacy is very low—even in urban centers and amongst the middle classes. People were very aware of politics but they saw it as dangerous,” the report said, referring to Burma’s five decades of military rule.

6 Responses to Poll Finds Burmese Public Linking Citizenship to Buddhism

  1. Being a Buddhist majority country should not mix with religion and state. In medieval age when there were peoples mixed with state and religion the latest result is that the country ruin. Be careful of past history. Burmese kings never did such kind of mistake in the history. Burmese kings were practiced within the 10 concepts of rulers.

  2. Such thing ‘to be a Burman (Myanmar) is to be a Buddhist’ is very old adage more than one hundred years old by English writer H. Fielding Hall, F. Tennyson Jesse etc. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has quoted that phrase in her article in Freedom from Fear. (Read ‘The Soul of A Nation’ and ‘The Story of Burma.’)

    However, the time has changed and Islam and Christian alike grab many of our citizens in their religions. Christian persuaded by charity and Islam by taking Myanmar wives and coercing to change the religion. Whatever law has written, either the 1953 Law or coming new Law, it doesn’t matter. All bad things happened to Myanmar ladies who wed with the Muslims.

    I don’t think and support 969 monks to interfere mundane affair. To me, the decline of Buddhism is because of corrupted monks. To uphold respect for the monks is very difficult today as monks are unruly. They sit at coffee shops, chat with people, eat dinners, use handphones, digital camera, iPad, laptops, desktop and gossip on Facebook. The beg alms-money, fix rates at Dhamma talks etc. etc.

    We need New King Anawrahta and Thohanbwa today to cleanse Buddhism!

  3. Correction:
    Please read ‘The Soul of a Nation’ as ‘The Soul of a People.’
    My apology and thanks!

  4. All Burmese who like to see democracy flourishing in Burma must stand up and be counted. Say no to the discrimination in race, religion and culture. Promote the racial, religious and cultural among the different races, enjoy the democracy, free from fear, and live with dignity, kindness and loving heart towards other. There is no such thing more powerful than loving kindness in the teaching of all the religions including Buddhism. Look around. Which countries around the globe could live in peace and harmony? Who can live a decent life, dignity and pride in one happy country without worrying about the interference of big brother/ Government. Everyone can say easily. They are America, Uk, Western Europe, North America and a host of democracy country. Why a lot of Burmese like to enjoy their life in USA/ Europe. Burmese want their country to be like USA. Who want to become a country like Syria, Iran, Red China? The choice is yours. Do not tolerate the Racism. It is CANCER for democracy.

  5. The low mentality of Myanmar public in general is forgivable. Because they can only see only their neighborhood because of decades long military rule. Their eyes are unable to see the world. Union of Myanmar means the country is dwelling place of multi-ethnic peoples. If the Myanmar people cannot have open-minded mentality, the Myanmar regime better grants the non-Myanmar ethnics independence because they Myanmars are unfit to lead the Union. Majority ethnic are supposed to have father-figured mentality but unfortunately the Myanmars do not have that kind of mentality. It is so sad. Signing the Panglong Agreement was the biggest mistake ethnics ever made in history.

  6. I agree with everyone who commented but in moderation. And I urge everyone to not make too broad of generalizations of any group of people including your own. Muslims don’t necessarily coerce women to marry or convert. The women can make their own decisions too. First and foremost of all, as a woman myself, I resent women in Burma being treated like properties or objects or things that men own, as if we don’t have our own minds or abilities or preferences. Stop making decisions for us, about us, by patronizing us, as if we are some weakling. Not every Burmese woman who married Muslim have bad lives, just as not all Burmese women we married Buddhist men have good lives either. How badly a person treats one another is that person’s decision, nothing to do with religion. In general, ALL religions teach love, respect and good things to people. It’s what people make out of religion that messes it all up. Don’t assume to know something about a religion, or even a group of people, like ethnic groups, without having studied it or lived Immersed in it. Otherwise it’s just plain ignorance and prejudice.

    I do think people in Burma needs to be educated, not like academic schooling, but like learning about democratic concepts and culture, and what citizenship really means in a diverse country like Myanmar where it is a UNION of different ethnic nationalities, and about different cultures and religions. Only then can there be mutual understanding and compassion and unity. Call me naive in that regard, but I still believe and hope for union of the different races of Burma. It makes sense, not just for the country as a whole, but also for each small group. Having the larger geo-political state can help economy and development of the people in each region. Breaking into smaller countries will make trade and economy and development more challenging as we can’t share resources and transportation infrastructure, etc, not just between majority Burman regions and ethnic regions but also between different ethnic regions as well. Imagine the extra barriers having to trade between, for example, Kachin state and Kayin state, as the trade will become between countries if each ethnic group separates from Burma, versus if it’s still one union, then it’s only between states, and there are less red tape and customs, taxes, regulations, currencies, and other such barriers to deal with.

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