Early Surges of a Cultural Nationalistic Flood Tide in Myanmar?

By David I. Steinberg 21 June 2016

Foreign observers of Myanmar’s changing social and cultural landscape have watched with great concern the flood tide of religious nationalism as conservative and radical Buddhist groups have expressed fears of a Muslim spiritual and social invasion that they have perceived to threaten their religious views. Coming from religious organizations such as Ma Ba Tha and the Myanmar Patriotic Monks Union, they seem to have had wide popular support, or at least popular acquiescence, for who can publicly disagree with the pronouncements of eminent members of the sangha? The legislature has passed laws intended to prevent this perceived disease from spreading. To those addicted to democratic traditions and open societies, this is illustrative of very disquieting development, even as right-wing nationalistic groups gain prominence in many Western societies.

Religion is rarely isolated from other social elements, and in Myanmar the nexus of religion, culture, and history are pronounced. Now, however, the nationalist flood tide may now have extended from religion to the secular realm. On May 31, 2016, it was reported that these two religious associations protested that one of the major Yangon hotels had dressed bellboys and porters in the supposed royal dress of the kings of Pagan (11-13th c.)—thus mounting in their view a major affront and an insult to the secular, but somehow “sacred,” traditions of Myanmar. What this supposed royal dress might have looked like may be the subject of considerable academic debate, but the existential issue is more serious. If a hotel wants to engage in such jejune stylistic games, it is more an insult to the guests’ intelligence rather than to the dignity of Pagan’s rulers.  More seriously, it indicates a profound sense of cultural vulnerability that is likely to spread with potentially dire consequences. To many in the West, this may be unanticipated or even ludicrous.  Do Western societies become incensed when their hotel bellboys and porters wear the reminiscent uniforms of high-ranking, revered historical military officers, and are thus disrespectful of their military heritages?

Myanmar has become awash in tourists.  They bring with them more than personal baggage, but also some of a cultural, and not always desirable, nature. If Western popular culture permeates, if Western dress codes—often rather slovenly in style and application—dominate in the streets, if Myanmar social usage is truncated or neglected, and if the seamy side of tourism become intrusive in Yangon, as it has in Bangkok, this sense of vulnerability will tend to grow, and with it perhaps a more intense nationalism that may undercut the goals of any Myanmar government as it fosters intensified intellectual and cultural isolationism.

Thailand, another predominantly Buddhist society, does not feel the same sense of vulnerability, perhaps because it was never colonized and its monks did not partake in anti-colonial political activity, as in Myanmar where two Myanmar Buddhist monks were martyrs in the independence movement. Yet there is also a growing conservative and intolerant Buddhist movement among monks in Thailand. The Buddhist Protection Center of Thailand, with links to the World Buddhist Leaders Organization and the World Federation of Buddhist Youth, all have associations with Myanmar’s Ma Ba Tha, which they have honored.

We have witnessed the growth of nationalistic, anti-foreign and right-wing politics in a number of European countries, and in a particularly American way in some of the U.S. political stances. In the West, we tend to equate these to problems associated with both potential terrorism and extensive refugee (both war-related and economic) flights. But they are more deeply related to fears of changing and disturbing social dynamics, including widening income maldistribution—a phenomenon we may expect to grow in Myanmar. As these fears move into the social realm—beyond religious doctrine—protection of perceived cultural heritages may become more important even though some are undoubtedly based on myth, as in many societies.

This sense of cultural dignity and concern in Myanmar is important. But the intended protection of culture has been dictated by the state, sometimes carried—at least to a foreign observer—to extremes. Let us remember that under the juntas it was illegal to have Western instruments included in a classical Burmese orchestra. Yet popular culture evolves, and many in Myanmar will regret the present popularity of Western clothing, formerly rarely seen amongst the Bamah (Burmans) except in the military. Yet protection of culture and traditions can also be positive, as in the recent prohibition against construction that would have aesthetically and religiously had a negative impact on the Shwedagon Pagoda.

There is probably no solution to the dilemma, but one would hope that those foreigners, institutions, and governments that wish the administration of Myanmar well might consider their own policies and practices, both public and private, that would both extend democratic governance but still be less cultural threatening.  Is this possible?

David I. Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University, and visiting scholar, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.  His latest edited volume is Myanmar: The Dynamics of an Emerging Polity (2015).