How religious beliefs and ethnic groups shape culture in the Rakhine State

The refugee crisis in Rohingya has dominated news headlines since the end of August. Reports of violence and human rights atrocities have led to international criticism. As a result, the Myanmar military has been accused of religious persecution of the Rohingya Muslims.

While longstanding tensions have simmered in the Rakhine State between the Rohingya Muslims and Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, the situation escalated after Rohingya militants attacked police posts on August 25. Since this triggering event and the violent response from the Myanmar military, over 500,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled across the border into Bangladesh.

The treatment of the Rohingya Muslims raises an alarming question for policy makers: is this truly religious persecution, and if so, what is being done about it? For a holistic understanding of the conflict, it is necessary to examine the differences in the core beliefs of the religions involved.

Religious Roots

Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country, with 90% of the population identifying as Buddhist, 5% as Muslim, and 5% as Christian. The Rakhine State has long been the home for the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group. To understand the underlying causes of this tension and ascertain whether this is indeed a case of religious persecution, one must examine the core beliefs of the two religions in conflict.

Rakhine Buddhist

Myanmar has a rich and historical relationship with the Buddhist faith. In the 12th century, Buddhism spread to Myanmar through traders. Nearly all of the Buddhists in Myanmar practice Theravada Buddhism, the branch most closely aligned with Buddha’s original teachings. Key tenets of Buddhist teachings include the following:

  • The main aim of Buddhism is to eliminate suffering in the world through individual enlightenment, or nirvana, by reaching the “middle way,” a compromise between a life of luxury and poverty, as well as a compromise between eternalism and nihilism.
  • The Four Noble Truths: Dukkha, truth of suffering; Samudaya, truth of the origin of suffering; Nirodha, truth about the ending of suffering; and Magga, path to ending suffering.
  • The Noble Eightfold Path: This path leads Buddhists to understanding and commitment, followed by practical ethics, and culminates with training the mind. The eight steps include: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
  • The Five Precepts: These “rules” forbid the taking of life, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and the consumption of mind-dulling intoxicants.

Religious scholars believe that “the Buddhist path is therefore one that always works with context; it aims to create the conditions that allow angst and suffering to be replaced by contentment and happiness.”[1] The preservation of Buddhism in Myanmar is the core goal of the Buddhist Nationalist movement, which would justify current suffering for eventual enlightenment.

Buddhism is considered a peaceful religion, emphasizing meditation and personal enlightenment. The Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community in Myanmar, legitimizes state power and has often expressed dismay with the country’s government. In 1982, the government passed the Burma Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to ethnic groups throughout Myanmar but did not recognize the Rohingya Muslim, thus rendering them stateless. This move by the government further solidified the preference shown to the Buddhist population.

Rohingya Muslim

The Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar has been identified as one of the world’s most persecuted and vulnerable populations. The ethnic group has nonetheless remained firm in its religious identity, including the following core beliefs of Islam:

  • The Five Pillars of Islam: Shahada, the profession of faith; Salat, daily prayer ritual; Zakat, almsgiving; Sawm, fasting; and Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
  • Shari’a Law- Islamic law that is viewed as the direct path to Allah.
  • Rigidly monotheistic: There is one almighty God, Allah. Our call in life is to obey Allah above all else.
  • The truth of jihad, which represents the struggle to remain focused on Allah. The main jihad is an internal struggle, whereas the lesser jihad is the struggle in the world that often results in violence.

Islam has been entwined with civil and political life since its genesis. The groundswell of anti-Western, violent Islamist extremism over the past few decades has resulted in a backlash against the Muslim community as a whole in parts of the world. As ISIS sought to establish a new caliphate, or true Islamic State, the group bred global skepticism of Islam and a fear of an uprising of Muslim ethnic groups, such as the Rohingya.

However, little evidence supports claims that the Rohingya Muslim population has direct ties with Islamist Extremist groups. The Rohingya are isolated, living in austerity with little access to media or outside contact. If anything, the continued oppression and persecution of the Rohingya will drive them into the hands of extremist groups.

Nirvana vs Jihad

The Harvard Religious Literacy Project reports that “the opposition to Muslim migration became a key point to the mid-century Burmese National Movement, which coincided with a Buddhist religious revival. This would have profound impact on the experience of the Rohingya in Burma. Following independence in 1948, Burmese Muslims steadily began losing citizenship status.”

The monks that protest the Rohingya Muslims have framed it as a political issue, saying that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bengal and have significant cultural differences. The Buddhists claim that the Rohingya must be controlled in order to prevent radicalization and a Muslim takeover of Myanmar.

The situation in the Rakhine State has pitted two religious groups against each other. The majority Buddhist population wishes to maintain a Buddhist state characterized by peace, moderation, and enlightenment. Ironically, the means of achieving this include violence and persecution.

This crisis springs from a combination of nationalist pride and deeply rooted religious differences. While Buddhists believe that spirituality and religion are solely found within individual enlightenment, or nirvana, Muslims view the world as a struggle, or jihad, to obey the one true Allah. Differences over these irreconcilable beliefs have spawned one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

Now we are left with the real question: what should be done about this, and by whom? Part Two of this article will address the response to date by different actors in the international community and offer suggestions for future action.

[1] The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. DK Publishing, 2013.