Are Burmese non-Buddhists superior?


Left to right: Anglican cathedral in Rangoon, Chinese temple in Kalaw, Shan State, Hindu temple in Rangoon, Mosque in Rangoon, Buddhist temple in Taunggyi. All photos taken by me.

In Burma, approximately 9 in 10 are Buddhist, while the remainder are Muslims, Christians and animists. There are conflicting statistics, though, with some estimates of non-Buddhists as high as 20 to 30 percent. Although Burma has no ‘state religion’ (it was not prescribed in the 1974 socialist constitution but Buddhism was recognized as having special status in the 1948 constitution), the State Peace and Development Council is oriented toward Buddhism and propagates it. Freedom of religion in Burma is nominal; there is rampant discrimination toward non-Buddhists. For example, the Burma 2006 Human Rights Yearbook, released by the Burmese government-in-exile, has an entire chapter devoted to religious discrimination. One passage states:

There were also reports of authorities confiscating the National Identity
Cards of citizens who had converted to Christianity. Christians were denied promotion in the military beyond the rank of Major, with all officers above the rank of Major required to be Buddhist.

This contradicts a basic principle the National Convention adopted in 2006 (and the government’s treatment of non-Buddhists does violate prior constitutions, from which the junta justifies its power):

Religious freedom should not be associated with politics, social affairs and other secular affairs in the interests of the people. There should be a principle to prohibit the misuse of religion for political purposes and any act which is intended or is likely to incite the feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects.

But does that make Buddhists close-minded and parochial? The following appeared in the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report (’01, ’02, ’03) until 2004:

The country is ethnically diverse, and there is some correlation between ethnicity and religion. […] In much of the country there also is some correlation between religion and social class, in that non-Buddhists tend to be better educated in secular matters, more urbanized, and more business oriented than the Buddhist majority.

I wonder why it was omitted in reports after 2003. What the report seems to allude to is that non-Buddhists are superior to Buddhists and that religion plays a role.

What I would assume is that Buddhists have the upper-hand in Burmese society, because they have more opportunities than non-Buddhists and are less likely to be discriminated on the basis of religion. In Burma, every form you fill out asks of your religion. And rarely are distinctions made between race and religion. For example, on my father’s birth certificate, my grandmother, who had a foreign registration card, was registered “Chinese” and her religion was listed as “Chinese folk religion”, even though she is a practicing Theravada Buddhist. My grandfather on the other hand, a Burmese citizen, has his religion listed as “Buddhist.”

And it’s interesting how much religious suppression has increased in the years following independence. From 1948 to 1962, Buddhism was enshrined as the state religion of Burma in the constitution. However, during this time, repression was almost unheard of, aside from a few isolated incidents. From 1962 onward, especially with the adoption of the Burmese Way to Socialism and supposedly secular socialist inclinations (no mention of Buddhism in the constitution), religious repression and “Burmanization” (forming a ‘national culture’ based on Burman and Buddhist values) became more common. After 1988 and military rule, non-Buddhists have been persecuted even more. I think that the system in place for selecting only Buddhists in the upper tiers of the military (which is essentially the governing body) has created a culture of exclusivity among the military elite. Perhaps among the military and its affiliated groups (like the USDA), what the International Religious Freedom Report has to say is true, but it’s too much of a generalization, at least for me.

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