Myanmar: Contesting Conceptual Landscapes in the Politics of Buddhism

Alicia Turner

Popular and scholarly representations of the recent Buddhist mobilizations in Myanmar raise the issue of the how theoretical and analytical approaches shape the study of Buddhism, politics and society.

The rise of the nationalist monastic organization MaBaTha and its efforts to enact restrictive legislation and shape electoral politics in the recently democratizing Myanmar has again placed the issue of the politics of Buddhism and nationalism at the center of much analysis in Southeast Asia. MaBaTha takes its name from an early 20th century anti-colonial nationalist slogan “Amyo (Ma), Batha (Ba), Thathana (Tha)” for race, religion/language, and sāsana (the Buddha’s dispensation and teachings). The name itself draws connections between the contemporary development and the popular mass mobilization of Buddhism in Burma over a century ago.

The problem is that, not unlike much of the scholarship on that earlier moment, much of the analysis of the rise of MaBaTha and other nationalist and anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar attributes its origins to either Buddhists using religion for political ends or to a perennial nationalist or xenophobic sentiment at the essence of Burmese Buddhism. Both of these are wrong, not just because they are oversimplifications, but more so because they represent a problematic approach to thinking about Buddhism, religion and identity. They imply that Buddhism has a fixed essence through time or that religion and politics can easily be identified as separate realms of human experience and action. When we dig a little deeper into each of these situations it becomes clear that much of the work of these movements is not simply to promote a particular interpretation or content with regard to the political situation, nationalist identity or Buddhist practice, but work to actively shape and contest the conceptual frameworks on which such debates rely.

Too much of the contemporary public discourse on these movements fails to recognize that they are actively constructing and reinventing both Buddhism and Burmeseness in their efforts to preserve them, just as movements before them have done. In this, Buddhism and nation are both fluid containers that act as mechanisms for the creation and transformation of social structures and hierarchies. But it is not just popular, journalistic and policy discourses that inadvertently endorse the idea of Buddhism or Burmese nation as static, singular and knowable. Too often our own work as scholars implies that these are fixed objects of knowledge, ones in which we can claim expertise in describing and explaining. The real impact of such oversight is that it unintentionally implicates us in the cultural politics of the places that we study and potentially drowns out other inventions of Buddhism and modes of identity and mobilization not defined in terms of nation, race or exclusion.

Buddhist monks who support Ma Ba Tha attend a celebration of four controversial bills with a rally in a stadium at Yangon October 4, 2015. Photo: Central Patriotic Association Facebook page:

Buddhist monks who support Ma Ba Tha attend a celebration of four controversial bills with a rally in a stadium at Yangon October 4, 2015.
Photo: Central Patriotic Association Facebook page:

At the turn of the 20th century, many Buddhists in colonial Burma experienced the unsettling changes that came with the arrival of colonial rule as a sense that the Buddha’s teachings were being lost. They mobilized a massive movement to preserve Buddhism, one that had implications for many aspects of society, social organization and ultimately for anti-colonial nationalist politics. The parallels to the contemporary moment in Myanmar seem particularly prominent. Again the country faces a moment of great social, political and economic upheaval. Many Burmese express uncertainty at the prospect of destabilizing change and a concern that something vital is being lost. Movements asserting to protect Buddhism, the Buddha’s teachings and Burmese culture have created mass mobilization. It seems clear that identification with an effort to preserve Buddhism, as well as discourse about who and what is a threat to Buddhism (Muslims, political parties, foreign NGOs, lifestyle changes) has constructed a sense of identity for many in Myanmar.

However, rather than use connections between these two moments to look for an explanation in a common essence of Buddhist discourse or Burmese nationalism, the way forward lies in looking at how both moments have constructed and reconstructed the constitutive categories: Myanmar/Burma, Buddhism and religion. It is in the work of paying attention to these categories as fluid, contested and particularly powerful and to how people organize themselves that we can see the operations of power in society—that is the politics of Buddhism.

Benedict Anderson’s critical insights have been deeply formative for Southeast Asian studies, so it is perhaps easiest for us to denaturalize nation within the discourse of these movements and analyze how they work to imagine Myanmar in terms of exclusivist religious identity. 1 The work of contesting and constructing nation and national identity is often explicit and easy to connect with political discourse, even if observers too often neglect the ways in which more liberal counter movements are equally engaged in inventing Myanmar as nation. This is a critical first step in analyzing what is at stake in such movements and usefully so, but it is only a first step. The next, perhaps clearer to scholars of religion is the work of denaturalizing Buddhism and focusing our attention on the ways in which the movements are reshaping the boundaries of what Buddhism will mean in Myanmar through their discourse and projects. Popular and policy analysis write as if there is a transhistorical essence of Buddhism that is either fairly represented or distorted by specific historical movements, rather than to recognize that Buddhism lives in the transformations of Buddhists’ interpretations. It is clear that contemporary movements in Myanmar are actively reshaping what Buddhism means in practice, even as they claim its defense and protection are central to their mission.

Moreover, this work of contesting and reimagining constituent categories is not limited to those movements that are labeled nationalist, fundamentalist or anti-Muslim; it is a process carried out by Buddhist movements and monastic figures across the spectrum. The focus on contesting and reformulating categories allows us to see the relationship between the different Buddhist movements in contemporary Myanmar and to look at the deeper changes they are producing in the Myanmar social/religious/political landscape, well beyond just the content of their rhetoric.

We need to take this analysis of denaturalizing categories to another level to look at how religion and secular are themselves contested and reconstructed through Buddhist movements, in ways that are deeply constitutive of political and social interaction. In this, there are particular lessons that attention to categories can offer if we are interested in Buddhism and politics. Too often scholars label Buddhism as a religion (without asking what is meant by religion) and that looking at religion and politics is a useful way of analyzing the two, their relations and their interactions. But this presumes that religion is a category of life/action/thought separable from politics. It presumes a worldview and a conceptual division in which religion is a bounded category that can be separated from the rest of social life, which is labeled as secular. As Talal Asad and others have taught us, such a worldview is neither absolute nor natural, but is a particular ideology and way of looking at the world, one we should not assume everyone everywhere has always operated under. 2 The production of religion as a bounded category has a product of a specific European history. It arrived in Southeast Asia with colonialism to operate as particular mode of colonial power. Buddhists in Southeast Asia came to adapt to a worldview of religion/secular under colonial rule, and merge with local conceptual schemes (such as lokiya/lokuttara, sāsana, etc) but such frameworks were and remain contested and contestable. The specific contours of the boundaries of religion and its interactions with secular categories like politics or economics are a matter of active construction, interpretation and reinterpretation.

Benedict Anderson’s insights have been deeply formative for Southeast Asian studies

Benedict Anderson’s insights have been deeply formative for Southeast Asian studies

In the colonial era, Buddhists and British administrators alike were active in defining what “secular” would mean. Despite a rhetoric of complete separation between state and religion, in the British colonial era “secularism” could mean that the government administered examination to monks (on the content of the Pali canon but not Vinaya). It meant that they could incorporate monasteries into a government education system, so long as Buddhism was limited to the content of the texts and not the practices of teaching. For Burmese in the colonial era, the secular seems to have been a space in which concepts of karma and sāsana were operative, but action was organized by other logics.

In contemporary movements there is substantial negotiation about the correct relationship between the state, public political discourse and the role of religion. Many argue that the state is a mechanism to carry out projects to protect Buddhism from outside threats, using law to enact restrictions. Others seem to encourage an equally active role for Buddhist institutions in the promotion of national identity, national development and cultural preservation with less explicitly xenophobic goals. Western ambassadors in Myanmar have actively endorsed the development projects and the Buddhist interpretations of particular monks and monastic factions and then on the eve of the elections published a call for the separation of religion and politics, as if the work of defining what constitutes Buddhism, religion and politics were not carried out by their previous endorsements.

Such actions point to a much more complicated picture of how categories of Buddhism and secularism are being constructed. The images of ambassadors at monastery openings and Buddhist social service projects appear only as technicolor versions of the sepia pictures of British colonial administrators overseeing Pali examinations or rewriting the monastery school curriculums in the 19th century. Buddhism is itself a product of a discourse of power in these interactions. In this game, such actions legitimize work to define the possible interpretations of Buddhism on a spectrum between liberal and nationalistic, but in doing so actively drown out other inventions of Buddhist practice, ideas and modes of identity and mobilization not defined in terms of nation, race or exclusivist identity. Moreover, they contribute to a particular configuration of what the secular will mean in Myanmar, in the process facilitating some voices and silencing others.

If, as scholars, we investigate Buddhism and politics in a way that presumes a universal and fixed nature of religion, politics or secular as categories, we risk missing that much of the work being done is to redefine or reshape the conceptual landscape in the local context. It is too easy to grant such categories a commonsense fixed nature from our own expectations in order to use them as analytical devises, but to do so is to lose sight of the politics of the movements we seek to study, by which I mean the operations of power in the workings of culture and knowledge. In this, perhaps, our focus more profitably should be on the politics of Buddhists’ definition and redefinition of constitutive categories in Burmese life, leading us to look at how Buddhist movements both in the colonial period and today reshaped the conceptual landscape in which Burmese people perceived themselves, their actions, their futures and their pasts through changes ideas of sāsana, religion, politics, nation and Buddhism.

As we make Myanmar/Burma and Burmese Buddhism our objects of study, we lend these constructs a reality and an authority that is problematic. If “Burma/Myanmar” as a nation unconsciously seeps into being a naturalized object, knowable and seemingly fixed as we make careers out of claiming to know it, then we are contributing to nationalism and the practice of imaging nation, in Benedict Anderson’s terms. If Burmese Buddhism becomes something real and naturalized in our work, rather than a fluid construct, within which we are constantly attuned to the operations of power, we are implicating ourselves in local politics and implicitly siding with locally dominant discourses, even as we critique their contents. But if in our scholarly work and writing “Buddhism,” “religion,” and “secular” explicitly remain works in progress, modes of identity and exclusion, and a single voices in a cacophony of culture and expression, then we can recognize that nationalists’ claims (in both liberal and exclusivist modes) to an exclusive lock on identity and political reality are mechanisms for drowning out other voices and interpretations of Myanmar, identity and Buddhism.

Alicia Turner
Turner is Associate Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at York University in Toronto and editor of The Journal of Burma Studies. Her latest book is Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma (Hawaii, 2014).      

Issue 19, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, March 2016              


Anderson, Benedict R. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. rev. and ext. ed. London: Verso, 1991.
Asad, Talal. “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category.” In Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, edited by Talal Asad, 27-54. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
———. “Religion, Nation-State, Secularism.” In Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, edited by Peter van der Veer and Harmut Lehmann, 178-93. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.



  1. Benedict R. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. and ext. ed. (London: Verso, 1991).
  2. Talal Asad, “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category,” in Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, ed. Talal Asad (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); “Religion, Nation-State, Secularism,” in Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, ed. Peter van der Veer and Harmut Lehmann (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

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