Myanmar's Religious Problem

How to Deal With Discrimination

A man walks out from a destroyed mosque that was burnt down in recent violence at Thapyuchai village, outside of Thandwe, in the Rakhine state, October 3, 2013. Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Myanmar’s young government, led by the party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been beset in recent months by protests, violence at sacred sites, and confrontations between the state’s monastic council (the official body that regulates the Buddhist monkhood) and Buddhist nationalist groups.

Anti-Muslim violence and discrimination—and religious conflict more generally—persist in Myanmar and are understandably high atop the priority lists of many Western countries and international organizations. Yet the country’s continued fragility makes it all the more important for international involvement to be carefully calibrated. If outside actors come with a clear and nuanced assessment of Myanmar’s complex domestic politics, the country’s diverse communities can flourish and a primary driver of violent conflict will be erased. More importantly, success or failure will be an indicator of the broader prospects of religious pluralism at a time when religious discrimination and conflict are ascendant.


In late April, crowds of Burmese Buddhist protesters demonstrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. Organized by the Myanmar Nationalist Network with support and participation of monks from MaBaTha (a monk-led group whose name is an acronym for the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion), protestors objected to U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel’s use of the term “Rohingya” in reference to an ethnic minority Muslim population in Rakhine State. They demanded that the newly arrived ambassador be evicted from the country. The ambassador had used the term in discussing victims in of a ferry accident off the coast of Rakhine State, although it was later revealed that most of those who died were from the Kaman Muslim minority rather than Rohingya.

Many people in Myanmar reject the term “Rohingya” because they are worried that it provides political standing to a group largely seen to be “Bengali” foreign nationals and, thus, not part of Myanmar’s national community. People outside of Myanmar generally recognize that many Rohingya have lived in the country for generations

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