RANGOON — A new survey of mostly middle-class Burmese suggests that many of the country’s citizens “seem to think that in order to be Myanmar one has to also be Buddhist.”
The report, Citizenship in Myanmar: Contemporary Debates and Challenges in Light of the Reform Process, was published by Myanmar Egress, a Rangoon think-tank that has advised Burma’s government in the past.
The report is based on a survey of just over 2,000 Burmese spread across the country, polling ethnic minority regions as well as seeking the views of Rohingya, a Muslim minority numbering around one million people, most of whom live in western Arakan State and are denied Burmese citizenship.
The findings suggested that “a very large number of respondents within the Buddhist ethnic groups—i.e. not only Bamar respondents, equate citizenship with religion.”
“Myanmar is Buddhist and patriotic,” said one of those surveyed in the report, identified as “Bamar, Buddhist.”
“[Myanmar is] ‘The person who is Buddhist,’” said another respondent, listed as “Rohingya, Muslim.”
The findings come amid ongoing ethnic and religious tensions in Burma, which is scheduled to hold its first census in over three decades at the end of March and in which respondents will be asked to denote their religion as well as ethnicity.
For now, however, Burma’s demographics are guesswork, with the country’s population estimated at between 48-60 million people, of which around 90 percent are thought to be Buddhist and around 60 percent Burman (also known as Bamar), the ethnic majority from which the country’s name is derived.
Various groups have warned that the upcoming census could inflame religious divides, and reflecting on their citizenship survey findings, the Myanmar Egress report’s authors suggested that the Burmese government ensure that citizenship and religion be kept separate under Burmese law.
Burma’s 2008 Constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes,” but also recognizes the “special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The government and various political parties are pushing for laws advocating “protection of race and religion,” in proposed legislation that would further elevate Buddhism above Burma’s other established faiths.
Non-Buddhist men could be required to convert to Buddhism or face 10 years in prison if they want to marry a Buddhist woman. Buddhist women, in turn, would be required to seek permission from their parents and local authorities to marry a man of a different faith.
The proposals have the backing of a petition signed by 1.3 million Burmese and are being pushed by the “969” Buddhist-supremacist movement. The 969 leader U Wirathu, a Buddhist monk, has been accused of fomenting recent anti-Muslim violence in Arakan State and elsewhere in Burma.
“This religious nationalism, if not dealt with carefully, could serve to alienate other groups with a different religious identity,” cautioned Myanmar Egress, referring to the linking of Buddhism and citizenship by many respondents in the new report.
The survey was carried out between February 2012 and June 2013 and focused on educated middle and lower-middle classes who, Myanmar Egress said, “were expected to be able to articulate their views with regard to the changing nature of the state.”
Reflecting on changing times since a reform-inclined government took office in 2011, the report found a growing level of political interest among Burmese, with between 55 percent and 65 percent of respondents from most ethnic groups saying they were interested in politics. Ethnic Mon respondents were the exception, with only 28 percent saying they were interested in politics.
“There has been so much active avoidance of politics over decades that today political literacy is very low—even in urban centers and amongst the middle classes. People were very aware of politics but they saw it as dangerous,” the report said, referring to Burma’s five decades of military rule.