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Myanmar: Rohingya at risk from Buddhist nationalism

By Joshua Carroll 
March 14, 2014

New survey says rampant Buddhist nationalism risks alienating minority religions in Myanmar

SITTWE, Myanmar -- Rampant Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar risks alienating minority religions in the country, according to the authors of a new survey.

The majority of the 2,000 people polled by the Myanmar Egress think-tank "equate citizenship with religion" and believe that for a person to be Burmese they must be Buddhist.

The report, Citizenship in Myanmar: Contemporary Debates and Challenges in Light of the Reform Process, is based on polling across the country's various ethnic regions.

It includes responses from Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority who are denied citizenship by Myanmar's government.

According to scholars, the link being established by Burmese between religion and citizenship was a consequence of British colonization in the 19th century.

“British and American brought Christianity among some ethnic minorities in the 19th century and Muslims started to come also under the British,” Gwen Robinson, a Myanmar expert at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University told the Anadolu Agency on Friday.

“It reinforced the notion of Burmanness, which is a fairly modern concept. Before the British, there was a stronger sense of unity.”

At the end of March. Myanmar is set to hold its first census for over 30 years, after which accurate data on the number of people adhering to each religion will be available.

There are fears the new figures could inflame religious tensions by revealing that there are more Muslims in Myanmar than previously thought.

The last census, conducted under a brutal military dictatorship in 1983, is regarded as unreliable by some groups. It puts the number of Muslims at 4 percent of the population.

But the International Crisis Group says the figure is likely to be closer to 10 percent, while the Burmese Muslim Association believes it is between 8 and 12 percent.

The Myanmar Egress report recommends that citizenship and religion be kept separate under law. 

The country's constitution cites the "special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union/”

“Technically, Myanmar is a 100 percent secular state, but there are deeply ingrained attitudes. When he travels, President Thein Sein always visit Buddhists places but I doubt very much he would attend the inauguration of a mosque," Robinson told AA.

A recent campaign to introduce laws that severely restrict interfaith marriage has been backed by a petition signed by 1.3 million people.

The proposed legislation is cheerleaded by a far-right Buddhist nationalist movement called 969.

The group has achieved global notoriety since a reformist government came to power in 2011 and relaxed restrictions on freedom of expression.

Its most famous leader, a monk named Wirathu, is adored by many of Myanmar's Buddhists but condemned internationally for allegedly fomenting violence with his anti-Muslim hate speeches.

He has stoked Buddhist fears that Muslims "breed quickly" and are bent on overrunning the country.

The advocacy group Burma Campaign U.K. has called for the census to be postponed, citing the potential for more anti-Muslim violence as a key reason.

Since ethnic violence erupted in Myanmar in 2012, hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced, mostly Muslims.

The Myanmar Egress survey, conducted between February 2012 and June 2013, focused on middle and lower middle-class people on the grounds that they would be "able to articulate their views" on the reform process.

*Anadolu Agency Correspondent Arnaud Dubus contributed to this story from Thailand.

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