Posted: Thu, October 05, 2017 | By: Past Projects
By Kyaw Moe Khine, Edited by Nathalie Johnston
The majority religion in Myanmar is Thervaveda Buddhism, with a whopping 88% of the country associating themselves as well as the military and civilian governments being strong proponents of the cause. Though a very diverse country, the majority of the ethnic groups follow some form of Buddhism, including the Rakhine, Mon, Bama (Burmese), Shan and Karen.
The other religions practiced in Myanmar are Christianity (6%), Islam (4.5%), and Hinduism (1%) as well as a small population who still practice Animism.
It is completely taboo to be an Atheist in Myanmar. As a very conservative and traditional country, conformity is key. There is also a deep sense of filial piety, so it’s important to respect elders and their religious beliefs. So much of the population lives and dies by religious practice. Being an Atheist makes you an outcast among more traditional people. But among young people there is growing interest.
When it comes to National Registration Cards (NRC) there is no option to omit your religion. You must choose the religion of your family. In some cases, parents will change the child’s religion to Buddhist because it makes it easier to operate in country, and there is the least amount of discrimination against Buddhist people.
There is a heavy mix now of Nationalism and Buddhism. The military government, who have been in power since 1962, created a big propaganda machine following Buddhist practice, and established Buddhism as the acceptable form of description for Myanmar. They built thousands of temples all over the country, and even during the civilian protests, it was said that the Buddhist monks were the only people that the military were truly afraid of.
Some of Myanmar has changed since the election in 2015. But the people in power still espouse Buddhism as the most important element of Burmese life. And of course Ma Ba Tha, the extreme Buddhist group who encourages discrimination, has made people think about what religion really means.
Back in the day, the assumption was that if you had no religion, you were Communist. The word in Burmese for Communist is the same as for Atheist. There are no student or public groups allowed to meet at schools to discuss Atheism or left-wing politics. We still have a lot of censorship in Myanmar, in the arts, in school, in books, and even from our own people and peers. And its especially bad for women, who are expected to be the most devout and traditional, with controlling parents and society who doesn’t think life should change for them.
“Myanmar law carries criminal penalties for defaming religion under a vague provision that has been exploited to muzzle political activists and casual Facebook users alike. In March, a New Zealand bar manager was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for posting an image of the Buddha wearing headphones on Facebook.” - Al Jazeera
There are a few Atheist Facebook pages in Myanmar, which is meaningful since Facebook is the largest social media machine here. People share funny cartoons or their thoughts, and without fear of retribution of social isolation. There are more and more young people that can see the way forward is to be more open and accepting, less traditional and conservative, and more independent.