Religions in Burma

   According to the CIA World Factbook (2005), 89 percent of Burma's population are adherents to Buddhism, 4 percent are Christians (3 percent Baptist and 1 percent Roman Catholic), 4 percent are Muslims, 1 percent are animists, and 2 percent are adherents of other religions. Burmese government figures are similar: 89.2 percent Buddhist, 5 percent Christian, 3.8 percent Muslim, 1.2 percent animist, 0.5 percent Hindu, and 0.2 percent other. Burma's national identity has been intimately connected with Theravada Buddhism since the 11th century, when King Anawrahta of the Pagan Dynasty made it the official religion (thus the popular saying, "to be Burmese is to be Buddhist"). During the dynastic period, Burman (Bamar), Mon, Arakanese (Rakhine), and Shan rulers gave generous donations to the Buddhist Sangha and sponsored pagoda-building projects. The old kings were also charged with upholding doctrinal orthodoxy by appointing a respected senior monk as head of the Sangha (known as the Thathanabaing in the Burmese [Myanmar] language). From at least the Pagan period, there were minority communities of Hindus and Muslims, and in later centuries Christians, whose presence was generally tolerated. The British colonial regime was religiously neutral, refusing to appoint a Thathanabaing, but allowed Christian missionaries to proselytize, especially among ethnic minority peoples, such as the Karens (Kayins), Chins, and Kachins. Thus, defense of the Buddhist religion became a major theme in early 20th-century nationalism. The British also encouraged the immigration of people from the Indian subcontinent, most of whom were Hindus or Muslims, greatly increasing the size of these religious minorities, especially in Lower Burma. This contributed to violent communal clashes during the 1930s between Burmese Buddhists and Hindu or Muslim Indians. Burma's status as a secular state continued after it became independent in 1948, but in August 1961, with the backing of Prime Minister U Nu, parliament passed a constitutional amendment making Buddhism the official religion. The Revolutionary Council established in March 1962 by General Ne Win nullified this measure, and since then Burma officially has remained secular (this is reflected in the Constitution of 1974, which was abrogated in 1988). However, the post-1988 State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council military junta has patronized senior monks and devoted scarce resources to ambitious pagoda projects, including replacement of the hti or finial on the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in 1999. By acting as Buddhism's patrons, imitating the old Burmese kings, the military regime seeks to acquire legitimacy in the eyes of the religious majority. Minorities, especially Muslims, have had their religious activities restricted by the state and, at times, have been targets of mob violence. In contemporary Burma, all citizens are required to carry an identity card that shows their religion, which exposes minorities to discrimination by officials.
   The issue of religious adherence is complicated by the fact that, among the Buddhist majority, many, if not most, people also practice forms of animism, that is, veneration of gods or spirits known as nats. In traditional Burmese homes, a small nat shrine often supplements a Buddhist altar. Other forms of supernaturalism are widespread among Buddhists, for example, the old belief that certain amulets and tattoos can make a person invulnerable to bullets and the practice of yedaya, a form of magic designed to prevent misfortune. "New religions" have also emerged, especially among ethnic minorities living in the mountainous border areas, such as God's Army among some Karens. Such religions typically blend animist, Christian, and Buddhist elements. Religious values remain strong in Burmese society, in contrast to some neighboring Asian countries. This is due in part to isolation during the socialist period (1962-1988), which limited the impact of secular and modern trends. Moreover, most Burmese (about three-quarters of the population) live in rural areas, where old religious values and superstitious beliefs remain largely unchallenged. Among those Burmese who can afford it, generous donations (dana) to Buddhist monks or pagodas are an important means of enhancing social prestige, and even gaining influence with the military elite. Perhaps most fundamentally, the consolations of religion are essential to people living in a nation that lacks the rule of law and where insecurity is the lot of rich and poor alike.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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