What are Myanmar’s Buddhist Sunday schools teaching?

Author: Matthew J Walton, University of Oxford

A Buddhist monk sits in front of a classroom of children in a small town in rural Myanmar. He chants lines which the students dutifully repeat, as they do every week at these Buddhist ‘Sunday school’ classes. The monk teaches Buddhist values, regales students with stories of the Buddha’s previous lives, and talks about Myanmar’s history as a Buddhist nation.

Street vendors offer vegetables to Buddhist monks near a train station on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, 12 December 2014. (Photo: AAP).

How should we interpret this scene? Is it simply an innocent example of imparting religious values to the next generation or another worrying indication of the insidious spread of anti-Muslim nationalism in Myanmar? Frustratingly, the answer might be both, which makes it difficult to know how to respond or intervene. In periods of rapid transition and modernisation, people develop an intensified concern regarding the loss of their cultural identity and traditions. These anxieties were present in colonial Burma in the first decades of the twentieth century and galvanised the nationalist movement at the time; they are also pervasive in contemporary Myanmar.

The outside world has focused almost exclusively on the admittedly worrying anti-Muslim orientation of the Buddhist nationalist movement in Myanmar, but another emerging aspect of contemporary Buddhist practice in Myanmar demonstrates that the relationship between religion and nationalism is complex and must be analysed carefully. Since about 2010, different organisations have been creating networks of Buddhist Sunday schools in an attempt to instill Buddhist values in children, who, they are worried, will not grow up with the same religious understanding or devotion of previous generations.

The rapid expansion of these classes has seen some organisations teaching tens of thousands of students in hundreds of locations across the country. Where they are centrally organised, the level of top-down control varies. MaBaTha (the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion, that has been promoting a series of discriminatory laws connected to religion) merely sells a curriculum book and invites interested lay people to develop their own classes. At the other end of the spectrum, a group called the Dhamma School Foundation has a much greater level of organisation, with a detailed teacher training curriculum, the involvement of monks in teaching, and regular evaluations including site visits. Nowhere do these classes supplant the public education that children receive, but, as might be expected in a Buddhist majority country, the line between the two is not always clear.

Some might be concerned that these informal schools will simply be vehicles to inculcate children in an increasingly virulent anti-Muslim nationalism. But the curricula for most are relatively innocuous, teaching exactly the kinds of values one would want to promote among Buddhists in Myanmar.

Does this mean we can champion these schools as an effective response to religious conflict in the country? Unfortunately, the answer is probably no, at least not until there also develops an alternative understanding of the appropriate ways to promote and protect Buddhism.

The dominant framework within which most Buddhists in Myanmar at the moment are interpreting the notion of protecting their religion is against the external threat of Islam. Teaching materials themselves may not be problematic but when they are used by monks who also spread misinformed rumours and negative images of Muslims, the message children get is not that Buddhist values should be promoted to make Myanmar a more peaceful country but that Buddhist identity is under threat and must be secured against an outside enemy. More worryingly, even when these classes are not linked to explicit anti-Muslim rhetoric, students and teachers are likely to interpret their lessons within the context of the currently dominant narrative of Buddhism in Myanmar in danger of being overwhelmed by Islam.

Well-intentioned but incautious outside voices seeking to address Myanmar’s religious conflict have at times exacerbated tensions. For example, the Time magazine article about hardline Buddhist monk U Wirathu merely resulted in a circling of the wagons. A critique of one monk’s reprehensible preaching was interpreted as an attack on Buddhism writ large.

Buddhist Sunday Schools are part of a (in many ways laudable) response by Burmese Buddhists to the anxieties they are facing regarding the opening up of their country to outside influences. Some even emphasise the kinds of inclusive and tolerant practices that will be a necessary foundation of a religiously plural Myanmar. Criticising or dismissing them as simply vehicles for the spread of religious bigotry would be counterproductive, alienating many Buddhists whose main engagement with a group like MaBaTha might be in its pro-Buddhist guise rather than its anti-Muslim orientation. But one aspect cannot be easily separated from the other.

It will be necessary to clearly communicate to Burmese Buddhists that, while their attempts to promote the best values of their religion are admirable, unless the narrative that posits Buddhism as under threat from Islam is altered, there is a danger that their efforts could actually encourage an ignorant and violent intolerance that is the very opposite of what the Buddha taught.

Matthew J Walton is the Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

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