Religion in Myanmar

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Religion in Burma (Pew 2010)[1]

  Buddhism (80%)
  Protestantism (5%)
  Islam (4%)
  Catholicism (2%)
  Hinduism (2%)
  Other (1%)
Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon - the most revered pagoda in Myanmar

Myanmar (Burma) is a multi-religious country. There is no official state religion, but the government shows preference for Theravada Buddhism, the majority religion.[2] According to both the statistics published by the Burmese government and the CIA, it is practiced by 89% of the population,[3][4][5] especially among the Bamar, Rakhine, Shan, Mon, and Chinese. The new constitution provides for the freedom of religion; however, it also grants broad exceptions that allow the regime to restrict these rights at will.[2]

Although Burma's Jews once numbered in the thousands, there are currently only approximately 20 Jews in Yangon (Rangoon), where the country's only synagogue is located. Most of the Jews left Myanmar at the commencement of the Second World War, and also after General Ne Win took over in 1962.

Hinduism is practiced mainly by Burmese Indians.

Buddhism in Burma[edit]

Further information: Buddhism in Burma

Buddhism in Burma is predominantly of the Theravada tradition, practised by 89% of the country's population[6][7] It is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population and proportion of income spent on religion.[8]

Adherents are most likely found among the dominant ethnic Bamar (or Burmans), Shan, Rakhine (Arakanese), Mon, Karen, and Chinese who are well integrated into Burmese society. Monks, collectively known as the Sangha, are venerated members of Burmese society. Among many ethnic groups in Myanmar, including the Bamar and Shan, Theravada Buddhism is practiced in conjunction with nat worship, which involves the placation of spirits who can intercede in worldly affairs.

Buddhists, although clearly professed by the majority of people in Myanmar, have their complaints regarding religious freedom. A political party, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, split from the main Karen nationalist movement, the Karen National Union (KNU), after the Buddhists were denied to rebuild and repair the stupas at Manerplaw. The top leadership of the KNU were also dominated by Christians, although roughly 60% of the Karen are Buddhist.

The Payathonzu Temple is built in the Mon style.

Many monks took part in the 2007 Saffron Revolution and were reportedly arrested by government security forces. Some of the leading monks are still detained in various prisons across the country.[9]

Christianity in Burma[edit]

Further information: Christianity in Burma

Christianity is practiced by 4% of the population,[3] primarily among the Kachin, Chin and Kayin, and Eurasians because of missionary work in their respective areas. About four-fifths of the country’s Christians are Protestants, in particular Baptists of the Myanmar Baptist Convention; Roman Catholics make up the remainder.

Christians are also said to face persecution. Christians have not moved to the higher echelons of power. A small number of foreign organizations have been permitted to enter the country to conduct humanitarian works, such as World Vision following Cyclone Nargis. A long-standing ban on the free entry of missionaries and religious materials has persisted since independence in 1948, which is seen as hostile to Christianity. The burning of Christian churches is reported in South Eastern Myanmar, where the Karens live.

Hinduism in Burma[edit]

A Hindu procession in Yangon, Myanmar

Hinduism in Burma is practised by about 840,000 people.[10] Because a reliable census has not been taken in Burma since colonial times, estimates are approximate. Most Hindus in Myanmar are Burmese Indians.

Hinduism, along with Buddhism, arrived in Burma during ancient times. Both names of the country are rooted in Hinduism; Burma is the British colonial officials' phonetic equivalent for the first half of Brahma Desha the ancient name of the region.[11] Brahma is part of Hindu trinity, a deity with four heads. The name Myanmar is regional language[12] transliteration of Brahma, where b and m are interchangeable.[11]

Arakan (Rakhine) Yoma is a significant natural mountainous barrier between Burma and India, and the migration of Hinduism and Buddhism into Burma occurred slowly through Manipur and by South Asian seaborne traders. Hinduism greatly influenced the royal court of Burmese kings in pre-colonial times, as seen in the architecture of cities such as Bagan. Likewise, the Burmese language adopted many words from Sanskrit and Pali, many of which relate to religion. While ancient and medieval arrival of ideas and culture fusion transformed Burma over time, it is in 19th and 20th century that over a million Hindu workers were brought in by British colonial government to serve in plantations and mines. The British also felt that surrounding the European residential center with Indian immigrants provided a buffer and a degree of security from tribal theft and raids. According to 1931 census, 55% of Rangoon's (Yangon) population were Indian migrants, mostly Hindus.[13] After independence from Britain, Burma Socialist Programme Party under Ne Win adopted xenophobic policies and expelled 300,000 Indian ethnic people (Hindus and Buddhists), along with 100,000 Chinese, from Burma between 1963 and 1967. The Indian policy of encouraging democratic protests in Burma increased persecution of Hindus, as well as led to Burmese retaliatory support of left-leaning rebel groups in northeastern states of India.[13] Since the 1990s, the opening of Burma and its greater economic engagement has led to general improvement in the acceptance of Hindus and other minority religions in Myanmar.

Aspects of Hinduism continue in Burma today, even in the majority Buddhist culture. For example, Thagyamin is worshipped whose origins are in the Hindu god Indra. Burmese literature has also been enriched by Hinduism, including the Burmese adaptation of the Ramayana, called Yama Zatdaw. Many Hindu gods are likewise worshipped by many Burmese people, such as Saraswati (known as Thuyathadi in Burmese), the goddess of knowledge, who is often worshipped before examinations; Shiva is called Paramizwa; Vishnu is called Withano, and others. Many of these ideas are part of thirty seven Nat or deities found in Burmese culture.[14]

In modern Myanmar, most Hindus are found in the urban centers of Yangon and Mandalay. Ancient Hindu temples are present in other parts of Burma, such as the 11th century Nathlaung Kyaung Temple dedicated to Vishnu in Bagan.

Islam in Burma[edit]

Further information: Islam in Burma

Islam, mainly of the Sunni group, is practiced by 4% of the population according to the government census.

Burmese Muslim groups[edit]

  • Muslims are spread across the country in small communities. The Indian-descended Muslims live mainly in Rangoon. See Burmese Indian Muslims.
  • The Rohingya are a minority Muslim ethnic group in Northern Rakhine State, Western Burma. The Rohingya population is mostly concentrated in five northern townships of Rakhine State: Maungdaw, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Akyab, Sandway, Tongo, Shokepro, Rashong Island and Kyauktaw.
  • Panthay, Burmese Chinese Muslims.
  • Muslims of Malay ancestry in Kawthaung. People of Malay ancestry are locally called Pashu regardless of religion.

Rohingya conflict[edit]

A map showing Rakhine State, near the Burma-Bangladesh border. Some 81% of Rohingha live in Rakhine state.

Around 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas live in Burma with around 80% living in the western state of Rakhine. The Rohingyas have been fighting on and off since the 1940s to create an Islamic state in Western Burma.[16]

Their initial ambition during Mujahideen movements (1947-1961) was to separate the Rohingya-populated Mayu frontier region of Arakan from western Burma and annex that region into newly formed neighbouring East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh).[17]

In the 1970s, their uprisings appeared again during the period of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Recently, during the Arakan State Riots, the aspiration of the Rohingya militant groups, according to various media reports, is to create northern part of Arakan an independent or autonomous state.[18][19]

He also supports Burmese laws restricting marriage between Muslims and Buddhists, referring to the former as "parasites."[20] “You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ashin Wirathu told the New York Times in 2013.[21] “If we are weak,” he said, “our land will become Muslim.”[21]

Riots have forced upwards of 150,000, mostly ethnically Rohingya Muslims, to flee their homes,and have left over 250 Muslims dead; a disproportionately high number of Muslims have been arrested for the riots.[22] The government of Burma has also limited the number of children allowed by parents in some predominantly Muslim towns as a measure to decrease Muslim population growth due to practise of polygamy and multiple children in spite of poverty driven.[23]

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 international religious freedom report, the country's non-Buddhist populations were underestimated in the census. Islamic scholars claim the country's Muslim population at around 6 to 10% of the total populace.[9] Muslims are divided amongst Indians, Indo-Burmese, Persians, Arabs, Panthays and the Chinese Hui people.


The Muslim populations are said to face religious persecution in Myanmar. Since independence, successive governments (both democratic and military) did not grant the citizenship of the Muslim Rohingya of Northern Rakhine (Arakan) and forbid missionary activities. The Rohingyas have been forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh or to Muslim states.

Their claim to citizenship has been marred by disputes with the ethnic Arakanese, who are mainly Buddhists. Aye Chan, a historian at the Kanda University, has written that as a consequence of acquiring arms from the British during World War II, Rohingyas tried to destroy the Arakanese villages instead of resisting the Japanese.[24] On 28 March 1942, Rohingya Muslims from Northern Rakhine State killed around 20,000 Arakanese. In return, around 5,000 Muslims in the Minbya and Mrohaung Townships were killed by Rakhine nationalists and Karenni.[25]

Some Rohingyas claim to be the original inhabitants of the region, even stating that the temples of Mrauk U were once Rohingya mosques. Those claims have caused the Buddhist Arakanese to be hostile to the Rohingya.

Many minority religions claim that they have a greater following than the official statistics but they also tend to overrepresent the number of adherents.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project: Burma. Pew Research Center. 2010.
  2. ^ a b "2008 Human Rights Report: Burma". 2009-02-25. Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  3. ^ a b "The World Factbook". Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  4. ^ "Burma". Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  5. ^ "Burma". Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  6. ^ "The World Factbook". Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  7. ^ "Burma—International Religious Freedom Report 2009". U.S. Department of State. 2009-10-26. Retrieved 2009-11-11. 
  8. ^ Cone & Gombrich, Perfect Generosity of Prince Vessantara, Oxford University Press, 1977, page xxii
  9. ^ a b "Burma—International Religious Freedom Report 2009". U.S. Department of State. 2009-10-26. Retrieved 2009-11-11. 
  10. ^ "Table: Religious Composition by Country, in Numbers | Pew Research Center". 2012-12-18. Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  11. ^ a b Toʻ Cinʻ Khu, Elementary Hand-book of the Burmese Language, p. 4, at Google Books, pp. iv-v
  12. ^ in both Talaing and Burmese languages; Prome is similarly derived from Brohm or Brahma.
  13. ^ a b Donald M. Seekins (2006), Historical Dictionary of Burma, ISBN 978-0810854765, pp. 216-220
  14. ^ Thant Myint-U (2001), The Making of Modern Burma, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0521799140, pp. 27-47
  15. ^ Islam in South-East Asia. Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  16. ^ "Myanmar, Bangladesh leaders 'to discuss Rohingya'". Agence France-Presse. 29 June 2012. 
  17. ^ Yegar, Moshe (1972). Muslims of Burma. Wiesbaden: Verlag Otto Harrassowitz. p. 96. 
  18. ^ "টার্গেট আরাকান ও বাংলাদেশের কয়েকটি জেলা স্বাধীন রাষ্ট্রের স্বপ্ন জঙ্গিদের (Some Arakan and Bangladeshi militants target of Independent State)". Dainik Purbokone Bangladesh. Retrieved 2012-10-22. 
  19. ^ "নতুন রাষ্ট্র গঠনে মিয়ানমারের ১১ টি বিচ্ছিন্নতাবাদী গ্রুপ সংগঠিত হচ্ছে (11 secessionist group is organizing to create a new state in Burma)". The Editor, Bangladesh. Retrieved 2012-10-22. 
  20. ^ Mahtani, Shibani (2013-07-03). "Radical Leader Rallies Myanmar's Buddhists - WSJ". Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  21. ^ a b Fuller, Thomas (2013-06-20). "Extremism Rises Among Myanmar Buddhists". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  22. ^ "Radical Buddhist monk accused of inciting riots that have killed hundreds of Muslims | New York Post". 2013-06-21. Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  23. ^ "Myanmar’s monk proud to be called radical Buddhist". 2013-06-22. Retrieved 2015-05-29. 
  24. ^ Aye Chan (2005). "The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar)" (PDF). SOAS. Retrieved November 1, 2011. 
  25. ^ Kyaw Zan Tha, MA (July 2008). "Background of Rohingya Problem". p. 1.