Defending Buddhism: Buddhist Nationalism and Morality Amongst the Karen in Myanmar

Defending Buddhism: Buddhist Nationalism and Morality Amongst the Karen in Myanmar

Since independence, Myanmar’s military (and civilian) leaders have attempted to shape social morality in the image of Buddhist political ideologies in order to legitimatise their rule (Schober 2011; Walton 2016). In recent years as upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and acts of state violence against the Rohingya community, has taken centre stage in discussions of the country’s social and political transition. However, the ways in which the growing strength of military-aligned Buddhist nationalist networks reflects a broader crisis in moral community and communal identity from the perspective of everyday people is poorly understood, especially amongst Myanmar’s ethnic minority peoples.

In this seminar I interrogate how a primarily majority-Bamar nationalist movement has built strong alliances and flourished amongst the Karen, an ethnic minority group broadly categorised in opposition to the central Myanmar state (see South 2011; Thawnghmaung 2012). I argue that defending Buddhism against perceived threats helps to cultivate a form of  ‘cultural citizenship’ (Rosaldo 1994, 2003) in which Karen people are positioned inside the nation and political community of Myanmar in ways that resonate with state ideologies of citizenship. What it means to be ‘good’ according to a Buddhist understanding of morality and moral community strikes at the core of the way many Plong Karen Buddhists craft themselves as moral beings in their everyday lives. I argue that for many Buddhist Plong Karen, these military-aligned Buddhist nationalist networks also engender a form of moral agency and an affective experience of power in what is a rapidly changing social and political landscape. 


Justine Chambers is a lecturer and research scholar within the School of Culture, History and Languages at the Australian National University (ANU). She is also the Associate Director of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre. Justine finished her PhD last year at ANU and her ethnographic work primarily focuses on Myanmar’s Karen people. Her research interests include understandings of morality, etho-national conflict, customary land laws, Buddhism, migration and debt.

Date & time

Wed 25 Sep 2019, 9.30–11am


Room 3.03, Marie Reay Teaching Centre, Building 155, Kambri Precinct, Australian National University


Justine Chambers, Myanmar Research Centre, ANU

Event series


Fouzieyha Towghi


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