What are Myanmar’s Buddhist Sunday schools teaching?
Friday 19 December 2014
Oxford, UK — 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.
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.
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