To a visitor the life in Burma—officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar—with its golden pagodas and saffron-clad monks out seeking alms in the morning gives an impression of an unchanging traditional society. This image is deceptive. Behind the façade of an immutable society in a Burma open to world currents, life is changing and ground is being prepared for a backlash against globalization. It’s time for the Western world and the United States to take note.
Burma is a complex set of cultures and that of the ethnic majority Burman, or Bamah, people has proven ascendant over more than a millennium. Comprising some two-thirds of the total population of some 60 million, with their distinctive socio-religious and linguistic heritages, the Burman Buddhists dominate a variety of other peoples. Theirs has been a strong culture, resisting waves of Indian, Chinese, and Western influences. Burmese music remains distinctly non-Indian and non-Chinese. Western classical music and dance did not penetrate the society despite more than three score years of British colonial rule.
In contrast to Japan, Korea, and other societies, including China today, Burman culture has remained until recently generally impervious to most Western influences, and not simply because of its relative isolation. The Burmans continued to wear their distinctive longgyis, or sarongs, and women rarely wore Western clothes. Although competence in the English language provided avenues for social advancement in the colonial era, Burmese remained vital in education and in the society as a whole. Buddhism provided the cultural milieu, penetrating deep into the social fabric. Despite a multitude of attempts at Christian missionary work, few Burman Buddhists converted to other religions in contrast to animist ethnic cultures, such as the Chin, Kachin, and some Karen, who have assimilated various Christian patterns of worship.
To the knowledgeable outsider, Burman culture still seems eminently strong and resilient. Many such observers assume that the country will be able to retain these patterns even under considerable social stress, as it has done before. But the actions of a variety of Burmese administrations and important segments of that society seem to have different attitudes toward cultural survival: Many believe Burma culture is vulnerable, threatened by both internal and external forces—cultural, economic, political and internally, even generational. Perhaps this inchoate fear is a result of the colonial experience. Perhaps the national stress on Burman culture is a reaction to this vulnerability.
The depth of such feelings of vulnerability is unknown, yet clearly evident. This vulnerability takes the form of anti-foreign sentiments and fears of penetration and destruction of the traditional culture and virtues of traditional Burman values and customs. However mythic these may be, they are nonetheless vibrant. For years the previous military administration refused to admit the problem of HIV/AIDS, claiming it could not spread because it was antithetical to Burman culture.
One current focus of concern is on Chinese influence, whether it’s in the form of economic “domination,” anti-Burmese social displays, numerous infrastructure projects benefiting China at least in the short term, or even a Sino-Burman citizen winning the national beauty contest.
The Burmese have been sensitive since colonial times to their perceived vulnerabilities, especially of Burman women. From Kipling’s poem “The Road to Mandalay,” extolling the virtues and beauties of Burmese women and their appeal to foreigners, to the early military denigration of Aung San Suu Kyi for marrying an Englishman, this sensitivity permeates and extends far beyond partisan politics. Muslims, the current target of Burmese violence, have been accused of raping Burman Buddhist women.
A more virulent issue now is the fear of Muslims and indeed elimination of Burman culture. Anti-Muslim feeling is virtually ubiquitous. So even so-called liberal politicians with strong records on human rights such as Aung San Suu Kyi rely on platitudes about rights and avoid discussing Muslim problems. She has been quoted on “Muslim global power” and Burmans worry about demographic inundation, so much so that one politician proposes that Muslims not be allowed to have more than two children or marry Burman Buddhists. Some fear going the way of India, no longer a Buddhist land. Even Buddhist monks suggest boycotting Muslim-owned shops.
Some in government claim that the animosities are built on economic disparities between Burmans and Muslims, but the roots may be far deeper.
Pervasive Change Permeates
Years ago, the director of tourism in Burma said that Western tourists had destroyed Thai culture in Bangkok, and that Burma would not let that happen in Rangoon, now known as Yangon.
Internal demographics are prompting change and disquiet. Urban youth have contacts beyond the borders through modern technology, and the government has created more space between the individual and state, allowing what may eventually be viewed as destructive and insidious cultural exchanges and Western patterns, reinforcing concerns among those more traditionally oriented.
Into a culture where officially until the last few years one could not have a Western musical instrument in a classical Burmese orchestra has come modern music, hip-hop, jeans, shorts, and all the paraphernalia of Western pop couture. The bars are expanding, karaoke pervades, and modern technology supplements the tourist influence as conveyors of Western culture. As Burma urbanizes, its youthful population may turn toward international trends, dismaying both the rural majority and the older generation.
Over the past half-century, Burmese administrations tried to eliminate Western influences, both of the political and economic variety. But now the doors are open, money pours in with tourists and foreign aid, Western pop culture spreads and pervasive change permeates. In a society accustomed to harsh authoritarian rule, many will be disquieted by suggestions that their culture is being destroyed, both by external forces and an internal fifth column.
Foreign observers deplore anti-Muslim sentiments and rioting, as well as the spread of anti-Chinese feeling, but the West also has additional concerns. U.S.-Burma relations are the best they have been since Burmese independence in 1948. But it seems likely that a more balanced sense of Burmese “neutralism” in foreign relations will resume, as it pervasively did during the Cold War—some sense of Chinese-Western equilibrium in Burma. But extraneous cultural patterns will also be seen by some as inimical to Burman culture.
A sense of disillusionment may set in if the lives of the people do not rapidly improve. And perhaps even if day-to-day life shows improvements, a backlash could still emerge against the onslaught of Western cultural influences that seem to undermine traditional Burman virtues, as remembered in a utopian mist. Increased wealth and international interaction brings increased consumption, but as U Nu, the first prime minister after the constitution in 1947, remarked, “Greed is not a Buddhist virtue.” The potential of backlash calls for deft policies from the United States and other Western states and manners not normally associated with these countries that have too often exhibited extreme hubris in dealing with the non-Western world.
Otherwise, the fast-moving cultural changes, coming from all directions, could lead to a growth of anti-Western, anti-modern and, more specifically, anti-U.S. sentiment. A vibrant Burman Buddhist culture may appear to the external world as invulnerable, yet if there is even the appearance that it’s under threat, as Burmans contend it has been multiple times before, then the West and the United States should prepare by treading ever so gently on Burma’s cultural land.
David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian Studies Emeritus at Georgetown University and visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.© 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.