Foreign PolicyForeign Policy

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Buddhism Problem

By William McGowan

17 Sep 2021 · 8 min read

During her long struggle against Burma’s generals, pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has leaned heavily on her Buddhist faith. She has extolled the religion for allowing her a sense of inner freedom during her 15 years of house arrest, and said that Buddhist precepts such as "loving kindness" can guide Burma’s democratic transition, fostering reconciliation with the military, instead of anger and revenge. Burma’s pious have returned the cultural compliment, so to speak. Many of them see Suu Kyi as a near-bodhisattva, whose enlightened work and suffering on behalf of others deserves the utmost reverence.

But the more nationalistic face of this Buddhist tradition, brought into focus by recent violence directed against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine, could yet derail Suu Kyi’s attempts to forge a more democratic, inclusive government and to transcend the country’s long history of bloody ethnic rivalries.

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