Myanmar religion is very tolerant, typical for a belief system such as Buddhism
The overwhelmingly dominant Myanmar religion is Buddhism though Muslim, Christian and other minorities live side-by-side in peaceful coexistence.
Buddhism is the most prominent religion in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Due in part to its years of international isolation, Myanmar remains a highly-conservative country with outside and foreign influences reduced to a minimal. Over 90% of the plus-50 million population follows Theravada Buddhism with religion being a fundamental part of day-to-day life. Religion is so ingrained into Myanmar society that even ‘non-religious’ persons still strictly adhere to the five fundamental Buddhist precepts: prohibition of killing of any creature (including insects like flies and mosquitos), thievery, sexual activity before marriage, telling lies and abuse of drink or drugs.
There are also Christian (both Catholic and Protestant), Muslim, Hindu and other small minority populations in the country as well. The lack of a real, comprehensive and trust-worthy census means that all numbers discussed are estimated and due to the lack of infrastructure and remoteness of many regions and agricultural areas, it may be some time before real figures are calculated.
Theravada Buddhism draws its teaching from the Pali Canon, the oldest recorded Buddhist holy texts. It remains the dominant branch of Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia including countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Sri Lanka and, of course, Myanmar. There are variations in practice and teachings depending on the region and culture practicing the religion, as infrastructure has remained primitive over the years and most communities still remain quite isolated from one another. Smaller populations around the rest of Asia practice Theravada Buddhism, in places such as Bangladesh, China, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore and Vietnam.
Sometimes used as a general term to denote Buddhist practices from any of the earliest religious schools, Theravada Buddhism is practiced in a found in a few different forms around Southeast Asia’s second-largest country. After all, there are over 135 different ethnic groups in Myanmar! An example of this is Buddhist practice combined with animist and nat (spirit) worship in areas such as Shan State and among the Bamar people.
Christianity (Catholic and Protestant)
Making up around 4% of the Myanmar population, Christianity has a large following among the northern Kachin and western Chin peoples. These small and faithful pockets of Christianity are due to missionary work in the mostly poor and impoverished regions. A majority of Christians in Myanmar adhere to the Baptist Protestant faith yet there are a number of Catholics in and around the former capital of Yangon.
Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, contains a number small and high profile churches some of which date back to the colonial period of British rule. More notable houses of worship include Saint Mary’s Church, the Armenian Church of St. John the Baptist, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Methodist English Church, Immanuel Baptist Church and more!
Due to Myanmar’s large western border with India, many Myanmar immigrants of Indian descent have brought not only their incredible food with them to the Golden Land but their religion as well. Hinduism has been in the country since ancient times and you can find shrines to Vishnu, Shiva and more all throughout the country. Ancient Hindu temples still exist in Bagan and further north towards the border. You can find its influence throughout the country and even in Myanmar’s name itself! The name “Burma” actually comes from British colonial official’s mispronunciation of the first name of the Hindu Brahmari Dasha.
Nowadays, Hinduism is practiced by an estimated million people and practitioners live as an accepted minority in the country. This wasn’t always the case as xenophobic laws and practices, especially under several leaders of the military junta, made life difficult for Indian-Burmese Hindus. Post-independence Myanmar saw Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party expel some 300,000 Indian ethnic people (both Hindus and Buddhists) from the country between the years of 1963 and 1967.
The past is the past however, and Myanmar has had a turbulent one. Most Myanmar Hindus live as accepted members of the community and are free from formal discrimination. They are found in the main cities of Yangon and Mandalay. When in Yangon, stop by the Sri Varatha Raja Perumal Temple on 51st Street or the colorful Shri Kali Temple which was built by Tamil migrants in 1871.
Muslims makes up roughly 4% of Myanmar’s population with the majority belonging to the Sunni sect. While most Muslims of Indian descent live in city centers like Yangon, there is a large minority numbering around 800,000 Rohingya living in the Bangladesh border region of Rakhine State.
Yangon is a center of racial and religious harmony with xenophobia at a minimum and reports of discrimination rare. Myanmar does have a difficult political situation in the northern Rakhine State with the Rohingya group which has sparked both international and domestic criticism. They do not have citizenship in Myanmar and at the moment are a stateless people. Tensions in the main cities remains low however although public opinion has shifted due to the ongoing conflict.
Folk Religion, Judaism and Other Religions
In vague terms, Burmese folk religions are basically Hindu- and Buddhist-inspired belief systems which combine ideas of animist and nat worship (worship of spirits and deities) usually in a polytheistic structure. These belief systems make their way into the mainstream culture here and there but primarily exist in rural villages and small towns that exist around the country with little contact with the outside world.
Judaism used to have a strong presence in the former capital of Yangon with a community numbering in the thousands. The Japanese invasion during World War II sent most fleeing as they were rightfully afraid about being seen as British spies. The few remaining Jews fled after General Ne Win assumed power in 1962 and the community now numbers in the 20s.