Nation-building and Religion: A Q&A with Dr. Charles Keyes

Dr. Charles Keyes on how religion and religious differences can strengthen rather than undermine political order.
By: /
August 29, 2013
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Many societies struggle to integrate religion into the public sphere while still protecting the rights of minorities.  From Myanmar to Egypt to Syria, the effects of past policies are being felt, often violently, today. We asked Dr. Charles Keyes, professor emeritus of anthropology and international studies at the University of Washington, to share his thoughts on the role of religion in post-colonial nation-building projects. Since the early 1960s Dr. Keyes has carried out extensive research in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia on Buddhism and modernity, ethnicity and national cultures, transformation of rural society, and culture and development. 

Do we have a framework for understanding where religion belongs in nation building in newly-independent and/or post-conflict societies?

When ‘new’ nation-states began to emerge from colonial domination, leaders of nationalist movements faced the problem of shaping a nationalist message that was more than just anti-colonialism and which would appeal to at least the majority of people living within the territory of the state for which independence was to be claimed or asserted. In many cases, religion proved to be the common denominator.

However, to base a nationalist claim on the grounds that people were all Buddhist, or Catholic, or Muslim was not adequate. First, those within a particular state-defined territory often held different understandings of their ‘common’ religion. For example, in Siam (as Thailand used to be known) and Burma (as Myanmar was formerly known) there were diverse traditions of Buddhism. Secondly, the ‘same’ religion could also be followed by diverse peoples in different states. What, nationalist leaders in Siam and Burma asked, made Buddhism Thai or Burmese?

Political leaders working together with some religious leaders worked to formulate ‘national’ religions – what some scholars have called ‘civic’ religions. These efforts were most successful where (a) local differences could simply be ignored, (b) the majority of the people of a nation-state could be presumed to share the ‘same’ religion, and (c) competing nationalist ideologies were weak. In Thailand and Myanmar, for example, it was possible to shape national Buddhisms, whereas in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, etc. it has not proven possible to construct a national Islam that could be made the basis of citizenship.

Even in the ‘successful’ cases where nationalism is based on a dominant religion, minorities who follow other religions tend to be relegated to second-class citizenship, sometimes with disastrous consequences. This was especially true for Hindu and Christian Tamils in Sri Lanka and has proven to be true for Muslim minorities in Thailand and Myanmar.

Is there a modern case of nation building where religion is being adequately integrated into the wider project?

Robert Bellah and others have argued that the U.S. has a ‘civic religion’ that allows for religious diversity. The U.S., like Australia, Canada, and Latin America, is a country populated by migrants. In cases where most of the citizenry have indigenous, but still religiously diverse, roots, the shaping and establishment of a civic religion has proven to be more difficult. The difficulty is intensified if a religion that is followed by the majority of the population is held to be the only ‘true’ religion.

The case of Thailand is, arguably, an exception. In the late 19th century, in no small part because of concerns about the incorporation of neighbouring countries into European empires, the king of Siam and his main advisors initiated a policy of national integration. This policy was predicated on the assertion of uniform sovereignty throughout the territory controlled by the court. This territory included, however, peoples with diverse ethnic and religious identities.

Those who came to be subsumed under a single rubric of ‘Buddhist’ actually followed several distinct traditions of Buddhism: (1) Siamese Buddhism followed by people in central Thailand and the northern part of the Malay peninsula; (2) Yuan Buddhism, followed by people in northern Thailand as well as by people in the southern Shan State of Kengtung, northern Laos, and the southern part of Yunnan; (3) Lao Buddhism followed by people in northeastern Thailand as well as central and southern Laos; and (4) Khmer Buddhism followed by Khmer-speaking people in northeastern Thailand as well as in what is today Cambodia. In addition there were also small numbers of people who followed Burmese, Chinese, or Vietnamese Buddhist traditions. In the early 20th century, a royal edict required all Buddhist monks, no matter what local tradition they followed, to recognize the authority of a sangha (monastic) hierarchy under a sangha-raja (patriarch) appointed by the Siamese king. Although there was some resistance to this edict, eventually all monks in the country accepted their membership in a ‘Thai’ sangha.

In addition to Buddhists, there were within the territory under the king of Thailand also significant numbers of Muslims and smaller numbers of Christians in the country. It was particularly noteworthy that while Thai nationalism was predicated on the three ‘pillars’ of monarchy, nation (meaning ‘Thai’) and religion, the term adopted officially in the 1930s for religion was sāsanā, a term originally referring to the teachings of the Buddha. In short, Buddhism became one of a number of different sāsanās. Thus, one could adhere to sāsanā Islam or sāsanā Christianity and still be – at least in law – an equal citizen to those who adhered to sāsanā Buddhism. This understanding, which made sāsanā a civic religion, contrasts markedly with Sri Lanka, where sāsanā is understood as meaning Buddhism alone. In Thailand, like in the United Kingdom, the monarch must be a member of the established religion, but the subjects of the monarch can belong to diverse religions.

While Thai nationalism at its beginning was inclusive of all citizens of the country, in practice there have been powerful elements that have sought from time to time to relegate some adherents of non-Buddhist religions to second-class citizenship. This has been particularly true in recent times regarding the Malay-speaking Muslims who constitute the majority of the population of the four southernmost provinces of the country. While sāsanā has not been officially redefined to mean only Buddhism, probably the large majority of Thai actually understand it to exclude the ‘Muslim others’ in the country.

 Does the fact that Thailand was never a colony like its Southeast Asian neighbours play a role in this successful integration of state and religion?

Although Thailand was never legally a colony of a European empire, the country was still radically transformed by political and economic forces during the colonial period. As the historian Thongchai Winichakul has shown, Thailand was not the ‘exceptional’ case during the colonial period that it is often portrayed as being.

In the premodern period, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Cambodia, as well as Siam were organized politically around Buddhist monarchies. There were also Buddhist rulers of small polities such as Lan Xang and Champasak (antecedents of modern Laos), several ‘Shan’ statelets (located in what is today northern Burma), the Lue Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna) area of what is today southern Yunnan, as well as semi-autonomous ‘Lao’ polities in what is today northern and northeastern Thailand and a ‘Malay’ polity in what is today southern Thailand. At the conclusion of European colonial expansion only Siam, Cambodia, and (for a short period) Laos retained Buddhist monarchies and even these were significantly transformed by colonial domination.

In the case of Siam, the incorporation in the 19th and early 20th centuries of surrounding border territories into colonial empires compelled the king and his advisors to institute radical changes to the polity, replacing what had been an empire with a centralized nation-state. A fundamental element of the transformation was the elimination of political autonomy of a number of vassal dependencies. The ‘Lao’ and ‘Malay’ peoples of northern, northeastern, and southern Thailand resisted this move, but by the 1930s the Lao came, through a combination of military actions and cultural change embodied in a new state-wide system of compulsory education, to accept that only the king of Siam was sufficiently endowed with Buddhist charisma (barami) to be a legitimate ruler. The Lao who became northeastern and northern Thai continued, however, to harbour resentments of the internal colonialism that led to their becoming second-class citizens in Thailand. They would, especially in the 21st century, organize to assert their right to be recognized as full citizens.

The Malay, being Muslims, never accepted their subordination to a Buddhist state, but they found themselves without an alternative when Muslim rulers in statelets south of them accepted their integration into British Malaya. The ‘Patani problem’, the name referring to the pre-modern sultanate that became the Malay-dominated provinces of southern Thailand, would remain a legacy of the colonial period that would re-emerge as an even more serious problem in the 21st century.

Another consequence of the colonial period was the large-scale migration of poor people from southeastern China and India to Southeast Asia. Even though this migration was not facilitated in the case of Thailand by colonial rule, Thai rulers still found it economically beneficial to encourage such migration. By the outset of the Second World War, some 12-14 percent of the population of Thailand was of Chinese origin – that is, a high percentage of the Chinese migrants remained in Thailand and did not return to China. The Thai elite – bureaucrats and military officials as well as royalty – reached an accommodation with those of Chinese origin or descent living in Thailand through the allowing the Sino-Thai to have a free hand in the economy in return for their accepting the assimilation through education of their children. By the outset of the Second World War, the vast majority of Sino-Thai identified as Thai citizens and most had learned to speak, read, and write the national language. They have, nonetheless, formed a bridge between Thailand and China, especially since the late 20th century.

The alliance between the ruling Thai elite and the Sino-Thai business class first forged in the late 19th and early 20th century greatly facilitated Thailand’s successful engagement with the global economy. The Sino-Thai, especially the Bangkok Sino-Thai, have been the vanguard of the marked economic growth Thailand experienced in the 20th century and continues to experience in the 21st.

Thailand emerged from the colonial period as a ‘plural society’ much as was the case for the new states that gained independence in the mid-20th century from colonial rule. While the Buddhist monarchy served to integrate the diverse peoples of Thailand, especially during the 60-year-long reign of King Bhumipol Adulyadej, it will have significantly less salience once King Bhumipol dies. And internal tensions that are characteristic of other ex-colonial states are also significantly present in Thailand.

 In Myanmar, there are ethnic tensions between the Burman people and minorities, as well as religious violence between the Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. What brought Burma to this point?

If Muslims are seen as more problematic than others in Buddhist Thailand, they are seen as even more alien in Myanmar. That this is the case is, in no small part, a consequence of the unfinished post-colonial project in Myanmar. When Burma gained its independence in 1949, the country had a significant majority who were Buddhists. However, unlike in Thailand, many Buddhist monks have never accepted that they are members of a national sangha. There are significant differences, not only between several different nikaya or orders of monks in the country, but also between distinctive ethnic traditions such as those of the Mon and Shan that contrast with that of the dominant Burmans. More troublesome has been the fact that non-Buddhists are associated primarily with non-Burman minorities. Most Christians are members of peoples previously classified as upland minorities, although most – like the Karen – actually live in lowland areas. Muslims are almost all descendants of peoples of South Asian origin. While some of these Muslims, like a majority of Rohingya, have ancestors who have long lived in the territories now included within Myanmar, they are still seen as illegal migrants.

One of the first ‘ethnic cleansing’ projects initiated by any post-colonial state occurred in Burma in the 1950s. Tens of thousands of people of Indian descent who could not claim or prove that their forbears were in Burma in the precolonial period were compelled to leave the country. Most were not allowed to take their belongings and many women were stripped of their jewelry. The Burmese Indians forced to leave Burma in the 1950s were primarily adherents of Hinduism, but some were also followers of Islam.

The contemporary antagonism among Burman Buddhists toward Rohingyas not only has roots in the colonial and immediate post colonial times, but also in the more recent demonization of Muslims as representing a threat to Buddhism. While there are voices even among the sangha in Burma who advocate a multi-religious Burmese nationalism, they are weak in comparison to the voices of those who see Burmese nationalism as based on Burman Buddhism.

When religion is used to help legitimate the government and unify the population, does religious-based conflict inevitably result?

The simple answer to this question is no. As noted above, it is possible for societies to adopt a ‘civic’ religion that legitimates the political order while at the same time affording political space to followers of diverse personal religions. Conflict is characteristic of those societies in which a narrow nationalism is based on what is asserted to be the only ‘true’ religion. What is occurring today in Egypt can be seen as a failure of the Muslim Brotherhood when they gained power to use their power to promote a ‘civic Islam’ comparable at least to that in Turkey or Indonesia. Appeals to a narrowly defined religious nationalism attract the support of people threatened by declining economic conditions or by the inadequate institutionalization of a civic religion.

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